Trump's Plan to End Tax That Funds Social Security Is Extremely Unpopular, Even Among Republicans

In a rare show of bipartisan agreement, President Donald Trump's push to defer and eventually gut the payroll tax that funds Social Security isn't sitting well with lawmakers and voters on both sides of the aisle.

A recent poll conducted by Data for Progress found that an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans—74 percent and 70 percent, respectively—opposed the idea of deferring or eliminating the tax when told it funds Social Security and when given arguments for and against the proposal.

Alex Lawson, the executive director of the nonprofit group Social Security Works that helped commission the survey, had a simple explanation for the results.

"More Americans believe in the Loch Ness monster than those who oppose Social Security," he said.

Lawson said that support support for the benefits program is nearly unanimous.

Other advocates agree that the benefits program has always managed to bridge the partisan divide. Nearly 20 percent of all Americans (65 million people) receive Social Security benefits.

"All of the polling I've seen for years shows overwhelming support for Social Security among Democrats, Republicans and independents," said Max Richtman, the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). "And there's a lot of support to improve those programs, certainly not to undermine them."

NCPSSM, a national seniors advocacy group founded by the late son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recently endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president. The endorsement, the first in the group's 40-year history, cited Trump's attacks on Social Security as an existential threat for older Americans.

Trump inadvertently sounded the alarm on Social Security after he signed an executive order on August 8 calling for a "payroll tax holiday" for the millions of employees who pay into the system. The move, he argued, would save families thousands of dollars.

The president followed the executive action with an announcement that if he won a second term, he intended to eliminate the payroll tax altogether.

"We will be, on the assumption I win, we are going to be terminating the payroll tax after the beginning of the new year," Trump told reporters at a press conference.

Richtman said that once people understand the repercussions of the president's executive order, it doesn't get a positive reaction.

"Even Republicans, for the most part, they're either mute on the subject or they're skeptical," he said.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the finance committee that has jurisdiction over Social Security, told reporters in August that he would only consider a permanent payroll tax cut if it's part of a broader effort to reform the program.

"I would not entertain that question would go in with the reform of Social Security," Grassley said. "We've got to make sure that we keep our promises to senior citizens."

Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) also said they were not fans of the idea, according to a report from The Hill. Cornyn noted that the trust funds that pay for Social Security and Medicare were already heading toward insolvency.

expand social security protest 2015 White House
Activists participate in a rally urging the expansion of Social Security benefits in front of the White House July 13, 2015 in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump has proposed cutting the payroll tax that funds Social Security and instead paying for the program with general revenue. Win McNamee/Getty

If Trump were to eliminate the payroll tax completely, the agency would run out of money even faster. In a recent report to Congress, the chief actuary for the Social Security Administration said the trust which supports the benefits would be depleted by the middle of 2023. Funds for disability payments would run out even sooner, in the middle of 2021.

The president's solution for ending the tax would be to fund the program through general revenue fund. But advocates said there are several problems with that proposal, the first being that there is very little uncommitted revenue to fund it.

"Social Security has got a high price tag, and of course there is no general revenue right now," said Nancy Altman, the president of Social Security Works. "There's several trillions of dollars of debt."

Congress and the White House added trillions of dollars to the federal debt with the Trump tax cuts. Then the federal government added even more by providing coronavirus relief, including a historic $2 trillion package passed in March.

"Now they're expecting Congress to come up with trillions of more dollars out of general revenues to fill in the money that would not be there with the payroll tax deduction?" Richtman of NCPSSM asked rhetorically. "I don't see that happening."

He said lawmakers will have few options to fund Social Security if the tax is cut: either they add more to the debt, they raise taxes or they cut benefits. The last option, he said, would be the most likely.

"The easiest route, I think, would be to cut the cost of living adjustment, reduce benefits and ultimately change the formula of the program," Richtman said. "That's where this would be headed, and Social Security would wither on the vine."

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