Tax Cuts, Entitlements, and Lousy Journalism

by Ramesh Ponnuru

According to a Newsweek headline, “REPUBLICANS WILL CUT SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE AFTER TAX PLAN PASSES, SAYS MARCO RUBIO.” Previously the headline had “IF” in place of “AFTER.” Nicole Goodkind’s lead: “Florida Senator Marco Rubio admits that the Republican tax cut plan to aid corporations and the wealthy will require cuts to Social Security and Medicare to pay for it.”

You can see what Rubio actually said at the 22-minute mark here. He says that entitlements need to be reformed. He does not say that entitlements need to be reformed only, primarily, or significantly because taxes are being cut. He does not link the two topics. He does not say anything close to Goodkind’s paraphrase. He does not say anything close to either version of Newsweek’s headline.

The New York Times followed up with a front-page story in its Sunday edition: “Next Objective: Cutting the Safety Net.” Kate Zernike and Alan Rappeport report,

As the tax cut legislation passed by the Senate early Saturday hurtles toward final approval, Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans are beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security.

The language is loaded, of course: The tax cut is “hurtling” like a runaway train, reform of entitlements would involve “undoing” them, etc. But there’s a bigger problem: Ryan has not been “vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security,” and neither have other Republicans.

The article provides no quote from Ryan in which he makes any such public vow, and his office confirmed to me that he has not said anything like that.

The article quotes Ryan saying that cutting spending is unfinished work, but saying nothing about “next year.” It also quotes Rubio’s remarks: the same ones Newsweek put at the center of its false story. “Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was more specific on Wednesday, telling business leaders that the tax cuts were just the first step; the next is to reshape Social Security and Medicare for future retirees.” Note that Rubio did not present entitlement reform as the “next step” in a Republican agenda, or suggest it would happen in 2018, or even use the words “next step.”

I wish Republicans were taking up entitlement reform, restructuring Social Security and Medicare to rein in their future growth while leaving the safety net in place for those who truly need it. Ryan and Rubio have both contributed worthwhile ideas in that effort. But neither of them is saying that we should expect rapid action or that passage of the tax cut is going to speed up the process. Reporters shouldn’t put words in their mouths.

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