Kevin Cramer, a Republican congressman from North Dakota running for U.S. Senate, voted in favor of the Republican tax plan that President Donald Trump signed into law — and Democrats are using its cost as political ammunition.
"Kevin Cramer’s vote increases the deficit by $1.9 trillion," the voiceover on a Cramer attack ad running in North Dakota says. "And now, Cramer says, they’ll have to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for it."
Did Cramer claim he would cut Social Security and Medicare in order to fund the tax plan?
His words were not so clear cut.
The Senate Majority PAC pointed to two interviews with Cramer two days before Trump signed the tax cuts into law.
A caller asked Cramer the following question on the Rob Report on Dec. 20, 2017: "It looks like the tax bill could result in a debt increase that could lead to cuts in Medicare and Social Security. Congressman Cramer, can you commit today to not cutting Social Security or Medicare in the future? Yes or no?"
Cramer responded, "Well, the two are not related at all. That’s been one of the scarier tactics of—"
"Well," the caller pressed, "if we have debt increase, they might rationalize that we have to cut Medicare and Social Security."
Cramer said the tax law would spur the economy and that the deficit was already an issue, but he added that reform to the social safety net was also necessary.
"We need to reform all of our programs, not just to make sure people keep them but to make sure they can be kept for the long haul because both Medicare and Social Security, as you talked about, are on a path to insolvency," Cramer said. "So we need to shore up both of them, not to cut them, we need to shore them up for the long haul."
Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense vice president, said Cramer has a point.
"With or without the revenue loss from the tax law, the major entitlement programs were on an unsustainable trajectory," Ellis said. "Changes or ‘cuts’ to Medicare and Social Security are not simply because of a $1.9 trillion deficit increase, which would ‘only’ be roughly $200 billion a year, when we’re looking at a total deficit of $800 billion this year and $1 trillion annual deficits soon."
This is a point Cramer has been making for years, before the tax law.
"Social Security ought to be preserved and made available as promised to seniors and soon-to-be seniors who have paid in with an expectation of receiving benefits," Cramer told the political website On the Issues on Oct. 30, 2012. "We should implement a program to reform and save it for future generations. Included in the reforms should be means testing, raising retirement age and allowing workers to invest more of their own money."
Cramer offered a slightly more clear plan for reform in order to make Medicare and Social Security more sustainable in another interview on Dec. 19, 2018, on Valley News Live’s "Point of View."
"Are you on board with this for entitlement reform in 2018? And if so, how specifically?" host Chris Berg asked.
"Well, we have to get after entitlement reform, Chris, because that’s the only way to get to the debt and deficit," Cramer said. "Over two-thirds of our budget is entitlements. If we don't deal with that, not only do we not deal with the debt if we don’t deal with it, but the entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are going to go broke. We can’t let them just go broke—"
"For clarity, sir, and again just for time’s sake, you’re saying, ‘Hey, yes, Chris, we do need to start doing reform, Social Security and Medicare," Berg asked.
"The first thing is we can’t do any harm to anybody that’s currently on those programs or near getting on those programs," Cramer said. "But for younger people I think we need to design programs, you know expand those programs, maybe do a little more means testing, maybe increase the age by a month or two for a while. The people at the 25-year-old generation might have a little different program than the people that are 75 today."
Cramer suggests vague changes to the way age and need for government assistance is determined, both of which Chris Hayden, spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC, told us qualify as "cuts" to Medicare and Social Security.
Vanessa Williamson, a governance fellow at Brookings with a focus on taxation, agreed with Hayden’s characterization.
"It seems clear to me that from these remarks that Mr. Cramer is calling for benefit cuts, both by means testing the programs (i.e. reducing or eliminating benefits for non-poor people) and by increasing the age at which you qualify," Williamson said.
Other experts said the phrasing gave Cramer more leeway.
Ellis said the word "cut" could be interpreted as an elimination, which Cramer did not suggest. But anything that reduces the cost of a program could be considered a cut, too, including improvements that bring about efficiency.
Annette Nellen, professor and director of the Master of Science in Taxation program at San Jose University, said retirees might interpret "cut" to be something that affects their monthly checks and non-retirees interpret it to mean less benefits when they retire, or doing so at a later age.
Cramer’s comments would not affect current retirees or people nearing retirement.
The Senate Majority PAC said, "And now, Cramer says, they’ll have to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for (tax cuts)."
Cramer said reform was necessary in order to make Medicare and Social Security solvent. Recently, he broadly suggested raising the eligibility age by "a month or two" and increasing means testing. Experts said they could be interpreted as calls for cuts.
But they don’t affect retirees or people nearing retirement, and were not accompanied by any concrete policy proposals. Also, the Democrats linked his position to the tax bill, but he has held that position for years.
We rate this claim Half True.