Now that the Republican Party has suspended its internal chaos long enough to elect a Speaker, Republicans face a challenge.

Leading party members are eager to use their new majority in the House of Representatives to trash two programs conservatives have long detested: Social Security and Medicare. But Republicans control only one house of Congress by a slim margin, and slashing Social Security and Medicare benefits is wildly unpopular.

Even three-quarters of those who voted for Republicans for Congress last year are against cutting benefits, as well as similar majorities of Democrats and Independents. In fact, 83 percent of Americans support increasing Social Security benefits — including 84 percent of Republicans! And big, bipartisan majorities want to tax the rich to do it.

The GOP is determined to go the other way.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wants seniors to “take a little less” and “pay a little more in” for Social Security, and Republican policy makers want to increase the retirement age to 70.

Given how unpopular the idea is, a direct legislative attack on benefits is destined to go nowhere. Instead, the Republican strategy is indirect: to hold the government itself hostage.

Extremist House Republicans now say they will refuse to increase the nation’s “debt limit” this year — causing a government shutdown, a default on our debts, and a global economic calamity — unless Social Security and Medicare benefits are slashed.

The credit and debt evaluator Moody’s says a default would trigger a recession wiping out 6 million jobs and erasing $15 trillion in household wealth.

The GOP scheme spits in voters’ faces. In polling, virtually no Americans want the debt limit to be tied to cutting Social Security and Medicare. Indeed, over two-thirds of Republican voters say they favor increasing the debt limit increase without such cuts.

Republican excuses for attacking these programs are that Social Security is going bankrupt and that the country cannot afford more debt.

It is true there’s a shortfall in income going into the government’s Social Security trust account. But the fix doesn’t have to rely on slashing benefits.

The causes of the shortfall include the aging of America’s population and the rise in economic inequality. The distribution of income has shifted in the last 50 years, and the share of the very rich has grown. Since Social Security limits how much of a person’s income is subject to Social Security taxes to $147,000, the rich escape taxes on most of their income, limiting revenues.

Eliminating the cap would reportedly eliminate three-quarters of the Social Security funding shortfall. But since Republicans wish above all to protect the wealth of the rich, they are prepared to ignore the preference of three-quarters of Americans, including their own voters.

The second claimed excuse, the size of the national debt, is also meritless. The national debt has grown under every presidential administration since Herbert Hoover in 1928, but there’s no reason to conclude it is more than we can afford. Our debt is among the highest-rated and safest in the world — unless Republicans destroy our credit for political reasons.

Refusing to pay what is already lawfully owed because it exceeds an arbitrary “limit” is no answer. Failing to raise the debt limit means cheating those who, in good faith, bought government bonds or sold things to our government. The economic effects would be devastating.

Why would Republicans use a back-door tactic with such risks to force through cuts opposed by giant majorities of their own supporters?

Their determination to defund Social Security and Medicare appears to rest on the “principle” that the government should do nothing to benefit ordinary people — and that the wealth of the ultra-rich must be protected at all costs.

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Mitchell Zimmerman

Mitchell Zimmerman is an attorney, longtime social activist, and author of the anti-racism thriller Mississippi Reckoning. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.

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