FactCheck.org - Annenberg Political Fact Check
FactCheck HomeAbout UsArchivePrivacy PolicyCopyright PolicyContact Us

Tired Old Trust Fund Bunk

Democratic ads attack Republicans for voting to "raid the Social Security Trust Fund." That's nonsense.

October 25, 2006

Modified: October 25, 2006

eMail eMail to a friend Print Printer Friendly Version

Summary

Democrats get no points for originality on this one, and demerits for lack of honesty. In half a dozen ads they accuse a number of GOP House incumbents of voting repeatedly to "raid the Social Security Trust Fund."

That line was bunk when Republicans used it against Democratic candidates in the past, and it's bunk now. One leading Social Security expert called it "nonsense" as far back as 1999, and that still holds.

The ads refer to votes that don't directly affect Social Security at all. They turn out to be votes in favor of annual budget resolutions setting targets for revenue and appropriations. Current Social Security benefits aren't affected, and the trust fund builds up binding IOUs just the same whether the overall budget is in deficit, balanced or in surplus.

Analysis

Typical of these latest ads is one released Oct. 21 against Republican Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It uses an inflammatory but misleading phrase that both parties have used in the past.

DCCC Ad:
Time?

Announcer: If you were in Congress, would you vote to raid the Social Security trust fund? Steve Chabot did, eight times. If you were in Congress, would you vote for billions in giveaways to big oil and the health insurance industry? Steve Chabot did. In fact, instead of representing us, Chabot voted with George Bush 92% of the time, and that's why it's time for a change. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

This ad asks, "If you were in Congress, would you vote to raid the Social Security trust fund? Steve Chabot did, eight times."

Similar ads by the DCCC or individual Democratic House challengers have run against Republican Reps. Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania (3 ads), Cathy McMorris of Washington state, Charles Taylor of North Carolina and former Congressman Max Burns of Georgia, who is seeking to return to his old seat.

"Nonsense"

The Chabot ad cites eight votes which turn out to be for budget resolutions setting revenue and spending targets for fiscal years 2003 through 2007. There is some double-counting involved for the 2004 and 2005 resolutions, which Chabot voted for twice, first for a House version and later for a Senate-House compromise version. All the resolutions called for big deficits. They contained levels of federal spending that consumed all the available federal tax revenue including any surplus from the income from the Social Security payroll tax, and then some.

Nevertheless, characterizing those as votes in favor of a "raid on the Social Security trust fund" is misleading. The trust fund (actually two of them, one for Social Security's retirement program and another for the program that aids disabled workers) is not affected by whether the overall budget is in deficit, balanced, or in surplus.

That's why, in 1999, a liberal scholar and ardent defender of the current Social Security system, Henry J. Aaron of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, wrote  that nearly identical attacks then being made by Republicans were "nonsense."

Henry J. Aaron, 1999: The truth is that the budget debate has nothing to do with Social Security.The budget debate is about spending in agencies other than Social Security and revenues other than Social Security taxes. . . . Whatever Congress decides regarding spending of other agencies, revenues flowing into and outlays flowing from the Social Security trust fund will be virtually the same.

Well-aged hokum

Aaron isn't the only observer to object. This ripe old hokum actually has been exposed repeatedly over the years.

  • Also in 1999, the Charlotte Observer reported that the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee was running TV ads against eight Democratic House members, accusing them of trying to "raid" Social Security trust funds to pay for "big government" programs. The Observer reported flatly: "The ads are not true. The trust funds don't work that way."
  • In 2000 the Missouri Democratic Party attacked then-Sen. John Ashcroft with an ad saying tax cuts he supported would "raid the Social Security trust fund." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said that ad was "laced with lots of partisan spin and misleading implications."
  • In 2002 the National Republican Congressional Committee ran an ad that matched the current Democratic spots nearly word for word. The NRCC said Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman of Florida "voted to raid the Social Security trust fund. Eight times." The St. Petersburg Times said that ad "pushes the boundaries in the truth department," adding,  "Thurman's eight votes to 'raid' Social Security actually are not specifically about Social Security at all. They were votes for budget resolutions, or proposed budget amendments, that set spending and revenue levels for all aspects of government."

But no matter how often this tired old line is exposed as false, nothing seems to deter political party functionaries from inflicting it on voters, again and again.

-by Brooks Jackson

Sources

Social Security Administration, "Trust Fund FAQs ," web page, updated 1 March 2006.

Henry J. Aaron, "Great Pretenders ," The Washington Post , 8 Nov 1999: A21.

Robert A. Rankin, "Rhetoric Just That on Social Security: Neither Party's Plan Would Affect Benefits," Charlotte Observer (North Carolina), 30 Oct 1999.

Jo Mannies, "Post-Dispatch Ad Check" St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 13 July 2000.

Jeffrey S. Solochek, "Spot Check," St. Petersburg Times, 15 October 2002.