A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Twists and Turns on the Debt


Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Xavier Becerra made misstatements about the debt ceiling debate and Social Security. McConnell, R-Ky., was incorrect when he claimed that "nobody is talking about not raising the debt ceiling." In fact, Rep. Michele Bachmann said she would not vote to raise the debt limit in her first presidential ad that began airing on Friday.

Becerra, D-Calif., repeated a false Democratic talking point when he claimed that "Social Security hasn't contributed 1 cent to … any of the national debt." Social Security ran a $49 billion cash deficit in 2010, contributing to the debt. And it's expected to run a $46 billion deficit this year.

Not Raising the Debt Ceiling

McConnell, the Senate minority leader, was wrong when he told "Fox News Sunday" host Bret Baier that "nobody" in Congress is talking about not raising the debt limit.

McConnell, July 10: Nobody is talking about not raising the debt ceiling. I haven't heard that discuss by anybody.

Baier: Some are.

McConnell: Not in the Congress. Yes, nobody is talking about doing that. We're talking about trying —

Baier: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has said don't let them fool you that the economy is going to collapse.

McConnell: We're talking about using this request that the president made of us to raise the debt ceiling as an opportunity to do something really significant for the country about spending and about debt. And that, of course, would also be good for the economy.

While McConnell and many others in Congress may not be talking about a blanket refusal to raise the debt limit, a few members of the GOP are. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has long opposed raising the debt ceiling and has made his stance part of his presidential campaign. He told Fox News in late May that "I’m positively opposed to raising the debt ceiling and I have voted against every debt ceiling increase since I’ve been in Congress."

And he's not the only Republican candidate with that view. Baier correctly mentioned Bachmann, who declared in her first campaign ad that "I will not vote to increase the debt ceiling." The ad began airing on Friday, July 8 — two days before McConnell's comments.

After President Barack Obama's July 11 press conference, Bachmann issued a statement saying that the president “has wrongly assumed that everyone agrees that we need to raise the debt ceiling.” She also told Fox News' Bill O’Reilly that the only way she’d vote to raise the debt limit is if spending was “cut an enormous amount, including they’d have to defund Obamacare.”

Becerra on Social Security

Becerra, the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, also made his claim about Social Security on the Fox News program:

Becerra: Social Security hasn't contributed 1 cent to the deficit that we face today, nor 1 cent to any of the national debt, the $14.3 trillion. So, why should Social Security, why should seniors have to pay to balance the budget through Social Security cuts?

As we have written before, Social Security passed a tipping point in 2010, when it ran a deficit and is expected to permanently take in less in tax revenue than it pays in benefits each year. The Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees reported that "Social Security expenditures exceeded the program's non-interest income in 2010 for the first time since 1983." Last year's cash deficit, when payroll taxes were less than benefits paid, was $49 billion. For calendar year 2011, the trustees project a $46 billion deficit. 

Furthermore, Social Security will have to borrow more money from the government's general fund this year and next, because of the payroll tax holiday, which reduced workers' payroll tax by 2 percent and was part of December's tax deal. The money needed to cover the shortfall for Social Security will total $85 billion in fiscal 2011 and $29 billion in fiscal 2012, according to CBO.

Becerra said that he would "fight to take [Social Security] off the table" in budget negotiations. We take no position on whether the program should be included in debates on reducing the debt, but it is wrong to say that it is not contributing "1 cent"  to the country's deficit and debt.

— Scott Blackburn