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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A ‘Risky’ Trio for Seniors?

An ad approved by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska twists the facts about what three potential GOP opponents have said about Social Security and Medicare.

  • While showing a photo of an elderly couple, the ad accuses Jon Bruning of embracing a Medicare plan that could “raise your rates and cut your benefits.” But only those 54 years old or younger would have been affected by the plan.
  • It says Deb Fischer “would also cut Medicare.” But that’s based on her support for a bill that specifically exempted Medicare spending, and she has said “we must keep our commitment to the people who are in [Medicare].”
  • It says Don Stenberg “wants to cut Social Security,” when, in fact, he says he opposes any cuts for current beneficiaries, or those nearing retirement age.

A graphic in the ad says the three Republicans have “Risky Plans for Seniors.” The Nebraska Democratic Party began running the TV spot, called “Peas,” on Oct. 10. It has been paid for by the Nebraska Democratic State Central Committee. Nelson makes an appearance at the end of the ad, giving it his approval.

Jon Bruning

The ad starts by claiming that Bruning, Nebraska’s attorney general, agrees with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and would “turn Medicare into a voucher system.”Bruning does agree with Ryan, who calls his plan a “premium support” system.

Graphics are then shown on screen saying Bruning’s plan “cuts Medicare,” “raises rates” and “cuts benefits.” The ad cites an Omaha World-Herald article from April 13 as the source for the claims. The article did say that Bruning was open to reducing benefits, but only for future retirees. The article said that Bruning told the paper that “he could support changes in Social Security and Medicare benefits for people who, like himself, are under 55 and have time to adjust to reductions.” However, those changes would not affect seniors currently receiving benefits, like the elderly couple featured in the ad with prescription pill bottles in front of them.

The article also said that Bruning “applauded” Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” plan, which would change Medicare from the current government-run, fee-for-service system to one where beneficiaries would purchase a private insurance plan with the help of a “premium support” payment from the government. But, again, Ryan’s plan would change the way Medicare works for future beneficiaries, those currently 54 years old and younger, not those already receiving benefits or close to receiving them. Older beneficiaries would have the option of participating in the new system, but they wouldn’t be required to do so.

Deb Fischer

Next, the ad says that “Deb Fischer would also cut Medicare,” citing Fischer’s support for the Cut, Cap and Balance Act and a video interview Fischer did with a Nebraska newspaper in August.

The Cut, Cap and Balance Act would have placed an annual cap on federal spending and proposed a constitutional amendment requiring the federal budget to be balanced each year. But as we’ve written before, the bill specifically exempted spending for Medicare, Social Security, veterans benefits and interest payments on the national debt from the bill’s spending caps.

It is true that some critics argue that cuts cannot be avoided with the bill’s requirements. The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, said that it is “inconceivable” that annual spending cuts would be met without cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare. It also said that the bill’s requirement to balance the budget would “necessitate deep cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.” The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also said that “these proposals would require draconian spending cuts of such a magnitude as to force policymakers to severely slash Medicare, Medicaid, and many other programs while opening the door to massive new tax cuts.” So, some groups believe the bill’s goals cannot be met without cutting those programs. But that doesn’t mean that they will indeed be cut.

Fischer also didn’t say she would cut Medicare for seniors during her interview with the York News-Times on Aug. 16. When asked if changes were needed to make Medicare and Social Security “more solvent,” Fischer said it was something that should be “discussed” and that “anything is on the table.” But she also said that “we must keep our commitment” to the people who are already in these programs.

Fischer, Aug. 16: But it has to be discussed. It’s not sustainable the way it is. And I think we must keep our commitment to the people who are in it. They made their plans for retirement based on what they believed they were going to be getting. So we have to honor those commitments. But for the program as a whole to succeed it has to be a conversation on how do we make this sustainable because it certainly isn’t the way it is.

Don Stenberg

The ad then claims that Stenberg, the state’s treasurer, “wants to cut Social Security.” Stenberg has actually said that he “will oppose any change in Social Security that reduces current benefits for anyone at or near retirement age.”

The ad cites an Associated Press article from July 2000 that said Stenberg “calls for allowing younger Americans to invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes.” That’s a position that Stenberg still holds today. He said he wants a “Protect Young People’s Social Security plan that will allow young people the choice of trusting the government to pay them their Social Security 20 or 30 or 40 years from now or allow them to keep part or all of their Social Security contributions in a personally owned FDIC insured bank account, like an IRA, so that the government can’t take their retirement money away from them and spend it on other things.”

The claim that Stenberg “wants to cut Social Security” is based on arguments against the use of such private accounts from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The committee argues that private accounts would “dramatically worsen the long-term financing of Social Security by siphoning off money that will be needed to pay benefits.” And EPI argued in 2001 that “[d]iverting a portion of Social Security revenue into individual accounts will result in less income for Social Security itself, meaning that retirement, disability, and survivorship benefits will have to be cut.”

But Stenberg says he would oppose any cuts for current beneficiaries, or those nearing retirement age. What he “wants” to do is give younger workers an alternative option for Social Security in the future.

The Justification

Nebraska Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Lorenz couldn’t tell us how Bruning’s support for Ryan’s plan for future Medicare recipients, or Fischer’s support for the Cut, Cap and Balance Act with an exemption for Medicare spending, meant that they were planning to make cuts for current beneficiaries. He said that Bruning and Fischer support the repeal of the health care law, which currently helps some beneficiaries of Medicare’s prescription drug program (Part D) better afford their medications. Therefore, repealing the law would mean cuts for current seniors.

It’s true that Bruning and Fischer both support overturning the health care law, and that would ultimately have an impact on the increased prescription drug coverage now provided by the law. But there is no mention of that scenario in the ad, and anyone who saw the ad, or bothered to check its sources, likely wouldn’t make that connection either.

— D’Angelo Gore