Seniors are among the most consistent election participants in part because they’re reliant on the largest U.S. safety net programs.
So it would be politically risky for a candidate to declare his desire to cut Medicare and Social Security. And yet, Democrat Dan McCready recently accused Republican Mark Harris of admitting just that.
Harris and McCready are running for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlotte to south-central North Carolina. It’s currently held by Robert Pittenger, who Harris beat in the Republican primary.
There are 116,000 people in the 9th district over 65 (the age at which most people become eligible for Medicare and full Social Security benefits) and about 100,000 more who stand to collect Social Security benefits within the next 15 years, NC political expert Michael Bitzer recently told the Charlotte Observer.
In a debate on Oct. 10, things got heated between Harris and McCready after a moderator asked about how they’d continue to pay for Social Security.
"Mark Harris has said he would cut Social Security and Medicare," McCready said.
The full debate is available on the Charlotte Observer website, and McCready made this claim around the 12-minute mark of the video.
Harris said he was offended by McCready’s accusation.
"I have never said that. That is a lie that’s being perpetrated throughout the campaign and throughout the district," Harris said. "I have always said we’ve got to keep Social Security solvent, we’ve got to make sure that it’s a promise made and a promise kept. And we will continue to do that."
Harris then accused McCready of wanting to raise taxes to support those programs. He continued: "I do think we need to look at a graduated system that keeps the promise we’ve made to those that are retired and are heading toward retirement. I think when you get further back in the younger years, we need to have a graduated program that may involve options."
McCready then presented a three-pronged argument for how Harris has indicated intentions to cut Medicare and Social Security.
"You supported a $1.9 trillion tax bill that takes $25 billion out of Medicare," McCready said to Harris.
"You’ve said you would join the Freedom Caucus, whose stated purpose is to reform Social Security as we know it," McCready said.
"And you said in 2014 at the Lake Norman debate that younger people would be the big loser under your plan."
Harris responded by saying, "I’ve never expressed an overall plan except to make the point that younger people today who do not see Social Security being there when they reach it need to have some kind of options in place."
Contacted by PolitiFact, McCready’s campaign emailed video of a 2014 U.S. Senate primary debate Harris participated in, a link to an online voter guide Harris filled out for this year’s primary and two news stories — by the Washington Post and Reuters — about how Republicans want to cut entitlement programs to compensate for revenue losses from the recent tax cut.
The tax cuts and Freedom Caucus
The Republican tax cuts are projected to shorten the life expectancy of the programs, as PolitiFact has previously reported. The tax law trimmed a year of solvency from the primary Medicare trust fund and had a negative effect on the Social Security trust fund, PolitiFact reported in a fact check of President Donald Trump.
But it’s unfair for McCready to say that, because Harris supports the tax cuts, he by extension supports further cuts to Medicare. PolitiFact couldn’t find evidence that Harris has explicitly said he wants to cut Medicare, and McCready’s camp didn’t provide any.
As for the Freedom Caucus, Harris has said he’d join the conservative group. Mark Meadows, a Freedom Caucus leader, says on his website that "Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must be at the center of any serious proposal to return spending to sustainable levels."
However, Meadows adds, "I do not support seriously proposing radical changes to current or soon-to-be retirees’ benefits. But if we are to continue providing these safety-nets for Americans in need we must renegotiate expectations with younger Americans. This could include increasing the retirement age for those just starting their careers, raising or eliminating the cap on payroll taxes for higher wage earners and creating incentives for personal retirement and health care savings."
What has Harris said?
Now let’s look at the 2014 debate and the voter guide.
In the video of the debate, Harris sounds a lot like Meadows. Harris says everyone currently over 50 should be guaranteed that they will get Social Security when they retire, but younger people shouldn’t receive that same guarantee.
"There may be a way that we’re able to scale back for others that are under 50. I’ll soon be 48, and … my generation may very well be the big loser in Social Security, but we may be able to say that at least I took care of my parents and my grandparents with what I paid into it."
He continued: "I would rather, quite frankly, have you make the adjustment on me as a man about to turn 48, and free my children – age 25, 24, and 22 up – instead of continuing to tax them and put money into a system that they will never, ever see a dime out of it. So we’ve got to come up with a solution that will hit those generations and it’s got to be thoughtful and it’s got to be productive, but it is something that we can, we can work on and fix."
Harris’ response to iVoterGuide.com — completed for the Republican primary in this race — is similar. Harris wrote that Social Security is "in a death spiral" and "needs to be overhauled."
"However, we must honor our promises to existing retirees and those nearing retirement age keeping the current system in place for those folks," Harris wrote in the guide. "In order to sustain a system that resembles Social Security, the system will need to operate in a balanced manner meaning that individuals only receive what they pay in, supplemented if desired by a government budget that should be based not on the whims of political gain but economic sensibility."
McCready claimed Harris "has said he would cut Social Security and Medicare." PolitiFact couldn’t find an example of Harris describing a plan for changing Social Security and Medicare benefits for the people who get them now or stand to get them soon.
On Medicare, McCready has failed to prove that Harris said he wants to cut the program at all.
But on Social Security, it’s clear from his past and recent statements that his hopes for reform include changes that would limit future government payouts. Harris has used the word "overhaul" and said he’s open to scaling back Social Security for people under 50. However, he’s consistently said his desired reforms wouldn’t affect people who are in the program or stand to benefit from it in the next decade or so.
We rate this claim Half True.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide.