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Rubio and the Modernization of the GOP

For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

On Tuesday the junior senator from Florida focused his attention on retirement security. In a speech at the National Press Club, Rubio offered a plan to open up to more Americans the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) offered to every member of Congress and federal employee. The TSP allows federal employees to save pre-tax money for their retirement with fees lower than most private defined-contribution plans. Senator Rubio proposed that all Americans who do not have access to employer-sponsored plan be given the option of enrolling, which would boost Americans’ savings and help to supplement Social Security income.

“The twisted irony is that members of Congress – who are employees of the citizens of the United States – have access to a superior savings plan, while many of their employers – the American people – are often left with access to no plan at all,” Rubio said during his speech.

Other proposals include eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax for all individuals who have reached retirement age; eliminating the Retirement Earnings Test that can take away some Social Security benefits for recipients who continue to work (eliminating the RET would raise employment among early retirees); reducing the growth of benefits for upper income seniors; raising the retirement age for younger workers; and transitioning Medicare to a premium support system, which would give seniors a fixed amount of money to use for purchasing health insurance from either Medicare or a private provider.

There are several notable things about Senator Rubio’s speech. (I should say that in my position as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center I met with Senator Rubio and several policy experts prior to the speech and reacted favorably to an early draft of it.) The first is the educative quality of the address, laying out the case for reform in a calm, reasonable, and empirical way. The second is an admirable candor, with Rubio saying, “While [economic] growth is essential, growth alone will not be enough.” A third thing to note about the speech is that Senator Rubio spoke about wanting to strengthen and save, not uproot and eliminate, programs like Social Security and Medicare. He spoke in personal terms about the role those programs have played in the lives of his parents. Fourth, he attempted to put opponents of reform on the defensive, saying, “Anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about Social Security and Medicare is in favor of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare.”

Fifth and finally, Senator Rubio put a frame around this issue that is quite important. He explained that the retirement system we have in place does not line up with the needs and realities of our post-industrial economy. 

“In this new century, most people will live longer and voluntarily work longer,” Rubio said. “And many people will change jobs countless times, often in business for themselves or working for companies that do not offer retirement savings plans or pensions. Therefore, our retirement programs must be modernized and restructured to address the new economy that is here to stay.”

What Senator Rubio is doing, then, is putting the Republican Party on the side of modernization and reform in contrast to reactionary liberalism, which is sclerotic and brittle, out of ideas and out of energy. This is precisely what needs to happen if the GOP hopes to become the majority party in America. Senator Rubio–energetic, engaging, interested in ideas, and cheerful rather than resentful–is among the most persuasive advocates for his party.


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