“Republicans plan to end Social Security and Medicare if they take back the Senate.”
— Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), in a tweet, Sept. 25
When an election campaign enters its final weeks, year after year, both political parties rely on familiar themes to attack their opponents.
For Republicans, it’s crime and immigration. For Democrats, it’s Social Security and Medicare.
Murray, who has been in the Senate since 1993, is running against Republican Tiffany Smiley. Murray’s tweet is a succinct example of what we called “Mediscare” attacks — an effort to warn seniors that Republicans will take away their hard-earned benefits. Indeed, the rest of the tweet stated: “Washington seniors who have spent their lives paying into these programs deserve better — and I’ll keep fighting to make sure they get it.”
Don’t worry, seniors: There is no such plan.
When Social Security was established in 1935, most Republican lawmakers supported it — but more Republicans than Democrats opposed it. When Medicare was created in 1965, slightly more Republicans opposed the new program than supported it, in contrast to the broad support among Democrats.
Decades later, Democrats have never let Republicans forget this history. In campaign attacks, Democrats often conjure up nonexistent plans by Republicans to terminate or somehow undermine the programs. This tactic has certainly given us material to fact-check.
In 2014, for instance, House Democrats falsely accused then-congressional candidate Martha McSally of wanting to “privatize” Social Security, even though a more modest version of the idea by President George W. Bush years before could not even get a committee vote when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. And in the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden falsely claimed that President Donald Trump had a “plan” to deplete Social Security so benefits would run out in three years.
In that same campaign, Biden accused Trump of wanting to “slash Medicare benefits.” Not so. In fact, back in 2011, then-Vice President Biden accused House Republicans of proposing a plan “eliminating Medicare in the next 10 years.” That wasn’t true, either.
Now comes the latest iteration of this campaign attack. But it’s just as empty as the previous ones.
The main source of this accusation is a document issued by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the Senate. In February, Scott released a 60-page “11-point plan to rescue America” that offered 128 proposals.
Buried on Page 38, in a section on government restructuring, was one sentence: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
“Sunset” is inside-the-Beltway lingo. The Congressional Research Service offers this definition: “The sunset concept provides for programs and agencies to terminate automatically on a periodic basis unless explicitly renewed by law.” In theory, then, even a venerable program such as Social Security or Medicare would have to prove its worth all over again every five years, though neither was specifically mentioned.
Scott’s plan was almost immediately rejected by most Senate Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was especially harsh.
“We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half of the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years,” McConnell told reporters March 1. “That will not be part of a Republican Senate majority agenda.” (Scott also proposed requiring every American to pay some kind of tax, an idea that quickly found its way into Democratic attacks.)