WASHINGTON — Democrats are seizing on a report detailing a nearly dollar-for-dollar balance between two decades of tax cuts benefiting the wealthiest 1 percent and proposed GOP spending cuts to the nation’s social safety net programs.
It could provide new fuel to Democratic candidates just two weeks before the midterm elections and comes on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments last week about the need to overhaul entitlement programs in order to reduce the federal deficit.
Democrats on the congressional Joint Economic Committee issued the study, based on calculations by the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, late last week. It shows that the estimated $2 trillion cost of the Bush and Trump-era tax cuts through 2025 is the same amount Republicans have proposed cutting from Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Obamacare.
"It is a dollar-for-dollar transfer of benefits to those who need help the least paid for by those who need help the most," said Phil Schiliro, a Democrat who’s served in several government positions including as President Barack Obama’s legislative director.
While the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy is a nonpartisan think tank, it is aligned with Citizens for Tax Justice, which advocates for “tax fairness” and has been critical of tax cuts dating to the Reagan administration.
The report, called "Families & Seniors Foot the Bill for GOP Tax Cuts," includes state-by-state and district-by-district level data, and concludes that the average beneficiary from social safety net programs would stand to lose $1,500 a year under proposed cuts. And it comes as President Donald Trump is teasing another potential tax cut ahead of the midterm elections.
The House Budget Committee vote in June proposing $2 trillion in entitlement cuts got little attention, but the new report comes as Democrats are trying to short-circuit a surge in GOP enthusiasm around the midterms that could hinder their attempt to win back control of the House and, especially, the Senate.
It underscores a message that Democratic congressional candidates, like Danny O’Connor in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, have been trying to make in television advertising, stump speeches, press releases and polling memos.
Of all the issues polled by NBC News in September, entitlement cuts are uniquely unpopular, with 82 percent of Americans opposing cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for the tax cuts.
“There were people talking about this before, but when McConnell made his comments it made it even more relevant,” said Steve Wamhoff, director for federal tax policy and one of the report's authors.
A White House report estimates the deficit could spike to $1 trillion annually by 2020. "It’s very disturbing, and it’s driven by the three big entitlement programs that are very popular: Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid," McConnell said last week.
Senate Democratic leadership is now urging all vulnerable Democrats to seize on the link between the tax cuts and entitlements.
And it’s already come up in debates in the critical states of Missouri and North Dakota while Democrats in Arizona and Indiana Senate races have used the issue to attack their GOP counterparts.
In House races, Democrats are seizing on the issue in affluent areas like the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., as well as working-class Trump strongholds in the north (Maine’s 2nd Congressional District); the south (Arkansas’s 2nd District) as well as the industrial Midwest.
For instance, in central Ohio’s 12th District, which voted for Trump by 11 points, O’Connor is running an ad attacking incumbent Republican Troy Balderson for protecting "big corporations" by backing "their huge tax giveaway."
"Now the bill is due, and you’re going to pay for it. A two trillion dollar increase in the debt, left to future generations and deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits," the ad says.
At rallies on Saturday and Monday, both Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden and pressed the message.
"You guys paid for this," Biden said. "But what’s happening now, not a joke. Mark my words, if we don’t win back the House and Senate, they’re going to drastically cut Social Security."
It’s a message that proved potent in 2006, the last Democratic wave election, after then-President George W. Bush formed a commission to study privatizing Social Security.
It also marks a shift in messaging for a party that recognizes simply decrying "tax cuts for the rich" is a losing strategy without explaining its impact on the federal budget and individual households.
According to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the majority of the TV ads this cycle focusing on Social Security and Medicare cuts make a connection to the tax bill.
In the past few months, the House Majority and Senate Majority PACs, the major outside groups supporting Democratic congressional candidates, have cut numerous ads on health care and the tax cuts.
Due to the demographic pressure of the retirement of the baby boom generation, the nation would have to make changes to federal entitlements regardless of the tax cuts, said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Yet two decades' worth of unfunded tax cuts "hastens the timeframe and it increases the size of the (necessary) cuts," he said.
In a statement to NBC, House Budget Committee Republicans responded by saying the biggest threat to entitlements is a failure to address their looming funding crisis. "Rather than simply accepting failure, the House Republican budget suggests responsible reforms to save these essential programs for beneficiaries today and beneficiaries in the future," the statement said.
In December 2017, a month after approving a major tax cut plan, House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose political profile was in part defined by proposed changes to entitlement programs in a series of House budgets, also said entitlements should be the next priority.
"We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and deficit," Ryan said in an interview with radio talk show host Ross Kaminsky.
Republicans have signaled their concern over the issue of entitlement cuts this fall.
An internal study commissioned by the Republican National Committee and completed in September found "special attention should be paid to the messaging regarding Social Security and Medicare," and it says "most voters believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy."
Earlier this month, Trump himself placed an editorial in USA Today arguing that Democrats’ plan for "Medicare for All" would "take away benefits" from seniors. The nonpartisan FactCheck.Org found it contains several "false and misleading statements." And the president has been claiming, falsely, in rallies in critical Senate races like Montana that it’s Democrats who want to "destroy" Medicare and Social Security.
A number of Republicans have also tried to preempt the attacks by pointing a finger at Democrats.
For instance, in California, an NRCC ad in southern New Mexico warns the Democratic candidate, Xochitl Torres Small, would support a government-run system "ending Medicare as we know it" and "raiding the trust fund."
Yet, according to polling, Democrats have a decisive advantage on health care. Among those voters who rank health care as a top issue, Democrats have an 18-point advantage, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
McConnell’s comments, say Democrats, just allowed them a final chance to break through with their messaging weeks before the election.
"I’m calling it the full McConnell," Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant who’s been developing ads on the tax cuts and entitlement cuts and says McConnell’s comments are helping Democrats.
"It should be declared an in-kind contribution to Democrats on the Federal Election Commission" reports, he said.