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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 16, 2018

Would Heller cut Social Security or Medicare to pay for tax cuts?

The popularity of Social Security and Medicare cuts across party lines, so it’s no surprise their future comes up in campaigns.

Nevada’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Jacky Rosen took a shot at incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller as she received the endorsement of the Social Security Works PAC.

"Social Security successfully lifts millions out of poverty and helps ensure economic security for Nevada seniors when they retire after a lifetime of hard work," Rosen said Aug. 13. "Unfortunately, Sen. Heller is yet another Washington politician who wants to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare to pay for tax cuts for his ultra-wealthy donors."

Ever since passage of the Republican Tax Cut and Jobs Act, Democrats have leveled this sort of charge at Republicans. We’ll walk you through whether cuts to Social Security and Medicare are needed to pay for tax cuts to the wealthy.

Key takeaways
  • Heller voted for a Senate budget resolution, which over 10 years slowed the growth of Medicare by $473 billion less than projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Opinions differ on whether a slower growth rate is the same as a cut.

  • Heller cosponsored a Senate balanced budget amendment, which would put pressure on lawmakers to curtail Social Security and Medicare spending.

  • Nearly half of the benefits of the tax cut law (including both individual and corporate cuts) flow to the top 5 percent of taxpayers in the first year, and in the final year, about 83 percent goes to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

  • Neither the tax cuts nor a balanced budget amendment necessarily force cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Where Heller stands

Heller’s campaign defended his record on protecting Medicare.

"During his time in Congress, Dean has voted to prevent more than half a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts and has opposed changes to Medicare that would impact current and near-retirees who were promised they can rely on the program," said campaign spokesman Keith Schipper.

The pivotal phrase there is "current and near-retirees." In the debate over Social Security and Medicare, it’s hard to find any lawmaker who would trim benefits in the short term. Both programs touch many lives, and as entitlement programs, they automatically lay claim to more and more of the federal budget. Together, they account for about 40 percent of all spending.

Efforts to bring down that share very much focus on more gradual shifts that delay benefits or reduce them for people who are years away from retirement.

Heller has said and done various things over the years that are subject to interpretation.

Most concretely, in 2017, he supported a Senate budget resolution that set the stage for the tax cut bill. That resolution allowed the deficit to rise by $1.5 trillion over 10 years and included a spending path for Medicare that was $473 billion less than the baseline projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

To be clear, Medicare spending would still increase, but not as quickly as the CBO said it would, all things being equal. Here’s a chart from the Senate Budget Committee:

So there are a couple of points to highlight.

We’ve noted before that since the resolution allowed deficits to rise by $1.5 trillion, you can’t say that any trims to Medicare help pay for the tax cuts. You could look to borrowed money as the source of cash.

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And then there’s the question of whether a slower rate of growth is the same as a cut.

With more people retiring, the price tag goes up. If Washington were able to push health care costs down, more people could get the same benefits for less money. That’s a big if.

If wealthy retirees got lower benefits, they might not feel the pain. But they could still see that as a loss.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Other key moves by Heller

Heller voted for a plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in 2011 that would have converted Medicare into a voucher program in which Washington would help people pay for premiums charged by private insurers. The CBO found that "under the proposal, most elderly people would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system."

Heller is an original cosponsor of a 2017 Senate balanced budget proposal.

Would that amendment force cuts in Social Security and Medicare?


"It doesn’t cut those programs directly," said Marc Goldwein with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "But it may force Congress to take action that would cut these programs. "

On the other hand, Heller spokesman Schippen said that in 2011 "Heller was the only Republican senator to vote in support of a Democrat Balanced Budget Amendment that protected the revenue and outlays of Social Security from any balanced budget requirement."

In short, Heller’s record presents a mixed bag for both his critics and his supporters.

The tax bill

The distribution of the GOP tax law benefits come with a measure of uncertainty that hinges on several factors but mainly how the economy and employers respond over time.

The clearest estimate we have at hand comes from the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban and Brookings Institutions that draws on economists who have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

By its estimate, about 45 percent of the tax benefits flow to the top 5 percent of taxpayers in the first year. By 2027, about 83 percent go to the top 1 percent.

Schipper with the Heller campaign counters that "the majority of the individual tax cuts go to taxpayers making less than $200,000 a year, and the share of taxes paid by the top 5 percent under the new tax law is greater than it was under previous law."

That has merit, although his emphasis on individual tax cuts overlooks the impact of corporate rate cuts, which tilt heavily toward the wealthy.

Our ruling

Rosen said that Heller wants to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare to pay for tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy.

Overall, his policies could make it more likely that spending on entitlements would be reined in. There is reasonable debate whether those changes would lead to a cut in benefits.

And while the tax cuts favor the rich, it isn’t inevitable that the lost revenues will be made up for by trimming Social Security and Medicare.

For a statement that is partially accurate but missing important details, we rate it Half True.

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Half True
Says Sen. Dean Heller "wants to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare to pay for tax cuts for his ultra-wealthy donors."
In a campaign press release.
Monday, August 13, 2018

Our Sources

Jacky Rosen, Jacky Rosen Joins Nevada Seniors to Celebrate Social Security’s 83rd Anniversary, Highlight Heller’s Dangerous Record, Aug. 13, 2018

Heller for Senate, Jacky Rosen Just Proved Again She Always Has Pelosi’s Back, April 12, 2018

U.S. Congress, H.J.Res.2 - Proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States, accessed Aug. 16, 2018

Congressional Research Service, A Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment: Background and Congressional Options, Jan. 8, 2018

Politico, Heller defends health care vote amid Democratic attacks, July 26, 2017

U.S. Congress, S.J.Res.24 - Joint resolution proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Aug. 2, 2011

U.S. Congress, S.J.Res.24 - A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relative to balancing the budget, Feb. 27, 2017

Congressional Budget Office, Preliminary Long-Term Analysis of a Budget Proposal by Chairman Ryan, April 5, 2011

Tax Policy Center, Distributional analysis of the conference agreement for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Dec. 18, 2017, Truth-Twisting Tweets, March 16, 2012

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Missing from Balanced Budget Amendment Debate: A Budget, April 10, 2018

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, How to Reduce Medicare Spending Without Cutting Benefits, May 17, 2017

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Democratic attack on Kevin Cramer's statements on Social Security and Medicare, June 19, 2018

PolitiFact, Is GOP paying for tax cuts with reductions in Medicare?, Oct. 6, 2017

Email interview, Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and head of policy, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Aug. 16, 2018

Interview, Stewart Boss, spokesman, Rosen for Senate, Aug. 16, 2018

Interview, Keith Schipper, spokesman, Heller for Senate, Aug. 16, 2018

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