“Republicans plan to end Social Security and Medicare if they take back the Senate.”
— Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a tweet, Sept. 25
When an election campaign enters its final weeks, year after year, both political parties rely on familiar themes to attack their opponents.
For Republicans, it’s crime and immigration. For Democrats, it’s Social Security and Medicare.
Murray, who has been in the Senate since 1993, is running against Republican Tiffany Smiley. Murray’s tweet is a succinct example of what we called “Mediscare” attacks — an effort to warn seniors that Republicans will take away their hard-earned benefits. Indeed, the rest of the tweet stated: “Washington seniors who have spent their lives paying into these programs deserve better — and I’ll keep fighting to make sure they get it.”
Don’t worry, seniors: There is no such plan.
When Social Security was established in 1935, most Republican lawmakers supported it — but more Republicans than Democrats opposed it. When Medicare was created in 1965, slightly more Republicans opposed the new program than supported it, in contrast to the broad support among Democrats.
Decades later, Democrats have never let Republicans forget this history. In campaign attacks, Democrats often conjure up nonexistent plans by Republicans to terminate or somehow undermine the programs. This tactic has certainly given us material to fact-check.
In 2014, for instance, House Democrats falsely accused then-congressional candidate Martha McSally of wanting to “privatize” Social Security, even though a more modest version of the idea by President George W. Bush years before could not even get a committee vote when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. And in the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden falsely claimed that President Donald Trump had a “plan” to deplete Social Security so benefits would run out in three years.
In that same campaign, Biden accused Trump of wanting to “slash Medicare benefits.” Not so. In fact, back in 2011, then-Vice President Biden accused House Republicans of proposing a plan “eliminating Medicare in the next 10 years.” That wasn’t true, either.
Now comes the latest iteration of this campaign attack. But it’s just as empty as the previous ones.
The main source of this accusation is a document issued by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the Senate. In February, Scott released a 60-page “11-point plan to rescue America” that offered 128 proposals.
Buried on Page 38, in a section on government restructuring, was one sentence: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
“Sunset” is inside-the-Beltway lingo. The Congressional Research Service offers this definition: “The sunset concept provides for programs and agencies to terminate automatically on a periodic basis unless explicitly renewed by law.” In theory, then, even a venerable program such as Social Security or Medicare would have to prove its worth all over again every five years, though neither was specifically mentioned.
Scott’s plan was almost immediately rejected by most Senate Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., was especially harsh.
“We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half of the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years,” McConnell told reporters March 1. “That will not be part of a Republican Senate majority agenda.” (Scott also proposed requiring every American to pay some kind of tax, an idea that quickly found its way into Democratic attacks.)
Scott’s write-up offered few details and had no proposed legislative language. He consistently has insisted that the document represented “Rick Scott’s policy ideas. It’s nobody else’s policy ideas.” Indeed, the plan was issued by Scott’s own campaign committee, not any GOP or Senate committee, including the NRSC.
Scott has also denied he wanted to end Social Security and Medicare.
During an interview with Fox News on March 27, Scott was asked whether his plan could “potentially sunset programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.” He dismissed that as “Democratic talking points” and said his proposal was intended to focus attention on how to deal with potential funding shortfalls in the future.
“No one that I know of wants to sunset Medicare or Social Security, but what we’re doing is we don’t even talk about it. Medicare goes bankrupt in four years. Social Security goes bankrupt in 12 years,” Scott said. “I think we ought to figure out how we preserve those programs. Every program that we care about, we ought to stop and take the time to preserve those programs.”
(It’s beyond the scope of this fact check, but Scott’s “bankrupt” language is exaggerated. Payments would continue but at reduced levels, according to the annual reports issued by the administrators of the programs’ trust funds. As we have noted before, Medicare’s Part A fund has, since 1970, been on the brink of going “broke” — but always manages to stay afloat.)
Over the summer, another Republican senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, floated the idea of funding Social Security and Medicare through the annual budget. Right now, the spending is automatically disbursed because the programs grant benefits to anyone who meets the qualification of having paid into the system. Johnson argued that keeping spending on “automatic pilot” was threatening to make the programs go “bankrupt.”
A Johnson spokesperson said Johnson was not trying to eliminate the programs but instead wanted to impose “fiscal discipline” to ensure that they “remain solvent.” When asked about Johnson’s idea, a McConnell spokesman pointed to the senator’s previous rejection of the Scott plan.
Finally. Murray’s staff cited as evidence for the tweet GOP support for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in theory might require reductions in spending in Social Security and Medicare. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in January told Fox that “if Republicans take charge of the United States Senate [in 2022], I will do everything in my power to make sure we have a vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.”
Such a vote would only be for political messaging. Graham acknowledged that it would be difficult to get 67 votes in the Senate, let alone a two-thirds majority in the House — which even if successful would still require ratification by three-fourths (38) of the states.
In a statement to the Fact Checker, the Murray campaign said: “One of Tiffany Smiley’s biggest champions is Rick Scott, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee and wrote its agenda which proposes gutting Social Security and Medicare. If Republicans like Smiley disagree, they should call on Rick Scott to be removed as Chair or stop taking money from the NRSC, which she has refused to do. We are absolutely going to make sure Tiffany Smiley is held accountable for how the official Senate Republican campaign agenda would harm Washington seniors.”
The Pinocchio test
Murray tweeted that if Senate Republicans win control of the Senate, they plan to end Social Security and Medicare.
But as evidence, her staff can only point to statements by a pair of Senate Republicans who have earned little support among their colleagues. The presumptive Senate Republican leader explicitly rejected the idea. Moreover, in both cases, the senators insisted that they were not trying to eliminate the programs but instead bolster their financial underpinnings. Whether such actions would reduce benefits is open to debate, but it’s not the same as ending the programs.
Murray would have been on more solid ground if she had cited Scott or Johnson by name and described their proposals, as Biden has done in campaign speeches. Instead, she condemns the whole caucus.
This is yet another example in which Democrats strain to conjure up a nonexistent GOP plan regarding Social Security and Medicare. Murray earns Four Pinocchios.