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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


UW experts weigh in on upcoming Senate race, issues of importance

‘There are very significant consequences for UW students and the rest of the country from who controls the Senate,’ UW professor says
Cait Gibbons

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes voiced their opinions on critical election issues in the final Senate debate Oct. 13.

The opponents discussed various topics — including reproductive rights, gun violence, Social Security spending, inflation and more.

Just before the debate, Johnson stated his support for ending the idea of mandatory spending and making every piece of funding conditional. Johnson has repeatedly stated his goal to make the program a part of the discretionary budget.


As a result, the topic of Social Security has become a key issue in Wisconsin’s race for U.S. Senate. 

Payroll taxes from U.S. workers and their employers provide the funding for Social Security programs. The money individuals pay into the program now is allocated toward people receiving it today. Simply put, today’s workers pay for today’s retirees, according to University of Wisconsin political science assistant professor Eleanor Powell.

The program is currently solvent, meaning it has enough money to pay all the beneficiaries who are of retirement age, UW political science professor Barry Burden said. But, it will face some challenges in the future as the number of retirees begins to outpace the number of workers, Burden said.

Social Security is on track to deplete its reserve funds by 2034. From that point on, it will only be able to pay 77% of scheduled benefits, according to the federal Social Security Administration.

UW political science professor, David Canon said the depletion of funds is often misunderstood.

“A lot of people say that Social Security will be bankrupt by 2034, but that’s not at all what it means,” Canon said. “It means that they won’t be able to fully fund all the benefits that have been promised under the current law.”

Government spending is broken down into two main categories — mandatory and discretionary. Currently, Social Security is a type of mandatory spending, according to Powell.

Social Security is considered an entitlement program because of budgeting procedures, Powell said. The program continues to exist without Congress having to re-authorize it every year. Additionally, if an individual qualifies for it, they receive the benefits without having to re-apply, according to Powell.

“These are programs that tend to come and go from one year to the next,” Burden said. “Whereas long-term programs, especially entitlement programs like Social Security are expected to be there from one year to the next.”

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Johnson plans to remove Social Security from its entitlement status. As a result, the status of Social Security would need to be assessed annually. This includes whether it would continue to exist and at what funding level it would exist, Powell said. Additionally, this would require Congress to have to vote on the topic of Social Security and the president to have to sign off on its status, according to Powell.

This change would give Congress the power to alter the benefits in the program every year when it writes the budget, creating a lot of uncertainty for people who plan to receive benefits, Burden said.

“Congress is not very good at writing budgets,” Burden said. “They often fail to produce a budget at all, or it gets thrown together because of a deadline with a small number of congressional leaders and members of the White House staff.”

Over the past 40 years, Congress has completed all appropriations before the start of the fiscal year just four times, according to the Pew Research Center.

Crafting a deal at the last moment is not a rational, orderly process, so revoking the entitlement status of Social Security would create significant instability in the program, Burden said.

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“Social Security is almost certainly the most popular social program that we have, and so it really was somewhat surprising that Sen. Johnson proposed that,” Canon said.

Democratic challenger Barnes said in the debate he wants to keep Social Security as a mandatory program and supports raising the cap on the Social Security tax.

As of 2022, wages above $147,000 aren’t taxed for the Social Security fund, according to the Social Security Administration. Raising the salary cap would subject a greater share of income to the Social Security payroll tax than currently is done right now, Canon said.

Having people who can afford to pay more in Social Security tax is one of the easiest ways to raise the program’s funds, Canon said.

But politicians can be reluctant to implement this policy because they want to maintain support from high-income individuals — who often donate money to campaigns, according to Canon.

“If it comes down to doing something that’s going to cut benefits for other people or make people work longer to qualify for full benefits, it seems that raising the salary cap is something that would be less politically painful than either of those two things,” Canon said.

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Wisconsin’s Senate race is one of the races that could determine which party controls Congress, according to Canon.

Currently, the Senate is split 50/50 — meaning half of the Senate is Democratic and the other half is Republican. Race for control of the Senate is very close in this election given the current balance of the chamber. About a third of the seats are up for election right now, meaning every seat could have a big impact, Powell said.

The Democrats need 50 votes to pass budgets under the rules of the Senate, so if they were to lose even one seat, they would lose the ability to control the agenda in the Senate, which would be a major blow to the Biden agenda for the next couple of years, Burden said.

“If Republicans were to gain back the majority and Ron Johnson were to win, he would probably become a committee chair and have a platform in the Senate that he doesn’t have today,” Burden said. “So there are very significant consequences for UW students and the rest of the country from who controls the Senate.”

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