Throughout his campaign, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has advocated for building two walls: one between the U.S. and Mexico, and another around America’s public retirement programs.
For more than a year, Trump has regularly assailed his rival candidates for “attacking Social Security … attacking Medicare and Medicaid.” He boasted that he was the one “saying I’m not gonna do that,” instead saying that he’d focus on economic growth so that we’d get “so rich you don’t have to do that.”
At the Miami GOP presidential debate in March, he said he would “do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is; to make this country rich again.”
But that second wall now appears to be crumbling.
Trump policy adviser and co-chairman Sam Clovis said last week that the real estate mogul would look at changes to all federal programs, “including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare,” as part of a deficit reduction effort.
Clovis made the comments at the 2016 Fiscal Summit of the Pete Peterson Foundation, an organization whose founder has spent almost half a billion dollars to hype the U.S. debt and persuade people that the Medicare and Social Security programs are unsustainable. Trump also met privately last week with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., an outspoken Medicare privatization advocate.
Clovis previously ran for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat in 2014. During his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination, Clovis made clear that he wanted to privatize the Social Security and Medicare programs.
“I am a strong believer in bringing private models to both Medicare and Social Security,” he told the Des Moines Register. “People my age, we paid in, we’re going to get this, people 55 and older probably ought to be sunsetted into these programs, the way they are, 45 to 55 there probably ought to be a chance to opt in or opt out. Below the age of 45, we need a new system. New systems for both. I think — deal with private accounts, put your money into those.”
He also called for block-granting Medicaid. “Sooner or later, somebody has to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to have to cut programs,’” he said. Turning Medicaid into a block grant program would shift the federal government’s role from paying a fixed percentage of state Medicaid costs to paying a fixed dollar amount, giving the states the flexibility to cut back on eligibility. The block grant proposal floated by House Speaker Ryan in the past would cut Medicaid funding by more than a quarter by 2024.
Trump’s newly hired policy director, John Mashburn, also advocates block-granting Medicaid to rein in overly generous benefits. “You set a finite amount, states have total flexibility with what they do. … if they become too prolific in the benefits they provide, the state voters hold their governor and their legislature accountable for being too free with the taxpayers’ money,” he said during a 2012 interview with the Heartland Institute’s Ben Domenech.
Medicaid’s eligibility requirements are already steep in many places in the country. In Texas, for instance, families that take in more than 19 percent of the poverty level — $3,670 for a family of three — are considered too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid.
In the same interview, Mashburn also assailed the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, complaining that “650,000 — 53 percent of the children on the program — are not really physically disabled, or what most people think are disabled. They are learning disabled in school and stuff, and basically what it is, is becoming a substitute welfare program.”
It is true that roughly half of children receiving SSI benefits consistently report some form of mental disability. SSI is often a lifeline for individuals who have severely impairing mental disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and intellectual disabilities. “I think a lot of the skepticism about the children’s SSI program really is just thinly veiled skepticism about the legitimacy of mental health disorders,” Rebecca Vallas, who works on poverty issues, told NPR in 2011.
Between 2011 and 2014, Mashburn was the director of the Carleson Center for Public Policy (CCPP), a think tank founded by the widow of Bob Carleson, one of the architects of the welfare spending rollbacks of the 1980s and 1990s. The think tank focused on advocating policy to further reduce social and welfare spending.
Under Mashburn’s leadership, CCPP enlisted Peter Ferrara as policy director. Ferrara is a prolific advocate for privatizing Social Security, having written in favor of transferring the system to the private sector for decades. In 2011, CCPP featured Ferrara’s columns promoting then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s Social Security plan, which advocated the failed Chilean-style model of privatization. Ferrara also praised Gingrich’s proposal to block grant Medicaid to reduce spending.
Trump’s hiring of two staunch retirement hawks into top policy jobs is not something to take lightly. “Personnel is policy. A candidate’s campaign staff is a useful clue to how that candidate will govern,” political scientist and Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein wrote last year. “Including which party groups he or she is close to, which policies the administration would likely embrace, and which party factions may be frozen out.”