— Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), speaking in a campaign ad
Whitehouse is running for reelection in what appears to be an easy race — the latest poll has him up by 24 percentage points — but that has not stopped him from running hard-hitting commercials.
We learned about this ad when a reader in Rhode Island sent a query.
“The commercials give the impression that the three programs are ripe for Republican repeal,” the reader wrote. “It seems to have something to do with remarks by Mitch McConnell, but I have been unable to find a statement from McConnell saying that he wants to repeal the three programs. Is there any truth in the accusation? Has McConnell advocated repeal or reductions in the three programs?”
Interesting question! Let’s take a look.
Democrats have seized on recent comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a round of media interviews after the Treasury Department reported that the federal budget deficit increased 17 percent year over year, to $779 billion in fiscal 2018.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s not a Republican problem,” McConnell told Bloomberg News on Oct. 16 when asked about the deficit announcement. “It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”
He added that by “entitlement reform,” he was “talking about Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”
Cue the immediate outrage from the left.
“If Republicans retain the Senate they will do everything they can to take away families’ health care and raise their costs,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “Americans should take Senator McConnell at his word.”
“A vote for Republican candidates in this election is a vote to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” argued Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
“Mitch McConnell made a big mistake yesterday: he gave away his real intentions,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a statement. “You let the seniors of this state know the Majority Leader is thinking about cutting Social Security and Medicare, they’re not going to be too happy.”
Okay, these are the usual kind of scare tactics used by politicians on both sides to warn of looming program cuts if the other side’s proposals are adopted. But Whitehouse went even further — he said Republicans “say they have got to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
Not just “cuts,” but actual elimination of three popular programs.
That’s not what McConnell said. In fact, he did not even say the Republicans hoped to cut those programs. He said changes would happen only if both parties worked together to overhaul the programs, which are under financial stress because of the retirement of the baby-boom generation.
“We all know that there will be no solution to that, short of some kind of bipartisan grand bargain that makes the very, very popular entitlement programs be in a position to be sustained. That hasn’t happened since the ‘80s,” McConnell told Reuters on Oct. 17. “But at some point we will have to sit down on a bipartisan basis and address the long-term drivers of the debt.”
In an Oct. 19 interview on the Terry Meiners radio program, McConnell again emphasized that the three programs were not coming under the knife unless both parties agreed to make changes: “Everybody knows those are the most secure programs in the federal government; nobody has to worry about any of those programs being in danger. … And they won’t be adjusted without some kind of bipartisan agreement. There’s nothing on our agenda to do that unless we have an agreement with the Democrats that we can all sign on to.”
Meaghan McCabe, a spokeswoman for the Whitehouse campaign, defended the ad. “Congressional Republicans have been unequivocal about their goal to dismantle Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The enormous deficits being created under President Trump pose a serious threat to the future of these vital programs,” she said.
As examples, she pointed to plans advanced over the years to “turn Medicare into a voucher program,” “to block-grant Medicaid,” and “for privatizing Social Security, which would change the program beyond recognition.”
One could quibble whether these concepts would have eliminated these programs as opposed to changing their nature. Certainly, these are ideas that some Republicans have pushed from time to time, but all of them have failed. The idea of allowing the option of private investments in Social Security, in addition to regular Social Security accounts, was a major goal of President George W. Bush in 2005, but it did not even get a vote from a Republican-led Congress. The idea has been all but dead and gone for more than a decade, though Democrats still love to bring it up during campaign season.
In fact, the failure of these Republican ideas would seem to reemphasize McConnell’s point — that only a bipartisan solution would effectively reduce costs. Republican-only ideas have not gained much traction.
“In the context of the full ad, Senator Whitehouse’s message is that Republicans charged enormous tax cuts for the wealthy to the national credit card, and are now using that deficit as an excuse to dismantle critical programs that seniors rely on,” McCabe argued.
When we asked McCabe about McConnell’s comments that any changes to entitlement programs would need to be bipartisan, she replied: “Senator McConnell's comments are an acknowledgment that Democrats currently hold enough seats in the Senate to prevent such cuts from going forward. That's why it's so important this November to protect every Democratic Senate seat and elect more members of Congress who will protect the vital benefits Americans have paid for over a lifetime of hard work.”
There is certainly a case to be made that the increase in the budget deficit has made it harder to grapple with the financial challenge posed by 10,000 baby-boomer retirements a day. While McConnell fretted about the impact of entitlements on the budget, that a long-term problem; the Trump tax cut immediately sliced revenues, especially corporate tax collection.
The Committee for a Responsible Budget calculated that $164 billion of the higher deficit — 21 percent — was the result of reduced revenue because of Trump’s tax cut; an additional $100 billion came from increased spending on the military and other legislative initiatives. The impact of the tax cut is only expected to grow in future years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, despite false claims by Republicans that the tax cuts would pay for themselves through greater economic growth. (The tax cut went into effect on Jan. 1, three months after the fiscal year began, so the full impact on revenue will come in the 2019 fiscal year.)
The last time the U.S. unemployment rate was below 4 percent — when the economy was booming under Bill Clinton and the government was running a budget surplus — Clinton was able to blunt Republican demands for a tax cut with the mantra of “Save Social Security First.” The ideas was to pay down the national debt — then about $3.6 trillion — by 2009 so the nation was better prepared for the inevitable moment when the U.S. Treasury had to make good on the bonds held by the Social Security Administration.
After Clinton left office, Bush pushed through a giant tax cut — and the budget deficits reemerged. The national debt held by the public is now nearly $15.7 trillion — and the tax cut will only increase that total. The deficit is expected to climb to $973 billion in the current fiscal year, according to the CBO.
The Pinocchio Test
There are a number of ways a Democrat could frame the debate over the debt and entitlements, such as complaining that Republicans who did not blink twice about increasing the deficit with a tax cut have little ground to say that the deficit is caused mostly by popular entitlement programs. Whitehouse, in his ad, starts to go down that road but then goes off course by twisting McConnell’s statement into the unsupported claim that Republicans have said that because of the deficits, “they have got to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
That’s false. Every time Republicans have tried to alter these programs without Democratic buy-in, they have paid a political price at the polls. That’s why McConnell says there needs to be a bipartisan solution.
Whitehouse would have been on more solid ground if he had protested that a mostly partisan tax bill had made the deficit problem worse and made it harder to grapple with baby-boomer retirements. But he has no evidence to support his incendiary campaign claim that Republicans want to eliminate these programs. It’s especially bad that the senator makes this claim himself in an ad — during a race in which he doesn’t need to go so negative.
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