Sen. Cramer says it's time to 'have that adult conversation' about Social Security, other services
Comments draw a rebuke from North Dakota Democrats.
As Congress marshals trillions of dollars to fight the economic damages of the coronavirus – from personal checks to beefed-up unemployment benefits to payroll-backing loans – the bill is starting to add up.
And, slowly, the question of what happens when the virus fades into history is creeping into the national conversation.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is among the earliest members of Congress to dive into the issue. During an appearance on CNBC earlier this week, Cramer said he thinks “it should all be on the table” when it comes to a discussion about the national debt.
“I may have my preferences,” he said. “I may prefer one side or another, whether it's tax
increases or cuts in services. … (But) we have to have the discussion.
“... (But) so many in the political arena don't want to talk about it, because they know when you start talking about the insolvency of Social Security or Medicare, or the funding for Medicaid, it becomes very difficult at reelection time,” he continued “We just have to be willing to bite that bullet and have that adult conversation that a lot of us have been trying to have for a long time."
The comments drew a rebuke from North Dakota Democrats. In a statement, Democratic-NPL chairwoman Kylie Oversen argued that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are vital services, especially for Americans living in rural areas.
“If Kevin Cramer has his way, his constituents will feel the impact more than most,” she said. “(He) has once again shown that he has no idea what real people are facing – his government paycheck and taxpayer-funded health care is secure no matter what.”
In an interview Friday with the Grand Forks Herald, Cramer stressed that his comments were meant to start a discussion on the budget without any off-limits topics. He raised the prospect of two changes to Social Security, too: raising the eligibility age slightly for young Americans, as well as bumping up the amount of earnings that can be taxed to fund it.
"The first place you have to start is acknowledging the realities that the Kylie Oversens of the world don't want to acknowledge,” Cramer said, arguing that Medicare is expected to begin struggling to cover costs for patients as soon as 2026.
The national debt has soared in recent years. Prior to the pandemic, The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget – a Washington, D.C.-based budget advocacy group – released a January report estimating that President Donald Trump had already signed $4.7 trillion of debt into law, expected to accrue between 2017 and 2029. Of that, $1.8 trillion comes from tax cuts passed in 2017.
Now, with debt mounting even further – and a shaky economy to boot – those figures are growing even more. Vicky Redwood, a senior economic adviser with Capital Economics, told CNN this week that many developed countries’ deficits will likely increase this year anywhere between 4% and 8% of GDP.
There’s hardly a peep of protest against the measures now being deployed against the coronavirus, though, given the deep damage to the economy stemming from the sudden fall-off in demand and mass layoffs that pandemic responses have spurred.
"The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented emergency that requires a major response from the federal government to fund health care needs, support small businesses, and help folks who are facing business closures and job losses,” Sen Tina Smith, D-Minn., said in a prepared statement. However, she, too, acknowledged rising debts: "After we get the pandemic under control and economic recovery underway, we must take action to improve our nation’s budget situation. It is important that our budget be fiscally responsible.”
Smith proposed Medicare negotiating drug prices, “eliminating wasteful or unnecessary programs,” though she did not name them directly, and pointed out the effect on the debt that the new 2017 tax law has had.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also said it’s important to “ensure we are being responsible with taxpayer money,” she rejected “cutting Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he supports a balanced budget amendment, though like Smith he offered few precise ways in which to accomplish lower spending.
“I believe the right way to tackle our debt and deficit is to find ways to hold the line on spending, and with economic growth we’ll be able to get the debt and deficit under control,” he said.
The office of Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., did not respond to for comment prior to the Herald’s deadline.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., put the onus of debt relief on the administration.
“It's a good question. It's above my pay grade,” he said, insisting that “it’s not my job” to manage the debt – though he reiterated his support for Social Security and Medicare. “The administration doesn't care about it, and without leadership from them, nothing else is going to happen.”