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Shawn Vestal: McMorris Rodgers’ vow against Social Security and Medicare cuts rings hollow

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, right, and Lisa Brown, her Democratic challenger, exchange glances following their debate Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, in Spokane. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

It was a frankly astonishing thing for Cathy McMorris Rodgers to say.

“The debt is a big, um, a big threat to this country, and we need to take action there,” she said last week during a debate with challenger Lisa Brown.

It was astonishing not that she would believe it, but that she would admit it in that forum – given the fact that the debt now stands at a post-World War II record thanks to the tax cuts passed by McMorris Rodgers and the rest of Congress.

It’s an, um, bigger threat now.

If McMorris Rodgers was awkwardly truthful in that moment, she has been decidedly slippery about what she intends to do about this threat. Part of that involves the most vigorous sleight of hand, to my eyes, in the race so far: her insistent denials that she would ever, ever, ever support cutting Social Security or Medicare.

“I believe we need to strengthen Medicare,” she said at the debate. “I don’t believe in cutting Medicare or Social Security, despite what some have said. I believe we need to strengthen it.”

Days earlier, her Twitter account was ablaze with a thread defiantly insisting: “I do NOT support cuts to Medicare or Social Security.”

The congresswoman protests too much. Not only is it utterly credible to believe she might vote for such cuts – which would certainly be, like last year’s failed Trumpcare effort, swaddled in claims that the cuts are not cuts – but she’s already voted to do so. More than once.

She did it in 2005, her first year in office, when she voted for the Bush budget. That included cuts to Medicare of $26.1 billion over 10 years, and a range of changes that the Kaiser Family Foundation said “would shift costs to beneficiaries and have the effect of limiting health care coverage and access to services for low-income beneficiaries.”

In 2012, McMorris Rodgers voted for the so-called Ryan budget. That House budget was, like the umpteen-billion “repeals” of Obamacare that McMorris Rodgers also voted for, more conservative wish list than real legislation. And it would have heaped significantly more costs onto Medicare recipients.

It would have replaced Medicare’s guarantee of coverage with a voucher system for private insurance. It would have tied Medicare enrollment growth to the GDP – a bizarre measure directly reflecting a priority of cuts over care. It would have raised the age of retirement eligibility.

At the time, the Congressional Budget Office projected an ever-worsening situation for Medicare recipients if the Ryan budget were to take effect: federal spending on the average new beneficiary would have dropped by 6 percent to 11 percent in 2023; by 14 percent to 23 percent by 2030; and by 35 percent to 42 percent by 2050.

Whether or not such steps are necessary is one question.

Whether they would be cuts, though, is not.

“The plan also would likely lead to the gradual demise of traditional Medicare by making its pool of beneficiaries smaller, older, and sicker – and increasingly costly to cover,” the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded.

That budget did not touch Social Security directly, but it directed committees to come up with solutions for improving its long-term sustainability. A couple of years before, in another one of Ryan’s dream budgets, he had proposed even larger cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And just this year, the president proposed a budget that would have cut more than $22 billion from Medicare and Medicaid in its first year.

The economics columnist Robert Samuelson, who has called for years for cuts in Social Security and Medicaid, has often written about the failures of forthrightness on these issues – failures, particularly, of those who believe in the necessity of such cuts but nevertheless refuse to speak frankly about that necessity.

“There is a consensus against candor,” he wrote way back in 2007, “because there is no constituency for candor.”

Failures of candor are the flavor of the season, of course, and not just for McMorris Rodgers. Brown has assiduously avoided certain topics – repeatedly dodging direct responses on Medicare-for-all and gun control to avoid, presumably, being painted into a liberal corner, and responding primarily with silence to the red-baiting attacks on her days as a grad student – and she has not led a rally to take on the rising costs of these programs with concrete measures that might be bitter pills for voters to swallow.

But on this topic, in this race, McMorris Rodgers is setting the pace for diversionary verbal dexterity.

She leans hard on the present tense: “There are no proposed cuts to …” she says – a way of implying the current legislative situation is the overall party philosophy.

She parses: In 2014, she said she opposed “cuts to Social Security for those who are currently on the program” while supporting a privatization option and raising the retirement age for younger people. Such steps may be necessary, but take one thing to the bank: They will be intended to cut spending.

She plays loose with fact-checks: A recent tweetstorm linked to a fact check that concluded Democratic claims that the GOP wanted to “take away” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were false. The fact-check says the GOP isn’t trying to completely take the programs away. But it notes that there have been many Republican proposals to cut these programs, and that doing so is a specific goal of many in the party.

Which brings us back to the big threat of the big debt. Asked how she would address this threat, she had no concrete answer. She said the tax cuts would produce more tax revenue – the eternal faith in the trickle-down – to ease the deficit.

And then lawmakers will have to “go through the federal budget and set priorities and make some tough decisions.”

It’s possible, of course, that McMorris Rodgers and the House she helps lead have no designs whatsoever to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of those tough decisions to address the debt she just helped explode.

It’s possible that her past votes do not predict her future. It’s possible that all the people on the right who keep letting it slip that tackling entitlement reforms is the next step are just wrong.

It’s all possible, I suppose, if you adopt the widest possible view of the possible.

It’s an election year, after all.

Anything is possible.

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