Gov. Chris Christie attempted to position himself as the likely candidate most willing to take on entitlement reform when he delivered a 40-minute speech on the issue in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
The New Jersey Republican, who kicked off a four-day tour across the first-in-the-nation primary state, is applying his direct style to try to be a truth-teller who’s eager to take on uncomfortable topics like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“I will not pander. I will not flip-flop. I am not afraid to tell you the truth as I see it, whether you like it or not,” he said at the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Christie, who has said he’ll make his 2016 decision in the late spring or early summer, proposed a number of what he called “bipartisan” and “imminently doable” ideas, even pulling from Europe and states, like California.
One of those proposals involves phasing out and eliminating Social Security income for wealthy Americans who don’t need it, but Christie stressed it wouldn’t affect any current beneficiaries or those nearing retirement.
“Let’s ask ourselves an honest question: Do we really believe that the wealthiest Americans need to take from younger, hard-working Americans to receive what, for most of them, is a modest monthly Social Security check?” he asked. “I say no.”
His plan would phase out payments for those who make $200,000 a year in other income during retirement and implement a means test for those who make $80,000 a year in non-Social Security income. The plan would affect 2 percent of all recipients, he said.
He added that the same concept should be applied to Medicare, as well. Under his proposals, seniors with an $85,000 a year income would pay 40 percent of premium costs. For those who make above $196,000 a year during retirement, that would increase to 90 percent of premium costs.
“If you can afford to pay more for your health benefits, you should, and if you can’t, you shouldn’t,” he said.
Christie, who rose to national fame after working with Democrats to reach a worker pension reform plan in 2011, is hoping that his strategy to tackle unpopular ideas will make him stand out from what’s expected to be a crowded field of candidates running for the Republican nomination.
“Why would I say it if it wasn’t true? There’s no political upside to this, right?” he asked the audience, as they laughed. “I’d love to come here and just give you happy time. Make you feel good, say I’m going to give you … more money from someplace. The only reason I’m here to say this is because it’s an unavoidable truth. So let’s confront the problem head-on.”
Christie is not the first presidential contender to openly consider backing some form of means testing regarding Social Security benefits and Medicare, as both Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama did the last presidential cycle.
He’s also in favor of raising the retirement age for Social Security to 69, gradually implementing the change in 2022 by increasing the retirement age by two months each year until it reaches 69.
That also goes for Medicare, for which he’d raise the eligibility age at a pace of one month per year so that the age would be 67 by 2040 and 69 by 2064.
To encourage people to stay in the workforce longer, he would reduce taxes for those 62 and older by getting rid of their payroll tax.
Christie also pitched Medicaid reform that would have the government sending the states a fixed amount per enrollee, with the cap growing in line with inflation.
If a person receives both Medicare and Medicaid, he suggested that the individual get Medicare coverage through a managed care organization and require that person to make a small co-pay like $10 for doctor visit or $20 for a hospital visit. “Let them have some skin in the game.”
As for Social Security disability insurance, he pointed to a program in the Netherlands through which workers must create a rehabilitation plan before they can get the benefits. The Dutch also give a tax break for employees who re-employ workers who complete their rehab plan.
“These proposals do not answer every question. They don’t represent everything we can do, but they are much more than anyone has been willing to do in Washington or even talk about, and they begin to tell our people the truth,” he said.
While Christie largely focused his remarks on his proposals, he also took a few shots at Obama, whom he said “has left us a debtor nation.” The governor argued that Obamacare “does not and cannot work for America” and promised to speak more about the program in the coming weeks.