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Did These GOP Politicians Propose or Endorse 'Sunsetting' Social Security and Medicare?

Rick Scott, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, Lindsay Graham, and Joni Ernst have each been the subject of viral memes about cuts to Social Security.

Published Feb. 9, 2023

 (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Image Via Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

By most accounts, the line from U.S. President Joe Biden's 2023 State of the Union Address that drew the most controversy was Biden's assertion that "Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset." Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene screamed "liar" at Biden, while Sen. Mike Lee was shown on video expressing outrage at the suggestion.  

Old video clips and past press statements — notably of Lee — soon went viral in meme form. Added to the list of "some Republicans" included in these memes, over time, were senators Rick Scott, Ron Johnson, Lindsay Graham, and Joni Ernst. 

In this article, Snopes explores each politician's statements or positions on "sunsetting" — letting a benefit program expire without automatic renewal — Social Security and Medicare. 

Sen. Rick Scott

At least one of the "some Republicans" Biden referred to was Scott of Florida. This is clear from Biden's prepared remarks, from which he deviated when he was interrupted. The full line would have been 

Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years.

Those final three words tie the statement to a proposal made as part of an "11-point plan" tied to Scott's 2020 Senate campaign and also to a current "12-point plan" pushed by a Scott-aligned super PAC, Rescue America. Point 6 on both lists reads, in part: 

All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.

Such a law could allow for Social Security and Medicare to "sunset" and would potentially allow their funding to be used as leverage in budget negotiations, as Biden alleged. 

Sen. Mike Lee

After the 2023 State of the Union address, a clip went viral that juxtaposed Lee's outrage at the suggestion some Republicans might have proposed sunsetting benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare with an example of him allegedly proposing to do that:

The comparison video, according to Newsweek, dates back to a 2010 campaign event in Cache Valley, Utah, filmed when Lee was first running for U.S. Congress. In that video he is shown telling a crowd that: 

It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up from the roots and get rid of it. People who advise me politically always tell me it's dangerous and I tell them, 'In that case it's not worth my running.' That's why I'm doing this, to get rid of that. Medicare and Medicaid are of the same sort, they need to be pulled up.

This statement expresses support, broadly defined, for "sunsetting" Social Security and other public welfare programs.    

Sen. Ron Johnson 

Johnson of Wisconsin comes up as an example of a Republican open, at least implicitly, to letting Social Security and Medicare expire. This comes from his past support for categorizing Social Security and Medicare as discretionary spending that would be subject to approval on an annual basis. The comments, reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, came during an August 2022 interview on "The Regular Joe Show," hosted by Joe Giganti:

"Defense spending has always been discretionary," Johnson said. "VA spending is discretionary. What's mandatory are things like Social Security and Medicare. If you qualify for the entitlement you just get it no matter what the cost. And our problem in this country is that more than 70 percent of our federal budget, of our federal spending, is all mandatory spending. It's on automatic pilot. It never ... you just don't do proper oversight. You don't get in there and fix the programs going bankrupt. It's just on automatic pilot.

"What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so that it's all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken that are going to be going bankrupt," he said.

The move, as reported by the Sentinel, "could upend guaranteed benefits relied upon by millions of Americans."

Sen. Lindsay Graham

Graham of South Carolina is often included in these memes because he has long championed "entitlement reform." Under this title, he has proposed several items that would, in effect, reduce the amount of money the government spends on services like Social Security and Medicare, including raising the age at which one can receive benefits:. 

As reported by MSNBC:

If Republicans regain control of the Senate following the midterms, [Graham] is laying the groundwork: "Entitlement reform is a must for us to not become Greece." He said he's open to tweaking the income cap and eligibility age for programs — and wants to bring in a bipartisan group to study the problems.

Graham has not proposed or endorsed measures that would literally allow for Social Security or Medicare to expire or require their annual approval in budget talks. 

Sen. Joni Ernst

The Iowa senator has also been included in memes about Republicans willing to sunset or remove Social Security because of her alleged willingness to make cuts to the program. Like Graham, Ernst has not directly proposed sunsetting the programs, but she did generate controversy when she proposed, in a video taken in 2019, that members of Congress sit down "behind closed doors" to discuss "maintaining Social Security in the future." 

Other House Republicans

Additionally, several other Republican members of the House of Representatives have endorsed a document produced by a group called the "Republican Study Committee" — described by Vanity Fair as the "House's largest Republican caucus" — that characterizes an amendment to the 2023 budget that would "sunset all regulations after three years" as a "common sense proposal." Those representatives (including state and district) were:

  • Rep. Jim Banks (IN-03) 
  • Rep. Kevin Hern (OK-01)
  • Rep. Roger Williams (Texas-25) 
  • Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01)
  • Rep. Ralph Norman (SC-05)  
  • Ron Estes (KS-04)
  • Rep. Michael Cloud (TX-27) 
  • Rep. Ben Cline (VA-06)
  • Rep. Byron Donalds (FL-19) 
  • Rep. Bob Good (VA-05)
  • Rep. Fred Keller (PA-12) 
  • Rep. Tom Tiffany (WI-07)
  • Rep. Ronny Jackson (Texas-13) 
  • Rep. Troy E. Nehls (Texas-22)
  • Rep. August Pfluger (Texas-11) 
  • Rep. Beth Van Duyne (Texas-24)

Sources

6. Government Reform & Debt - Rescue America. 3 Feb. 2022, https://rescueamerica.com/steps/6-government-reform-debt/.

Bickerton, James. "List of Republicans Who Have Suggested Cutting Medicare, Social Security." Newsweek, 8 Feb. 2023, https://www.newsweek.com/list-republicans-suggested-cutting-medicare-social-security-1779917.

"Lindsey Graham Sets His Sights on 'Entitlement Reform' (Again)." MSNBC.Com, https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/maddowblog/lindsey-graham-sets-sights-entitlement-reform-rcna33464. Accessed 9 Feb. 2023.

Nast, Condé. "Republicans Have Long Called for the Social Security and Medicare Cuts They Are Now Outraged By." Vanity Fair, 8 Feb. 2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2023/02/republicans-social-security-medicare-cuts.

"Remarks of President Joe Biden – State of the Union Address as Prepared for Delivery." The White House, 8 Feb. 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/02/07/remarks-of-president-joe-biden-state-of-the-union-address-as-prepared-for-delivery/.

"Ron Johnson Calls for Subjecting Medicare and Social Security to Annual Budget Talks." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/elections/2022/08/02/johnson-wants-medicare-social-security-discretionary-programs/10217972002/. Accessed 9 Feb. 2023.

RSC Blueprint to Save America. https://banks.house.gov/uploadedfiles/rsc_2023_budget_final_version.pdf.

Scott, Rick. An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America. https://www.politico.com/f/?id=0000017f-1cf5-d281-a7ff-3ffd5f4a0000.

Some Unhappy News about Medicare and Social Security. http://finance.yahoo.com/news/some-unhappy-news-about-medicare-and-social-security-132526040.html. Accessed 9 Feb. 2023.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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