A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

DCCC’s Deceptive Drive

Democrats are accusing Republicans of  "pushing to cut seniors' benefits," when no cuts have been proposed for those currently on Social Security or Medicare.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began making automated and live phone calls to residents on March 22, claiming that 10 GOP House members are "part of a majority of the Republicans in Washington pushing to cut seniors’ benefits in Social Security and Medicare." It is the next phase of the committee's "Drive to 25" campaign to retake the majority in the House, which also includes stopbenefitcuts.com, a website that urges constituents to tell their representatives "to protect Social Security and Medicare from dangerous Republican cuts."

The DCCC's campaign targets Paul Gosar of Arizona, Dan Benishek of Michigan, Joe Heck of Nevada, Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, Blake Farenthold of Texas, David McKinley of West Virginia, Allen West and Bill Young of Florida, and Sean Duffy and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

"If we don't act now," according to a script of the automated calls, seniors in each state "could have their benefits cut in the middle of a recession."

(Click image to listen to DCCC call against Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona)

The DCCC's claim rests largely on the GOP members' alleged support of Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" bill that was introduced back in January 2010, according to documentation provided to FactCheck.org.

Under Ryan's plan, workers would be able to invest more than one-third of their Social Security payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, and future Medicare beneficiaries would be given a voucher to purchase their health insurance in lieu of the current fee-for-service program. These programs would be overhauled in several additional ways as well. (Some have taken to calling Ryan's plan a "privatization" of the Social Security system, but we've found that to be a mischaracterization.)

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed Ryan's proposal and concluded that future Social Security beneficiaries could see lower benefits than currently scheduled, but seniors currently participating in Social Security, and those who would be eligible in just a few short years, would see no change at all.

On Social Security, CBO said:

CBO, Jan. 27, 2010: Traditional retirement benefits would be reduced below those scheduled under current law for many workers who are age 55 or younger in 2011. People with lower earnings would experience smaller reductions in benefits, and those with higher earnings would experience larger reductions. Current beneficiaries and workers who are age 55 or older in 2010 would experience no change in benefits.

On Medicare, CBO said Ryan's plan could result in higher premium payments for some upper-income seniors, and lower payments to providers, but that "people who are age 65 or older in 2020 and other existing enrollees at that time would continue to be covered by the current program."

As usual, whenever politicians put the words "cut" and "benefits" in the same sentence, we advise asking the questions, "Cut, compared to what?" and "Benefits, for whom?" We noted the same thing last year when it was Republicans accusing Democrats of cutting Medicare benefits with changes in the new health care law.

Each targeted members' support of Ryan's plan isn't as clear as the DCCC makes it out to be either.

Former Republican Study Committee chairman Tom Price issued a statement in support of the "Roadmap" bill around the time it was introduced. Gosar, McKinley and Farenthold belong to the same congressional group, which means they, too, support Ryan's plan, according to the DCCC. But the committee provided nothing showing any of the three independently stating support of Ryan's plan. The RSC is a group with more than 170 members, yet Ryan's bill had just 14 co-sponsors.

To link Heck and Barletta to Ryan's plan, the DCCC points out that the House Conservatives Fund endorsed both during their 2010 election campaigns. Roll Call reported that "in order to be considered for a contribution from the HCF, each candidate must fill out a questionnaire and support values consistent with those espoused by the conservative Republican Study Committee." But House Conservatives Fund spokeswoman Parker Poling told us previously that while candidates must fill out a questionnaire, their position on Social Security plays "no role at all" in securing an endorsement.

We've written before that Duffy has voiced general support for Ryan's plan, but not the specific details. And he has said that "privatizing is not an option." We've also covered the fact that Benishek has said that he favors "privatizing Social Security and Medicare," but it would be a "gradual thing," he said. "Because we can’t have the people who are on Social Security now — you have to be true to our promise to them."

NPR reported that West told attendees at a town hall meeting that "there would have to be significant cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security." That's how the reporter paraphrased West's remarks, though. He was specifically quoted saying that "the explosive growth of entitlement spending … We've got to get it off of autopilot, we really do. We've got to make some hard looks at that." He went on to say that he supported Ryan's proposal to raise the retirement age and change Medicare's fee-for-service structure, according to the NPR report.

And the DCCC provided nothing linking Young to Ryan's plan at all. Young's congressional website says he has "consistently opposed efforts that would alter Social Security from being a sound self-financing system for the benefit of current and future retirees," including the recent "attempt to replace the program with private Social Security savings accounts, which would jeopardize the benefits that countless retirees have come to rely on since the Social Security Act was first signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935."

Ryan, who is the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has said that he will produce a budget in the coming weeks that will tackle entitlement spending head on. The specifics of that proposal, however, are still unknown. So, how closely it sticks to what he proposed early last year remains to be seen.

The DCCC gives the impression that current Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries are in jeopardy of losing their benefits if Republicans get their way. That's not the case, based on the evidence it provided us. Even if the bill Ryan proposed last year were signed into law, the CBO said it would potentially affect future beneficiaries — those currently 55 years old and younger. And it's not a given that all of the members singled out by the DCCC supported that plan anyway.

Update, June 16: Our story originally quoted Rep. Young as saying the Social Security Act was signed by Theodore Roosevelt, not Franklin Roosevelt. We did not catch this error at first. Rep. Young has since corrected the error on his website, and we have updated his quote.