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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Recycled Exaggerations: Local Ads Pressure Congress in Home States

A conservative group again overstates the Social Security shortfall, and attacks Democrats for doing nothing.


The pro-Bush group Progress for America released a new TV ad highlighting Social Security’s long-term fiscal deficit by telling voters that the system will go bankrupt “sooner than you think.”  But the ad fails to mention that the system isn’t projected to go “bankrupt” for another 37 years, when the Trust Fund is exhausted. And even then, neutral experts agree Social Security could still pay between 70 and 80 percent of currently scheduled benefits.

The group also takes aim at “National Democrats” for having no plan to address the system’s financial shortfall. It’s quite true that Congressional Democrats have not endorsed a specific plan, but neither has President Bush.


Progress for America released a TV ad March 18 that will run on local television stations in the home districts of at least 30 lawmakers, timed to coincide with their return for the Easter recess.

In a press release, the group claims it will spend $1 million to run the TV ad through April 1, in addition to $300,000 in radio ads that “compliment the message” of the television campaign.

 Progress for America Ad: “Graph”

Announcer: If an economist saw this graph, they’d say you were in serious trouble. Well, you are.

Because this sea of red ink is Social Security, your Social Security. If we don’t fix it, Social Security will start hemorrhaging money and hit bankruptcy, sooner than you think. President Bush wants to rescue Social Security. National Democrats have a simple plan: do nothing, but oppose President Bush. Urge your Members of Congress to show courage and help President Bush save Social Security now.

The Big Red Graph

The ad “Graph” visually depicts Social Security’s long-term fiscal situation by charting the time period when it runs a “surplus” vs. the years when the system enters into a “sea of red ink.” (You can view the ad under the “Media” section below).

The red ink actually starts in 2018, according to Social Security’s chief actuary. This is the point when scheduled benefit payments will exceed the taxes currently in place to pay for them, and to that extent the general shape of PFA’s graph accurately reflects the current projections of the chief actuary and other neutral analysts. Whether the year 2018 is “sooner than you think” is obviously something our readers must judge for themselves.

This ad avoids the exaggerated “Titanic” analogy Progress for America used in an earlier ad, but it still uses the overworked term “bankruptcy” to describe the system’s fate. As we’ve noted before, this term has been used by Democrats and even by journalists but may mislead some people into thinking the system is destined to go out of business entirely, which isn’t the case. It would still be able to pay between 70 and 80 percent of currently scheduled benefits even if the system’s trust funds are exhausted, which won’t happen until 2042, according to the actuary’s projection, or perhaps not even until ten years after that if the more optimistic economic projections of the Congressional Budget Office prove to be true.

The Democrat’s ‘Simple Plan’

Progress for America’s ad takes aim at Democrats for a plan it describes as “do nothing, but oppose President Bush.” It is true that Democratic congressional leaders have endorsed no specific plan to address Social Security’s fiscal problems, but then neither has Bush.

The President himself has acknowledged as much — and also said that his proposal for individual accounts by itself does nothing to fix Social Security’s looming fiscal crisis. He said at a March 16 news conference:

Bush: First of all, let me — if I might correct you — be so bold as to correct you — I have not laid out a plan yet — intentionally. I’ve laid out principles. I’ve talked about putting all options on the table because I fully understand the administration must work with the Congress to permanently solve Social Security.

And so one aspect of the debate is: Will we be willing to work together to permanently solve the issue?

Personal accounts do not solve the issue.

Bush has said one of his main principles is to oppose any increase in tax rates, and while he has left the door open to raising the amount of wages on which taxes are levied that still implies that he’d rely mostly on reductions in the growth of future benefit levels. For their part, Democrats have generally attacked any limitation on future benefits, which implies that they would rely primarily on raising future taxes. For more details on what it might take put Social Security on a solid financial footing, see our earlier article on AARP’s claim that only “moderate” changes would be required.



View Progress for America Ad: “Graph”


Progress for America, “Progress for America Launches March Social Security Media and Grassroots Blitz,”  press release , 17 March 2005.

FDCH E-Media, “Transcript: Bush News Conference,” 16 March 2005.