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Congressman Zinke Votes to Slash Pell Grants and End Medicare As We Know It

In news that has somehow escaped the attention of the Montana press, new Congressman Ryan Zinke voted last week for a Republican House budget framework that Paul Waldman, a senior writer at The American Prospect called “a virtual war on the poor and middle class.” As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the House budget “derives more than two-thirds of its non-defense budget cuts from programs for people with low or modest incomes even though these programs constitute less than one-quarter of federal program costs.” In short, he voted for significant cuts to programs that middle and working class Montanans rely on.

Sure, the House budget is an intellectually dishonest exercise in partisanship that, for illogical example, counts savings from both the tax revenue generated by the Affordable Care Act and imaginary savings from ending it, but Zinke’s vote demonstrates clearly that his loyalties don’t lie with Montanans who rely on federal programs for education and health care, but the reactionary cabal running the Republican Party.

Education Programs

The cuts in education programs are especially damaging. As US News and World Report notes, the House budget not only freezes Pell Grant funding for ten years, but it cuts subsidies for Stafford Loans and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

David Reich, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that the Republican plan will reduce grant levels and the number of students receiving grants:

This measure would create an immediate funding shortfall for Pell Grants that would have to be made up in annual appropriations, Reich said, likely forcing Congress to scale back the scope of the grant program. “Would they result in reduced eligibility, fewer students receiving Pell Grants, or would they come from reduced grant levels?” Reich said. “Probably both.”

That Zinke voted to cut Pell Grants comes as no surprise, given his rhetoric during the campaign, when he simultaneously said he supported and wanted to cut the program in news reports. His cynical vote to hurt Montana students is especially egregious, given that he told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle he relied on the program to pay for school himself.

Medicare and Medicaid

The budget framework also turns Medicare into a voucher program, because somehow the free market will solve health care costs without reducing medical care for seniors, a claim that is nonsensical on its face—and entirely unsupported in the House budget. Back in 2012, Paul Krugman explained that the Medicare voucher scheme is nothing more than a health care rationing scheme that made Sarah Palin’s imaginary “death panels” something to really fear, writing “so instead of making choices, we’ll let people die because of inadequate assets.”

And, of course, Zinke told Montana voters back in October that he didn’t support turning Medicare into a voucher program, but in his first chance to vote on the idea, he supported it.

The budget would also end the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which, as we all know, would provide health care coverage to 70,000 Montanans if the Legislature got its act together.

Food Assistance

Another program targeted in the House Budget will warm the space where Art Wittich’s heart used to be: the SNAP program, which provides food assistance for needy families. SNAP, despite being a target of Republican ire, does one thing very well: it lifts people out of poverty, some 4.8 million people in 2013 alone.

Disease Research

Remember when Congressman Zinke showed how much he cared about treatment for ALS by pouring ice water over his head in a campaign stunt? Apparently, he also wants to pour cold water over the hopes of people who believe the federal government should research debilitating and deadly diseases. As Inside Higher Ed notes, the budget will substantially hurt efforts to combat disease:

But it does propose slashing the overall pool of funding that Congress allocates each year across domestic programs, including research, by $759 billion over the next decade. Those cuts would “significantly impede our ability to advance science and combat disease,” said United for Medical Research, a coalition of groups that advocate for more federal funding for research.

Increase Military Spending

Despite all those cuts in the social safety net, education, and research programs, the House budget blows past the 2011 sequester cap and adds billions to the defense budget in a what Steve Ellis, a budget analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense calls “an insult to the intelligence of the American taxpayers. “They’re going to have this whole extra slush fund – now slushier than ever – for Pentagon spending.”

Health care? Education? Research? All necessary sacrifices to the false god of fiscal “responsibility,” but unneeded weapons programs and military adventurism? Sacrosanct.

The Tester Alternative

Unlike Congressman Zinke, Senator Tester gets that our budget should reflect the values and priorities of the general welfare of the nation. In his op-ed in the Bozeman Chronicle, he writes:

Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of middle-class families, seniors, students and our nation’s most vulnerable, we need to fully invest in our roads and bridges, in our outdoor economy, in early childhood and higher education.

Republicans used to believe in government support for infrastructure, in taking care of the elderly, and in providing the opportunity for a college education to students who might otherwise not have the chance to attend school and improve their lives. Fueled by a mixture of Fox News propaganda and self-interested Randian thought that often leads to members of Congress forgetting how they benefited from government assistance, the Republican Party and Congressman Zinke seem committed to budgets that make the moral statement that our country is every person for himself, unless that person happens to be a corporation or military contractor.

And that cannot be tolerated, nor can ignoring his votes. If Congressman Zinke won’t make the interests of the people in his state a priority, perhaps the Montana press can make it a priority to cover his actual votes in the future.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • Says it all: ” . . . Montanans who rely on federal programs for education and health care . . . ” We are no longer independent individuals who take care of ourselves. We need Big Daddy, and we need Other People to pay for us. Also interesting is the comment that free market health care causes rationing and ‘death panels.’ You got this completely backwards. Everything that is left to the free market is better quality, cheaper, and more accessible. HEalth care would be, too.

  • Rep. Tom Burnett is the one who has the biggest issue with SNAP and is always writing LTE’s to the Chronicle and Belgrade News about how people are wasting taxpayer money on Mountain Dew and Doritos.

  • Vote this jerk out. I EARNED every contribution tax I paid into both Medicare & Social Security. And now when I need them most, this jerk, & his republican buddies want to STEAL, YES STEAL Medicare from all of us who paid into it our entire working lives. VOTE ZINKE OUT!!!!!!

  • There is no liberal bias here is there? People should remember that both sides are wrong and both sides are right.
    Ryan Zinke is taking some steps in the right direction but some in the wrong. Much of the Montana’s “Benefit” system is seriously flawed and needs to be fixed.
    I especially like the cuts to the grant funding and hope more will come. I paid my way through school, did not get a free ride, and was not a trust fund baby.
    Because of that I appreciate my education and have put more effort in to it.
    It is not some free ride like some people would have it. We need to quit pampering everyone and let people know what it means to put effort into something. I know too many people who have no appreciation for anything because they were spoon fed. They need to know what it is to work for something. I know, this is not the “progressive” way as if progressive is supposed to be a good thing.
    Medicare NEEDS to quit destroying America. It does nothing to fix the problem, it only throws money at it. If you don’t understand how Medicare does its billing than please don’t say that it is a good thing. Do some research on how many things it has shut down. The government is saying that they are paying less on health insurance: If I refuse to pay my electric bill one month, I AM paying less on electric. People, if you don’t get how Medicare is driving the cost of healthcare up, do some research. If you talk to a smaller business that accepts Medicare you will get a better idea of how messed up things are.
    I do agree that we need military and defense but, there is a point in which too heavy in an area is unrealistic. We need better management and NOT more money, that is the problem with all of the prior items, the officials keep throwing money at the problem and NOT fixing it.
    It all you want to do is milk the teat of the government, move to another country. If you paid into the programs and want your money back, don’t plan on it. Greed is growing in the country along with the entitlement that so many have. If you don’t believe that, go to one of the major college towns in the state and look at the lack of respect given to others.
    We need to continue to voice our opinions to these elected officials and not just on a pretty well biased webpage.
    Please remember to write, call, and email your officials as “Inaction today will lead to complacency and submission tomorrow”.

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