Americans United for Change is after Minnesota's most outspoken lawmaker, Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Comments made by the two-term Republican are the subject of a recent radio spot by the liberal group, which was founded in 2005 in opposition to former President George W. Bush's effort to privatize Social Security. The ad features a husband and wife discussing Bachmann and a proposal to "wean" people off Medicare and Social Security.
Wife: "Did you hear what that Michele Bachmann said this time?"
Husband: "No, what was it?"
Wife: "Congresswoman Bachmann actually said we should be 'weaned' off our Social Security and Medicare. She wants to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with some kind of voucher system that won’t even cover the full cost of medical care or prescriptions."
We wondered if the ad by Americans United for Change accurately portrays Bachmann's positions.
The first part of the statement -- that Bachmann said she wanted to wean people off the two entitlement programs -- is easy to find. At the Constitutional Coalition conference in St. Louis the weekend of Feb. 5, 2010, Bachmann told a group of attendees, including a reporter from the liberal blog Think Progress, that serious cost-cutting measures to Social Security and Medicare would be necessary to reduce the deficit. Those already collecting benefits should remain in the program, she suggested.
To lower the deficit, Bachmann said that the government must reorganize Social Security and Medicare. "What you have to do, is keep faith with the people that are already in the system, that don’t have any other options, we have to keep faith with them. But basically what we have to do is wean everybody else off. And wean everybody off because we have to take those unfunded net liabilities off our bank sheet."
So the Americans United for Change ad is correct that Bachmann said that people should be weaned off the entitlement programs.
But in her comments, Bachmann did not say anything about trying to privatize Social Security or replacing Medicare with a voucher system.
Via e-mail, Bachmann's spokesman Dave Dziok told us that he has "no clue where they got the voucher comment from and she’s never once used the word privatize -- not in her initial comments in St. Louis, and not in subsequent interviews or statements. Furthermore, she never stated that she wants to eliminate these programs all together, but that younger generations should have other options in the way these programs are administered. While her critics are certainly doing their best to put words in her mouth, I don’t see how they can factually back it up."
Dziok said that Bachmann has not offered specific legislation on Social Security and Medicare reform.
So we asked Jeremy Funk, communications director for Americans United for Change, for sourcing on the second part of the group's claim. He sent us a list of links to stories about Bachmann's comments, including one to an interview with the congresswoman in the St. Cloud Times, a Minnesota newspaper. Bachmann was asked what she thinks should be done about the rising cost of Social Security and Medicare, and here's what she said:
"What we know right now (is) that going forward, Social Security and Medicare will be bankrupt and they will be broke. ... We have to take up the issue and we need to address it. There are a number of proposals on the table. One, my colleague from Wisconsin Paul Ryan has a proposal. I have taken a look at that. I am open to a number of different ideas. The one thing we do know, the current system isn’t sustainable. The system is going to be dead broke by 2017."
So, Bachmann didn't endorse any specific plan or idea, but indicated that she's open to proposals, perhaps including Ryan's.
Ryan, who is the top Republican on the House Budget committee, has been touting his "Roadmap for America's Future," a budget proposal meant to reduce the deficit by changing Social Security, Medicare and tax policy, among other things. Specifically, it would reduce federal Social Security benefits for those who are 55 or younger in 2011, and supplement the reduction with private accounts. Under Medicare, the elderly would be given vouchers to buy private insurance.
His proposal (H.R. 4529) has made waves, mostly for two reasons.
First, in its analysis, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that Ryan's proposal would eventually balance the budget. By 2080, it would generate a surplus equal to about 5 percent of GDP, according to the CBO. But that prediction has come under fire from tax experts because the CBO assumes that the revenue portion of Ryan’s plan will generate the equivalent of 19 percent of the GDP in taxes -- an optimistic assumption.
And importantly for this analysis, the CBO predicts that the value of Ryan's Medicare vouchers would not keep pace with the cost of health care. Although the program would begin in 2021, the value of those vouchers would be pegged to 2010 dollars.
"According to CBO’s estimates, that average growth rate would be 2.7 percent over the long term," the CBO report says. "In comparison, CBO projects, nominal per capita GDP will grow at an average rate of 3.4 percent annually over the next 75 years, implying that the value of the Medicare voucher would grow 0.7 percentage points more slowly."
In plain English, that means medical expenses will grow faster than the vouchers. So the vouchers will buy less medical care as time goes by, say opponents.
Ryan responded to the criticism, saying that, "Yes, Medicare costs will grow more slowly under the Roadmap than they would otherwise. ... That’s the point. Even the president acknowledges that, absent reform, Medicare will go bankrupt. ... After the program goes bankrupt, it will drag down the entire federal budget and U.S. economy."
But back to the claim made by Americans United for Change. The group said that Bachmann wants to wean people off Medicare and Social Security, which is true. But the group is exaggerating in the second part of its claim that Bachmann wants to "privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with some kind of voucher system that won’t even cover the full cost of medical care or prescriptions." To date, Bachmann has no specific proposal for how she would like to overhaul the two entitlement programs. Rather, she mentioned a separate proposal made by fellow Republican Paul Ryan, though she's made no commitments to his -- or anyone else's -- plan. As a result, we find the Americans United for Change claim Half True.