President Trump gave his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The speech covered a wide range of important topics, including immigration, trade, infrastructure, and the geopolitical situation. It also heralded the administration's accomplishments, most notably the passage of tax reform measures in December.
Amid all of these issues, there's one thing the State of the Union address left out, and its absence was notable in light of all the other things the speech covered. The president made no reference to Social Security, and while some might dismiss the failure to mention the program as an oversight, others wondered whether the decision reflected efforts to avoid attention to what could be extremely controversial attempts to cut Social Security in order to address its future financial challenges.
From outspoken to silent
The failure of the State of the Union address to mention Social Security stands in stark contrast to the views that the president expressed before the 2016 election. During the campaign, Trump said, "We must protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, without cuts." That position was consistent with things he had said previously, including the idea that "it's not unreasonable for people who paid into a system for decades to expect to get their money's worth" in referring to Social Security.
Yet the Trump campaign's failure to come out with definitive Social Security policy proposals other than keeping the status quo created a vacuum for Republican lawmakers in Congress to fill with their own initiatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has a long history of making controversial reform proposals, including partial privatization of the Social Security program and mandating investment in stock- and bond-based annuities upon retirement. Other lawmakers have sought to raise the full retirement age and make changes to benefit formulas that would result in less extreme price increases.
That pressure from lawmakers arguably led the president to propose in his 2018 budget proposal a $72 billion cut to disability payouts under Social Security. Mick Mulvaney, who heads the Office of Management and Budget, argued that the president's comments about Social Security referred to the old age and survivors portion of the program, saying, "If you ask 999 people out of 1,000, [they] would tell you that Social Security disability is not part of Social Security."
Does nothing mean something?
It's possible that the president's decision not to mention Social Security in the State of the Union address simply means that he is standing by his previous comments not to cut Social Security. Indeed, although Ryan has vigorously urged making Social Security and Medicare reform a priority in the coming year, especially in light of the desire to reduce budget deficits created by the tax reform bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has suggested that entitlement programs are unlikely to make it onto the legislative agenda in the near future.
Skeptics are still nervous. Tax reform included provisions that would use an alternative cost-of-living adjustment method known as the chained CPI to make future-year increases to tax brackets and other inflation-indexed tax provisions. Some fear that the move will set the stage for similar use of the chained CPI in calculating annual Social Security increases, which would likely lead to a slower rate of increase in benefit payments in future years.
Who talked about Social Security?
Interestingly, there was no mention of Social Security in the official Democratic response given by Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) either. Given President Trump's treatment of the subject, one might have expected opponents to pounce on the omission. Yet neither political party has a particularly strong track record in terms of addressing Social Security's problems in a timely manner.
That didn't stop others from raising the issue. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the president to task for including the disability cuts into the White House budget proposal, and went further in criticizing proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid as well as substantial staffing and funding cuts for the Social Security Administration.
What to expect from Washington on Social Security
The State of the Union address set out a number of priorities that the administration will pursue in 2018, and many of them will have important ramifications for the entire nation. By leaving Social Security off that list, President Trump sent a signal that could lead to continued procrastination on Capitol Hill even as the looming financial crisis for the program grows ever closer.