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Is John Boehner ‘demanding’ painful cuts to Social Security?

“John Boehner and the Tea Party in Washington are demanding painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”

–voiceover of new ad from Patriot Majority USA

As budget negotiations begin in Washington, a pro-Democratic group is targeting House Speaker John A. Boehner (and in a companion ad, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) for “demanding painful cuts” to treasured entitlement programs.

We have already handed out Pinocchios for one claim in this ad — that “seniors would pay $6,000 more a year for Medicare” — which is a recycled talking point from 2011. The GOP plan for Medicare has since been revised, making it bizarre and misleading to keep repeating this claim.

But we are not going to go over that old ground. What’s going on with this new claim?

The Facts

The official back-up for this ad cites, among others, this statement from Boehner, made on CNN in October. “My goal here is to have a serious conversation about those things that are driving the deficit and driving the debt up. We know these programs are important to tens of millions of Americans. But if we don’t address the underlying problems, they are not sustainable.”

Hmm, does that sound like a demand? It actually sounds similar to what Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office said in September. As we put it:

“Elmendorf made clear in his testimony Tuesday that the administration and Congress have been cutting the wrong kind of spending — primarily the increasingly smaller discretionary side of the budget. The mandatory spending side of the budget, such as health care and Social Security, has barely been nicked, except (in the case of Medicare) to help fund the Affordable Care Act.”

And why is Social Security even on the table? Because President Obama put it in his budget for fiscal year 2014. He included a proposal to change how Social Security benefits are adjusted for inflation, which would result in a reduction in anticipated cost of living increases.

Social Security benefits, unlike virtually all annuities, is adjusted every year to keep pace with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. Thus benefits are always increasing, making it very valuable to retirees — but also a big part of the federal budget. (For more on Social Security, read our popular primer on the program.)

Under the president’s plan, a different version of the consumer price index would be used, something called “chained CPI” that attempts to account for the fact that when prices rise, people may substitute an equivalent but lower-priced item. The shift appears to be modest — 0.3 percentage points per year — but over time the shift could be profound.

But here’s where it gets a bit silly.

The White House, when it released the budget, claimed that it was included because it was Republican proposal and Obama wanted to jump-start negotiations, though the evidence that this originated with Republicans is rather murky. (McConnell did mention chained CPI in a television interview as an indication that Obama was serious about reducing mandatory spending; Boehner implicitly referenced in a letter to Obama by urging a proposal, along the lines of a new plan advanced by Erskine Bowles, as an “imperfect, but fair middle ground.” Bowles, incidentally, is a Democrat and former chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton.)

Moreover, as we have demonstrated before, a prominent Democrat — the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York — was the driving force behind getting the Bureau of Labor Statistics to consider using chained CPI.

It gets even sillier: After Obama’s budget was announced, it was called “a shocking attack on seniors” by the head of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.

Restraining growth in Social Security thus is considered an important policy issue, but both sides play political games with it. The White House claims it included Social Security in its budget because Republicans wanted to discuss it; Republicans say they want to discuss it because the president put it in his budget.

This ad is part of that gamesmanship.

“This ad is about Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, and their willingness to continually put cuts to Medicare and Social Security on the table,” said Ty Matsdorf of Patriot Majority USA. “They both have repeatedly made clear that they want to cut Social Security and Medicare – by supporting the [House GOP] budget, by going on the record when they purport to negotiate the budget and even by using the risk of default as a bargaining tool to cut both programs. It’s their plan, period.”

The Pinocchio Test

It is correct that Republican leaders have wanted to include reductions in entitlement programs as part of budget talks, but it’s absurd to brush aside the fact that Obama, in his budget plan, also has a specific proposal to reduce Social Security spending. We take no position on whether the cuts would be “painful,” except to note that the changes in Social Security would be barely noticeable at first to many beneficiaries.

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