New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Tuesday touched on one of the more controversial policy issues - reforming the Social Security program for retirees - as he sought to regain attention in a crowded Republican 2016 presidential election field.
Despite potential disapproval from some within his own party and voters leery of losing their benefits, Christie proposed an overhaul of the popular program in a speech in New Hampshire, an early primary state for presidential hopefuls.
The governor, his stalled efforts at reforming the N.J. pension system notwithstanding, proposed Social Security "means-testing" that would reduce the size of benefits for people earning more than $80,000 annually and phase them out entirely for those earning $200,000 or more. "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?" Christie asked.
Previous efforts to reform Social Security in the United States have fallen flat, even as worries have increased that the program's trust fund could be depleted within decades.
While Christie is courting fiscal conservatives in his party, his proposals are sure to prove controversial. In his second term in the White House, President George W. Bush, brother of potential 2016 candidate Jeb Bush, proposed changing Social Security, which is funded through taxes on wages, to allow workers the option of shifting some of their contributions into private accounts. Bush's plan, which was never enacted, fell flat with many Americans, and many of his fellow Republicans distanced themselves from it.
In New Jersey, Christie's administration is appealing after losing in court to unions protesting his decision to strip $1.6 billion from the state's 2015 contribution into the New Jersey public employee retirement system. A similar lawsuit for the state's 2016 contribution has been filed.
The blunt-spoken politician was seen only a few months ago as one of the top Republican contenders for the 2016 nomination. Christie, who has yet to decide whether he will seek the White House, has since been eclipsed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Michael Tanner, senior fellow in social welfare policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, which advocates limited government, said Christie had few paths open in the campaign.
"He’s got to try to find something else and this offers an avenue, and one that’s kind of fitted to his personality," Tanner said. "Will it work, I have no idea. It’s taking his strength and running with it.”
This week's New Hampshire tour is seen as potentially pivotal for Christie. He will need to reassure donors and supporters about his viability as a candidate, despite questions about his temperament and a scandal known as "Bridgegate" involving a massive traffic jam that prosecutors are investigating as possibly politically motivated.
Christie's speech proposed other policy changes, such as raising the age when people can get Social Security benefits, eliminating payroll taxes for those who continue to work beyond age 62 and changing the way the Medicaid health program for the poor is funded.
He also proposed changes for the Social Security disability trust fund, including speeding up disability eligibility determination and the time in which the temporarily disabled must return to work.
Some in the crowd agreed with Christie that reforms were needed. "I thought it sounded very pragmatic and realistic in a lot of ways," said Tom Murphy, a 63-year-old self-employed graphic designer from Manchester.
Jim Headd, a 74-year-old former Republican state representative from Auburn, said a gradual change in the age of Social Security eligibility appealed to him. "It seems very logical to me, better than the shock treatment," Headd said.