AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File Sen. Ron Johnson
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Johnson, who’s up for reelection in November, believes Social Security and Medicare should not be guaranteed and should instead be negotiated by Congress every single year, which means politicians could cut funding for these programs or eliminate them altogether.

Judy Gatlin has spent her life working hard and paying into Social Security and Medicare. Like millions of other working-class Wisconsinites, she did so with the promise that those benefits would be there to ensure her sense of security as she got older.

Now, after more than two decades working in the administrative support department at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, Gatlin is set to receive her first Social Security check in October. But the 62-year-old retiree is worried that her benefits and the promise of security she’s long counted on could be stripped away by her own elected representative, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. 

Johnson, a Republican, has gone on record saying that he believes Social Security and Medicare should not be guaranteed—as they currently are—and should instead be negotiated by Congress every single year. 

Johnson, who is running for a third term in November, made his comments during a recent interview on the Regular Joe Show, hosted by Joe Giganti. Speaking on the program, Johnson argued that mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare should be reformed and fall under “discretionary spending”—which means Congress could cut funding for them or eliminate them altogether.

“What’s mandatory are things like Social Security and Medicare. If you qualify for the entitlement you just get it no matter what the cost,” Johnson said. “It’s on automatic pilot.”

Johnson claimed his proposal is to “fix problems” and prevent the programs from going bankrupt, but Wisconsinites like Gatlin are furious over the idea. 

Gatlin was able to retire early from full-time work thanks to her union pension and now serves as a district representative in Eau Claire County, a part-time, public service position for which she receives a small stipend. But she worries about what would happen to her if Social Security were put on the chopping block every year.

“I earned Social Security. It’s earned. How can you be so arrogant to say that?” Gatlin told UpNorthNews in an interview. “It would reduce my monthly income more than half if I didn’t have my Social Security, and I need money for health insurance.”

Gatlin views Johnson—whose net worth has doubled since he entered the Senate and stood at nearly $40 million in 2018—as an out-of-touch mouthpiece for elite billionaires and millionaires instead of an advocate for ordinary Wisconsinites like herself.

“Ron Johnson is filthy rich. He gave trillions of dollars of tax cuts to people that are involved in these [pass-through] corporations making millions and millions of dollars. They don’t know what it’s like to stand in the grocery line,” Gatlin said. “I’m angry. It’s like a slap in the face.”

More than 1.2 million seniors in Wisconsin rely on Social Security and Medicare to help ensure their well-being as they age and to help them afford the rising cost of living—and in many cases, keep them out of poverty

Milwaukee senior Mary Wacker is one of these seniors, and she also criticized Johnson for his proposal to put the programs at risk.

“He has increased his wealth through some of his legislative decisions, which have been very personally self-serving, and he’s now proposing policies that destroy important safety nets for working-class and middle-class Americans,” Wacker said. “He is completely out of touch with how our lives work.”

Wacker, a 72-year-old “mostly retired” leadership coach and consultant originally from Wauwatosa, said her life would look very different without Social Security and Medicare.

“I count on Social Security to supplement my income and I also have had some hip replacements, so Medicare was very important to me,” Wacker said. “If I had had to pay out of pocket for those experiences, I would probably be in a wheelchair.”

“We have paid into Social Security our entire working lives, and to propose that it becomes something that is a political football negotiated every year or two by whoever is the party in power as to funding is terrifying,” Wacker added. 

Johnson’s opponent in November, Democrat Mandela Barnes, has also hammered him on the issue.

“Self-serving, multimillionaire senator Ron Johnson wants to strip working people of the Social Security and Medicare they’ve earned. Wisconsinites pay into Social Security through a lifetime of hard work, and they’re counting on this program and Medicare—but Ron Johnson just doesn’t care,” Barnes said in a statement last month.

Barnes vowed to protect Medicare and Social Security during a recent interview with Newswatch 12.

“We’re fighting to protect our hard earned benefits, ones that our parents and grandparents spent their entire lives paying into,” Barnes said. “We can do that by making sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share into the system. We cannot allow Social Security to be cut.”

Barnes’ stance on the issues has earned him praise from both Gatlin and Wacker. 

“I just believe he’s a person of the people,” Gatlin said. “He knows what it’s like to be working, he’s just real, he’s not rich. He’s a family guy, and I’m sure he’s been paying into his Social Security, too.

Wacker believes that unlike Johnson, Barnes would represent the entire state and not just wealthier Wisconsinites. 

Johnson’s comments on the Regular Joe Show are not the first time he’s spoken about changes that could threaten Social Security and Medicare.

In the spring, Johnson said that Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s plan to require reauthorization of every federal law—including those governing Medicare and Social Security—every five years was a “positive thing.” 

Johnson has also previously referred to Social Security as a “ponzi scheme” and recently expressed support for an “innovative” idea to “coax” seniors out of retirement and back into the workforce to fill worker shortages. 

Wacker blasted the idea, saying it further shows just how disconnected Johnson is. 

“The idea of fixing our system by taking away the social safety net and then encouraging [seniors] to go back out and re-earn that money through work is again really out of touch,” she said. “It is punitive and for many people it would be the only option, which is horrific.”

During his interview with Giganti, Johnson said that “as long as things are on automatic pilot we just continue to pile up debt, mortgage our kids’ future, it’s this massive debt burden.”

Johnson tried to pin the blame for the national debt on Democrats for spending too much, even though he himself helped ram through the 2017 tax cut that disproportionately benefited corporations and billionaires and raised the federal deficit by nearly $2 trillion. Notably, that tax cut also profoundly benefited three of Johnson’s donors, who are now spending more than $10 million to reelect him. 

Both Gatlin and Wacker are looking forward to November, when they plan to fight back against Johnson’s plans by casting their ballots against him. 

“We really need a different senator,” Wacker said. 

Gatlin wants to elect a public servant who will lift people up instead of driving them into poverty. 

“Social Security is one of the greatest programs that has ever happened,” she said. “We need to work to make it stronger for working people, so people can survive, so people can retire with dignity and have some quality of life.”