BRAINERD, Minn. - Ironically, it wasn't even an issue on the dockett.
At about the midpoint of the 8th Congressional District debate at Madden's Resort Monday, Oct. 8, Democratic candidate Joe Radinovich and GOP candidate Pete Stauber were discussing education-particularly, special education and the government's legal obligation to fund it.
Needless to say, special education funding got lost in the rearview mirror real quick. Radinovich challenged Stauber from a different angle-namely, earned entitlement programs including Social Security and Medicare-and Stauber argued back in turn.
The conversation went off the rails-first off-topic, then off the debate format altogether. The audience got involved and, briefly, both Radinovich, Stauber and seemingly half the room's occupants were loudly talking over each other.
And that was it-a flash in the pan, the most animated moment in an animated debate. Let's break down why it's important.
At the time, Stauber questioned the status of the special education cross-subsidy-which is, essentially, school districts picking up the slack in terms of funding these kinds of programs. Currently, the federal government is mandated to cover 40 percent of costs, while it rarely foots more than 18 percent of the bill.
While Stauber posed it as an example of federal government not fulfilling its promises, Radinovich took the discussion and steered it in a different direction.
"We just passed a tax giveaway where 80 percent of the benefit is gonna go to the top 1 percent of income earners and it's going to increase our deficit. It's actually double our deficit to debt ratio in the next couple years," Radinovich said at the time. "And the administration is calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, so where are we going to get the money to pay for this special ed cross-subsidy?"
"This administration will not cut Medicare and will not cut Social Security-promises made, promises kept," Stauber responded. "Hard-working families, hard-working seniors in this state have worked all their lives. This nation made a promise to them-promises made, promises kept."
The issue then bled into the next segment, temporarily putting foreign policy and North Korea on the back burner.
"If I look awestruck, I can't let this go-it's because the president's own administration and the Republican speaker of the house both said that we need to cut Social Security and Medicare to balance the budget in order to finance the deficit," Radinovich said, raising his voice above shouts from both his and Stauber's supporters. "They absolutely said it, Pete, they absolutely said it. You cannot have your own facts."
"That's not true. Absolutely not true, absolutely not true," Stauber responded amid the ensuing back and forth chatter from the audience. "That's absolutely not true, I won't stand for that. That's not true. Not true."
Checking the record
Scale backs on spending for "large entitlements" or earned entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have not only been broached by Republican heads in the past, it's been enacted into law.
In June, House Republicans proposed a $537 billion cut to Medicare over 10 years, and President Donald Trump's 2019 budget draft calls for a $15.3 billion reduction in Medicare funding in the first year alone. Included in the 2016 GOP tax bill was a $200 billion reduction in mandatory spending for entitlement programs.
In terms of entitlement reform, Republican leadership has been documented with video and/or audio publicly proposing spending cuts for Social Security and Medicare.
On Dec. 6, 2017, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan-appearing on Wisconsin talk radio show 630-KHOW-indicated entitlement reform posed as a central issue in balancing the budget.
"We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," Ryan said. "... Frankly, it's the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements-because that's really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking."
In a sit-down with CNBC's John Harwood on Aug. 16, Steve Stiver-the congressman from Ohio and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee-identified cuts in federal spending as part of the larger earned entitlements discussion.
"I do think we need to deal with some of our spending. We've got to try to figure out how to spend less," Stiver told CNBC.
And Larry Kudlow-the director of the National Economic Council-echoed Stiver's comments during a talk Sept. 16 at the Economic Club of New York. Kudlow identified Obamacare as a focal point, while then pointing to "larger entitlements" like Social Security and Medicare as drags on the U.S. fiscal budget.
"I don't want to be specific, I don't want to get ahead of our own budgeting, but we'll get there," Kudlow said. "But I agree, we have to be tougher on spending."
During a phone interview Wednesday, Oct. 10, with the Dispatch, Stauber said his perspective of the exchange was that Radinovich was mischaracterizing his support for protecting Medicare and Social Security.
When asked how his statements during the debate stood in comparison to GOP legislation and prior statements by Ryan, Stiver and Kudlow, Stauber said it wasn't his place to speak for them, especially in a retroactive sense.
"You're going to have to ask those speakers," said Stauber, who iterated at multiple points of the interview that he wasn't in the position-particularly as an unelected candidate-to speak for the Republican leadership. Later, in reference to Kudlow, he said: "You'll have to ask him, I haven't seen the interview. I can't speak for Larry Kudlow."
These comments stand in stark contrast to his statements during the debate at Madden's Resort, as well as during Wednesday's interview with the Dispatch-contradicting positions Stauber expressed, that he couldn't speak for Republican heads like Ryan, Stiver and Kudlow, but could make promises in the name of the Republican Party when arguing his position.
"No cuts to Social Security and Medicare," Stauber said. "This is the fourth time in the conversation, fourth time I've told you-the Republicans will not cut Social Security or Medicare, we will preserve and strengthen them."
During a phone interview Thursday, Oct. 11, Radinovich said he didn't buy into notions Stauber is an independent legislator willing to buck the party line on entitlement reform.
"(Social Security and Medicare) need to be protected going forward and they don't need the reforms advocated by Paul Ryan and Larry Kudlow, that-by almost every interpretation-would involve cuts to benefits over the course of time," Radinovich said. "I think it's disingenuous of Pete Stauber to deny that he's like every other Republican or like nearly every other Republican in the national leadership."
Radinovich criticized what he deemed Stauber's double-standard on fiscal responsibility-describing it as "Disingenuous at best, at worst deceitful"- stating while Stauber is quick to point out prior deficits and cost-burdens of policies he doesn't agree with, he turns a blind eye to the $1.5 trillion shortfall incurred by the 2016 GOP tax cuts and its ramifications.
Both candidates said they oppose cuts to Social Security or Medicare, nor would either of them be in favor of raising the retirement age from 62.
"I will fight any Democrat or Republican that wants to cut Social Security or Medicare benefits to those seniors that earned them, deserve them and were promised them," Stauber said.
Why it matters
The status of Medicare and Social Security only looks to gain more gravity as a significant block of the population and workforce, the baby boomers, continues to age into the retirement demographic.
For a number of factors-primarily, the aging workforce, how the programs are structured and cuts to taxes that fed into earned entitlement programs-Social Security and Medicare are in tough financial straits.
According to the 2018 annual report by Medicare trustees, in its current trajectory the hospital insurance fund will be depleted by 2026 (three years earlier than previously anticipated), while the program's finances were downgraded (or, a negative assessment of the program's fiscal future, indicating decline).
At the same time, Social Security trustees announced this year the programs two trust funds will be depleted by 2034, and 2018 represents the first year since 1982 the program was forced to dip into trust funds in order to maintain its services.
For the state of Minnesota, 18.2 percent of residents and 91.2 percent of people aged 65 and older receive Social Security benefits-860,209 people, according to current tallies by the Social Security Administration. The benefits are earmarked primarily for retirees, but also go to the disabled, widowed spouses and children dependents.
On the other hand, more than 912,000 people, or about 1 in 6 Minnesotans, were enrolled in Medicare as recently as 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that analyzes health care trends and policies.
In the case of the Minnesota 8th Congressional District, this issue is especially relevant. According to the state's demographer's office, in the 8th District the median age is 43, making it the oldest congressional district in Minnesota. The district contains 182,767 people, or 27.4 percent of the district's total population, aged 60 or above.