Max Baucus just shut the door on Social Security cuts. And given the posture of everyone in this negotiation, I’d say that pretty much ends that threat in the short-term. In the long-term, these things are always vulnerable because you have at least one political party with their knives out for the social safety net.

But that’s just Social Security; what about the other major safety-net programs? Republicans abandoned the full privatization of Medicare last week, but John Boehner crept back in an idea about means testing yesterday in New York City:

“Pete [Peterson], I love you to death, but I don’t think the taxpayers ought to be paying your Medicare premium. And under Paul Ryan’s plan, what it says is, let’s allow the American people to decide which health care plan fits their needs. And if you’re middle-income, lower income, we are going to pay, just like we do today, for the cost of those premiums. But for people of means, there’s no reason why we should subsidize Pete Peterson’s premium. I’m sorry. He ought to pay the full cost of his premium to be in Medicare.”

Boehner has said the same thing about Social Security in the past. This is the kind of policy that could have superficial appeal to the public. It’s not far from “tax the rich” to “make the rich pay for their Medicare.” But a couple things here. First of all, the Ryan budget, while it does provide more premium support to the poor than the rich, exempts everyone over the age of 65 from the plan, reducing dramatically the savings from such an idea. And second, wealth is so concentrated at the top that you cannot draw out real savings from the idea unless you dipped well into the middle class under the definition of “rich.” So now you’re taking Medicare funding away from people who made $60,000 a year all their lives. The point is, there is no such thing as means-testing that doesn’t equal negative outcomes for a large section, if not the majority, of senior citizens, who would have to pay more for their health insurance. That’s before you even get to the problem of turning Medicare into a welfare program, subject to the same political squeezes that hit most welfare programs.

That didn’t stop Steny Hoyer from tentatively endorsing the idea, however. And this is the problem of saving the safety net in a nutshell.

Furthermore, where Social Security and even Medicare might be safe in the near term, it’s Medicaid that is actually the most threatened safety net policy right now. The House Republican budget would strip between 31-44 million Americans of Medicaid coverage because of block-granting the program and reducing the benefit to the states. This negates all the gains of the Affordable Care Act and then some, and balloons the ranks of the uninsured. And there’s no organized constituency against the idea. The block-granting of Medicaid barely made a ripple in the discussion over the Ryan budget. What’s more, the states would have the executioner’s mask for the program; Congress gets to keep their hands clean.

That’s why it’s so threatened.

David Dayen

David Dayen