Factchecking the first presidential debate of 2012
(This is an expanded version of material that originally appeared in the Oct. 4 print edition of The Washington Post.)
There they go again.
Both President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney tossed out a blizzard of statistics and facts, often of dubious origin. Here are some highlights from the first presidential debate of 2012, with thanks to the readers who tweeted suggestions to #FactCheckThis
“Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars”
— President Obama
“I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut”
— Governor Romney
How can both facts be true? The $5 trillion figure comes from the fact that Romney has proposed to cut tax rates by 20 percent and eliminate the estate tax and alternative minimum tax. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says that would reduce tax revenue by nearly $500 billion in 2015, or about $5 trillion over 10 years
But Romney also has said he will make his plan “revenue neutral” by eliminating tax loopholes and deductions, although he has not provided the details.
The Tax Policy Center has analyzed the specifics of Romney’s plan thus far released and concluded that the numbers aren’t there to make it revenue neutral.
In the debate, Romney countered that “six other studies” have found that not to be the case, but he’s wrong about that. Those studies actually do not provide much evidence that Romney’s proposal — as sketchy as it is — would be revenue neutral without making unrealistic assumptions.
Given the uncertainty, the Obama campaign has assumed the worst about Romney’s plan — that it would mean higher taxes for middle-class Americans — even though, as Romney stated, there is no chance he would try to implement such a plan as president.
“I’ve put forward a specific $4 trillion deficit reduction plan…. And the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for $1 of additional revenue…. That’s how the bipartisan commission that talked about how we should move forward suggested.”
Though Obama often claims that his deficit-reduction plan has the “balanced approach” of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission proposal offered by the co-chairmen, the Simpson-Bowles plan is actually quite different. (The commission failed to reach a consensus.)
For instance, Simpson-Bowles envisioned $4 trillion in debt reduction over nine years; the president’s plan would spread the cuts over 10 years. A good chunk of the savings from deficit reduction piles up in that last year. When the two plans are compared apples to apples, Simpson-Bowles yields about $6.6 trillion in deficit reduction — 50 percent more than Obama’s plan. (For a detailed look at the Simpson-Bowles, here is a link to a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)
By Obama’s math, you have nearly $3.8 trillion in spending cuts, compared to $1.5 trillion in tax increases (letting the Bush tax cuts expire for high-income Americans). That’s how he claims $1 of tax increases for every $2.50 of spending cuts.
But virtually no serious budget analyst agreed with this 1:2.5 accounting. Obama’s $4 trillion figure, for instance, includes counting some $1 trillion in cuts reached a year ago in budget negotiations with Congress. So no matter who is the president, the savings are already in the bank.
The Obama campaign notes that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the president’s budget would reduce the deficit by $3.5 trillion over 10 years against “an alternative fiscal scenario;” otherwise, CBO says the president’s budget increases deficits. The national debt, as a percentage of the gross domestic product, would rise from 73 percent to 76 percent in that period, for instance. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also pegs the administration’s deficit reduction as $3.8 trillion, but says the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases is 1 to 1.
“It’s important for us ... that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America.”
This is fantasy money. The administration is counting $848 billion in phantom savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the administration had long made clear those wars would end.
In other words, by projecting war spending far in the future, the administration is able to claim credit for saving money it never intended to spend. And Obama would still be borrowing the money to “rebuild America” (Imagine someone borrowing $50,000 a year for college — and then declaring that they have an extra $500,000 to spend over the next decade once they graduate.)
This budget trick actually works both ways. The Bush administration never properly accounted for war spending, refusing to project costs in the future, which kept its deficit projections artificially low. Now that the wars are winding down, the Obama administration is happy to project costs far into the future, because it artificially inflates the potential deficit reduction. Funny how that works.
“On Medicare, for current retirees, he’s cutting $716 billion from the program…. The idea of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to be able to balance the additional cost of Obamacare is, in my opinion, a mistake.”
Romney accused Obama of taking $716 billion from Medicare. This $700 billion figure comes from the difference over 10 years (2013-2022) between anticipated Medicare spending (what is known as “the baseline”) and the changes that the law makes to reduce spending.
Under the health-care law, spending does not decrease in Medicare year after year; the reduction is from anticipated levels of spending in future years. In fact, the savings mostly are wrung from health-care providers, not Medicare beneficiaries — who, as a result of the health-care law, ended up with new benefits for preventive care and prescription drugs. But Romney argued that was a “bad trade,” arguing that in effect the reductions would affect beneficiaries, and the Medicare actuary also has raised concerns about whether the cuts to providers were sustainable.
While it is correct that anticipated savings from Medicare were used to help offset some of the anticipated costs of expanding health care for all Americans, it does not affect the Medicare trust fund. The Obama health-care law also raised Medicare payroll taxes by $318 billion over the new 10-year time frame, but only a third of that money is credited to the trust fund; the rest goes to general revenues.
Moreover, under the concept of the unified budget, money that is collected by the federal government for whatever purpose (such as Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes) is spent on whatever bills are coming due at that time. Social Security and Medicare will get a credit for taxes collected that are not immediately spent on Social Security, but those taxes are quickly devoted to other federal spending.
Indeed, the House Republican budget plan crafted by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, retains virtually all of the Medicare “cuts” contained in the health-care law, but diverts them instead to his Medicare overhaul. Republicans argue that that is a more effective use of the savings.
“I also want to close those loopholes that are giving incentives for companies that are shipping jobs overseas.”
“You said you get a deduction for taking a plant overseas. Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.”
Romney said he was unaware of any provision that gives companies a tax deduction for moving operations overseas. But Obama is right; there is such a provision that allows companies to deduct such expenses — but it is not a specific loophole or incentive, as Obama indicated.
Here’s how the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation described it:
“Under present law, there are no specific tax credits or disallowances of deductions solely for locating jobs in the United States or overseas. Deductions generally are allowed for all ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred by the taxpayer during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business, which includes the relocation of business units.”
Moreover, it is pretty small potatoes given the attention Democrats pay to it. The JCT estimated that ending the deduction for moving operations overseas would raise just $168 million over a decade.
In the federal government with an annual budget deficit of more than $1 trillion, that’s what you call a rounding error.
(This item was updated with the specific JCT language.)
“And over the last two years, health care premiums have gone up — it’s true — but they’ve gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years.”
Obama tried to attribute a 50-year decline in health costs to the health-care law, but much of it has not yet been implemented. Most economists say the slowdown is more likely because of the lousy economy.
“It’s tempting to think that provider initiatives are truly denting costs, but it’s hard for changes in provider behavior to influence costs before they occur,” said a recent article in Modern Healthcare magazine. “Instead, the drop in healthcare cost growth is primarily attributable to the Great Recession’s impact on employment, private health insurance, government revenues and budgets.”
Meanwhile, Romney blamed a rise in insurance premiums on the health-care law. This is also overstated, since much of the health-care law has not been implemented yet.
“If I’m president, I will help create 12 million new jobs in this country with rising incomes.”
This is a reprise from his convention speech. And this sounds like a pretty bold statement, especially considering that only two presidents — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — created more than 12 million jobs. Romney, in fact, says he can reach this same goal in just four years, though the policy paper issued by his campaign contains few details. It is mostly a collection of policy assertions, such as reducing debt, overhauling the tax code, fostering free trade and so forth.
But, in fact, the number is even less impressive than it sounds. This pledge amounts to an average of 250,000 jobs a month, a far cry from the 500,000 jobs a month that Romney once claimed would be created in a “normal recovery.” In recent months, the economy has averaged about 150,000 jobs a month.
The Congressional Budget Office is required to consider the effects of the so-called “fiscal cliff” if a year-end budget deal is not reached, which many experts believe would push the country into a recession. But even with that caveat, the nonpartisan agency assumes 9.06 million jobs will be created between 2013 and 2017. (This is a revision downward; CBO had estimated 11 million in January.)
But Moody’s Analytics, in an August forecast, predicts 12 million jobs will be created by 2016, no matter who is president. And Macroeconomic Advisors in April also predicted a gain of 12.3 million jobs.
In other words, this is a fairly safe bet by Romney, even if he has a somewhat fuzzy plan for action. We have often noted that presidents are often at the mercy — or are the beneficiary — of broad economic trends, and Romney’s pledge appears to be an effort to take advantage of that.
“The problem is that because the voucher wouldn’t necessarily keep up with health care inflation, it was estimated that this would cost the average senior about $6,000 a year. Now, in fairness, what Governor Romney has now said is he’ll maintain traditional Medicare alongside it .”
In the debate, Obama acknowledged that the GOP Medicare plan, authored by Romney running mate Paul Ryan, has been changed. But he still clung to an outdated estimate of an earlier version of the plan, claiming it will cost seniors an extra $6,000 a year. (He had previously earned Two Pinocchios for this claim.)
The problem is this dollar figure — usually expressed as $6,400 — is an estimate for an earlier version of Ryan’s plan. He’s since changed it significantly to address some of the loudest complaints. The new version of the plan includes the option for traditional Medicare, as well as a commitment that at least one health-care option would be fully covered by the government.
Indeed, the new plan is much more generous than the original version. The old plan had capped growth at the rate of inflation. Many experts believed that was too low and pushed more costs on beneficiaries.
In the updated Ryan plan, Medicare spending would be permitted to grow slightly faster than the nation’s economy — in fact, at the same growth rate as Obama’s budget for Medicare.
“I like the way we did it [health care] in Massachusetts…. What were some differences? We didn’t raise taxes.”
This claim of no new taxes deserves some context, because the federal government has provided substantial help in paying for Romney’s health-care law.
A June 2011 Boston Globe article said this about the cost of RomneyCare and how the state has paid for it:
“Over the five-year life of the new law, total cost has been $9 billion, with the federal government picking up nearly 64 percent of the cost, the state’s share is more than 18 percent, and the remaining 18 percent split by hospitals and insurers, who pass it along to their customers, to pay into the Health Safety Net fund, which reimburses providers for treating the uninsured. The federal share consists of the usual 50 percent reimbursement for Medicaid, supplemented by stimulus money and additional funds awarded the state for its innovative program to subsidize insurance of the working poor.”
So the federal government pays more for the Bay State’s health-care program than the state itself does.
The Globe piece also noted that “there is no certainty the state can afford the program’s cost indefinitely if the underlying costs of health care continue to soar.”
The state has increased taxes to pay for its health-care plan since Romney left office. For instance, it raised taxes on cigarettes and implemented a one-time assessment totalling $50 million on hospitals and insurers. — Josh Hicks
“In one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world. Now, I like green energy as well, but that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives.”
The math does not add up for this statement that Romney directed at Obama.
The president’s 2013 budget called for elimination of tax breaks for oil subsidies, which the White House estimated at $4 billion per year. Dividing $90 billion — the federal money that Romney claims went toward clean energy — by $4 billion in breaks for the oil industry amounts to 22.5 years, not 50 years.
It’s also worth noting that the $90 billion was not “breaks,” but a combination of loans, loan guarantees and grants through the stimulus program, and they were spread out over several years rather than one, as Romney claimed.
Furthermore, not all of the money went to the “green energy world.” About $23 billion went toward “clean coal,” energy-efficiency upgrades, updating the electricity grid and environmental clean-up, largely for old nuclear weapons sites. — Josh Hicks and Steven Mufson
“The president’s reelected you’ll see dramatic cuts to our military.”
Romney greatly oversimplifies a complex story here. In an effort to end the bitter impasse between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling, the Budget Control Act of 2011 cut spending by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years by setting new budget caps for “security” and “nonsecurity” discretionary spending.
“Security” spending included not just the Defense Department but also the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Veterans Affairs, foreign aid spending, intelligence and other areas. The goal was to allow some flexibility to avoid being locked into a specific number for defense spending.
The law also tasked a “supercommittee” with finding ways to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over 10 years. If the committee failed — which it did — then automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion also would be ordered in “security” and “nonsecurity” spending.
Now there is an impasse. An alternative plan passed the House in May on a party-line vote, with not a single Democrat voting for it. The bill would have halted the automatic cuts in defense spending for one year, while cutting in other areas. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not accept the bill. Democrats, by contrast, have proposed ending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy as a way to meet the deficit targets in the Budget Control Act, though no vote has been taken on a sequestration replacement plan.
Romney has not explained how he would end this stalemate.
“It puts in place an unelected board that’s going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have. I don’t like that idea.”
What is Romney referring to as he almost begins to channel the “death panels” claim of Sarah Palin?
Beginning in 2014, the 15-member Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB, (made up of experts subject to Senate confirmation) is designed to help reduce the rate of growth in Medicare spending if it exceeds a certain target rate. The board would make recommendations to reduce costs.
Eventually, if the targets are not met, the board will submit a plan to the White House and Congress to achieve the necessary cuts. Congress could pass a different set of cuts or reject the IPAB recommendations with a three-fifths vote in the Senate.
In effect, the IPAB appears designed to mimic the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which was designed in the late 1980s by then Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.) with the backing of the Reagan administration. That commission was empowered to make politically difficult decisions of closing military bases, thus limiting the influence of lobbyists and in effect letting Congress off the hook of making the tough decisions themselves.
The health-care law explicitly says that the recommendations cannot lead to rationing of health care. Of course, “rationing” is in the eye of beholder, and one common complaint is that rationing is not defined. The law also limits recommendations that would change benefits, modify eligibility or increase Medicare beneficiary cost-sharing, such as deductibles, coinsurance and co-payments.
On the surface, the IPAB appears aimed at doing the same thing as the House Republican Medicare plan — reducing the runaway costs of Medicare, except on a faster track. (The GOP plan would not kick in until 2021, just a few years before the Medicare hospital fund begins to run dry.)
The dispute really centers on a philosophical divide between the parties. Democrats would rely on independent experts (such as doctors and consumer advocates) to recommend the cuts; Republicans would rely on the insurance marketplace to control costs.
“The approach that Governor Romney’s talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003, and we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
Here, the president comes close to repeating a line that just this week earned him Three Pinocchios. In a new television ad, Obama said that tax cuts and deregulation led to the crisis. But in the debate he broadened his language, bringing in the impact of the Bush tax cuts on the deficit and not directly linking the policies (“it all culminated” versus “led to”) to the financial crash.
With such careful pruning and adjusting of language, a politician can easily shed one or two Pinocchios.
But another part of Obama’s statement is misleading. There’s no doubt that George W. Bush owns an unimpressive record on job creation. But as we have previously demonstrated, Obama comes in either last, second-to-last or in the bottom half among presidents since the Great Depression, depending on which way you look at the numbers.
(As is our practice, we generally do not award Pinocchio ratings in these instant round-ups.)
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