In a contentious interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan this week, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) perpetuated some dangerous myths about Social Security and Medicare. Brat, a Tea Partier and fiscal bomb thrower, has been campaigning to cut seniors’ earned benefits since first running for Congress in 2014.
The CNN interview heated up when Bolduan pressed Brat about the recently-passed deal to suspend the debt ceiling and keep the government open, which he opposed. It’s worth quoting Brat’s answer at length here, because it is only borderline comprehensible and riddled with inaccuracies:
“I was just at my convocations back home with the kids. The kindergarteners are in the class of 2030, they just told me. They will graduate college in 2034. So if you do know the context, the context is that is the year Medicare and Social Security are insolvent. I don’t think people do know the context. Otherwise there’d be more urgency and they wouldn’t put up with the nonsense we’re doing up here on the fiscal front. Right? If the press would weigh in on what the damage — it’s a guaranteed fiscal crisis in 2034. Guaranteed. In law, I’m on the budget committee, we can’t touch it. Right–You got to pass in law. So that’s – that’s the context and so with that; if you ask the average voter how you should vote on a clean debt ceiling increase with no fiscal discipline whatsoever, it’s the whole country 90%.”
Where to begin dissecting this statement? The relevance of kindergarteners graduating college in 2034 notwithstanding, Social Security and Medicare will not be insolvent that year. If Congress takes no corrective action whatsoever, the Medicare Part A Trust Fund and the Social Security Trust Funds will be depleted in 2029 and 2034, respectively. But that does not mean the programs will be insolvent. Revenue from workers’ payroll taxes still will be flowing in, allowing Medicare to pay 88% of full benefits and Social Security 77% — with no further action from Washington. In fact, the 2017 Social Security Trustees Report says there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year — and that it will continue to grow with payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.)
Does this mean we sit by and do nothing? Of course not. But Rep. Brat’s prescriptions are as draconian as his statements are inaccurate. The Congressman has championed cutting Social Security and Medicare and raising eligibility ages as the only solution. When running for office in 2014, he told a Tea Party crowd:
“It’s not just little marginal changes, right? In order to avoid those insolvency issues with Medicare and Social Security, you’re going to have to do some major cuts.”
According to PolitiFact, Brat went on to say that people will ‘have to work longer before receiving benefits’ – meaning raising the retirement age. This favorite proposal of fiscal hardliners is actually a benefit cut. And it is based on the misconception that just because average life expectancy is rising, everyone can work well past 65 – even though working class Americans (especially those doing physical labor on the job) may not be physically able to continue working into their late 60s like their wealthier counterparts.
Hardliners don’t like to talk about this, but there are other ways to keep our earned benefits fiscally sound without punishing the people who depend on them. The National Committee supports legislation by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT), and others in Congress to keep Social Security solvent without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age – mainly by lifting the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share. In fact, the Sanders and Larson bills actually boost benefits and cost-of-living increases while ensuring the fiscal health of Social Security well past those kindergartners’ 2034 graduation date. That way, those kids can count on their benefits when they retire around 2077.
But some members of Congress – and Rep. Brat in particular – ignore or dismiss these modest and manageable solutions, proposing instead that seniors shoulder the burden through benefit cuts and a higher retirement age.
Now we come to the second myth that Brat likes to propagate: that Social Security and Medicare are major drivers of the federal budget deficit. At that same 2014 Tea Party campaign event, Brat justified Social Security and Medicare cuts by saying:
“We’re going to have to take some bad medicine… to just balance the budget. If you don’t solve it, then in 11 years nearly all federal revenue will go only to [Social Security and Medicare].”
The fact is that Social Security has no net effect on the federal budget and contributes not one penny to the deficit. It is self-financed through workers’ payroll taxes. Ditto for Medicare Part A. Suggesting that these programs must be cut to balance the budget is disingenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop fiscal hardliners and the mainstream media from spreading the myth.
Notice how Brat conflates the debt crisis with Social Security and Medicare at the end of his CNN rant. Unfortunately, this claim is made far too often, but is hardly ever challenged by on-air journalists, this time being no exception (though, in truth, Bolduan was struggling just to control the interview).
Why do the on-air rantings of Congressman Brat matter? His arch-conservative philosophy wouldn’t be so dangerous if he were truly on the margins of political debate. But for the first time in more than a decade, fiscal hawks have the power to impose their hardline views on America’s most vulnerable citizens. Brat is a member of the House Budget Committee, which has already voted to privatize Medicare and raise the eligibility age. That’s a powerful perch for spreading myths about Social Security and Medicare in order to justify cuts that are just plain cruel.