Cuts by any other name


January 5, 2018

Over the holidays, Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, had an interesting op-ed published in the Washington Post.
His New Year’s resolution to journalists and others: When talking about changes to the programs that make up our country’s safety net, do not say “reform” when what many in Congress really mean is “cuts.”

That obfuscation (prevarication?) is but one example of fuzzy English House Speaker Paul Ryan and others routinely engage in. Bernstein writes:

I have a simple request to journalists, columnist, pundits, and others writing about forthcoming efforts of Republicans to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the anti-poverty programs that make up our safety net. Call such efforts “cuts.” Do not call them “reforms,” “changes,” “overhauls,” “fixes,” “reshaping,” “modernizing,” or any other euphemism that could easily be misconstrued. At least, do not do so without also clearly defining what they really are, which is cuts.

While D.C. insiders speak the unique creole of our swamp, there’s no reason to expect general readers to intuitively understand that when House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) says he plans to “reform” entitlements, he means to cut them. Journalists, in particular, should not do Ryan et al.’s bidding by assuming readers get the meaning behind the words.

Bernstein cites examples.

Congressional Quarterly: “…the Wisconsin Republican has detailed an ambitious effort to dramatically reshape Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs that the GOP has long targeted as ripe for reforms.…Ryan has said he plans to use the budget reconciliation process for entitlement changes.

CNN: “The House GOP caucus plans to work on entitlement reform next year as a way to ‘tackle the debt and the deficit,’ according to House Speaker Paul Ryan. … Ryan also noted that, in addition to health care, the GOP plans to work on reforming the US welfare system.” (Bernstein notes that “the piece later cites Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) saying these reforms are really cuts, but why set this up as ‘he said, she said?’ Ryan is talking about cuts, plain and simple, but lacks to courage to say so. His position should not be accommodated.”

Politico: Bernstein notes that their article talks about Ryan’s “obsession” with “fixing” the “ballooning entitlement state” and “tinkering with the social safety net.” “Who could possibly be against ‘fixing’ something!” Bernstein says. “And ‘tinkering’ certainly sounds awfully benign, especially in contrast to Ryan and the Republican’s actual, articulated plans to significantly cut programs that help low-income households.”

There’s more. Bernstein talks about false canards members of Congress use when engaging in budget debates – for example, when some refer to a program as “unsustainable:”

“To say a program is unsustainable is almost always meaningless,” Bernstein writes. “Instead, what’s really being said here is that the politician is not willing to advocate for the resources necessary to meet the obligations of a program he disfavors, compared with one he likes. Medicare is unsustainable. Defense spending must go up.”

Bernstein’s points couldn’t be more timely, since both President Trump and Speaker Ryan have called for “welfare reform” and for imposing work requirements – aka cuts – in the new budgets they will recommend in February and March.  Advocates throughout the country are going to be busy in 2018 protecting human needs programs and the millions of Americans who need them to escape poverty or not fall through the safety net in the first place. One essential tactic is for us to follow Bernstein’s advice ourselves, and never fall into the trap of using the right wing’s misleading language.  We should talk about protecting basic needs programs or services, or stopping cuts to nutrition programs or Medicaid. None of that is “reform,” and we certainly shouldn’t call it that, and should call out policy-makers or the press when they use misleading language in the coming debates over budgets and spending priorities.

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