“In one of the bills before us, 6 million seniors are deprived of meals — homebound seniors are deprived of meals. People ask us to find our common ground, the middle ground. Is middle ground 3 million seniors not receiving meals? I don't think so. We've got to take this conversation from a debate about numbers and dollar figures and finding middle ground there to the higher ground of national values. I don't think the American people want any one of those 6 million people to lose their meals or the children who are being thrown off of Head Start and the rest of it.”
— House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), April 4, 2011
The day before House Republicans unveiled their long-term budget plan, one-time House Speaker Pelosi held an event with the Hunger Fast Coalition to draw attention to the budget cuts envisioned in the fiscal 2011 budget bill that passed the House earlier this year. The White House and the Senate have been engaged in tense discussions with House leaders over a compromise deal in an effort to avoid a government shutdown later this week.
Pelosi’s impassioned plea signifies her discomfort at even the thought of compromise. But several readers wondered about the figures she used. Are 6 million poor seniors really at risk of losing their meals — or even 3 million under the compromise plan being negotiated by President Obama?
The meal programs, which cost about $818 million a year, are managed by the Administration on Aging (AOA), an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services. The House bill would cut $65 million from the approximately $2.4 billion budget of the agency — a figure derived from GOP estimates of the savings in the agency from repealing the health care law — as well as eliminate $6 million in earmarks.
The first problem with Pelosi’s statistic is that, according to the agency’s budget documents, only about 2.6 million seniors receive such meals. That’s even less than what she decried as the mushy middle ground of compromise.
After we pointed out that fact, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said “she means meals for seniors — 6 million meals.” In 2011, the agency is expected to deliver a little over 200 million meals, so that’s a cut of about three percent.
That’s a pretty big “oops.” She referred to “6 million seniors,” “3 million seniors” and “6 million people.” We understand slips of a tongue, but three times in a row, so emphatically, is hard to fathom.
But Hammill tried to defend the number of 6 million, though he acknowledged that “that pot of money I mentioned is not exclusively dedicated to this program.”
According to Hammill, the agency has “informally indicated” to Pelosi’s staff that if they had to cut $71 million in the last seven months of the fiscal year, the two programs where services could be cut quickly to achieve quick savings would be the senior nutrition programs and senior centers. So Pelosi’s staff assumed a $30 million cut from the overall budget for senior meals, or 3.6 percent, resulting in 6 million fewer meals.
Marta Dehmlow, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, says the $65 million figure came from estimates on savings the administration provided regarding a provision of the new health care law that would be administered by the agency. “The Committee did not specify where this cut would come from and also does not know how AOA will spread that cut within their operations,” she said. “The Committee has received no official word on impact.”
A spokeswoman for the Administration on Aging referred a question to the White House budget office, which did not respond to our query. Hammill later acknowledged: “The Obama Administration had not made any determination of how they would implement a $71 million cut at the Administration on Aging if HR 1 was signed into law.”
So, in other words, Pelosi’s staff took a wild guess at where the cuts would fall in the agency.
But there are other problems with Pelosi’s 6 million number.
First, the administration requested the elimination of $6 million in earmarks, so it seems strange for Pelosi to call that a Republican cut. That should not be included, leaving us with $65 million in possible cuts.
Second, in the administration’s 2012 budget request, President Obama identified $150 million in cuts to the agency’s budget. It seems that those already-identified targets would be a more logical place to start looking for trims than meals for senior citizens, most of whom have incomes of less than $20,000.
Finally, the agency’s budget justification notes on page 55 that it has kept spending on senior meals essentially flat from 2010 to 2012, resulting in 36 million fewer meals for senior citizens. That’s six times higher than the figure that Pelosi has decried as an affront to “national values.” The administration’s budget, in fact, has earned the ire of some advocates for hungry seniors. Perhaps 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be a more appropriate place for Pelosi to direct her outrage.
The Pinocchio Test
In a city with overheated rhetoric, Pelosi’s statement ranks high on this year’s list of bloviated bluster. It’s bad enough that she repeatedly mixed up 6 million meals and 6 million people — and made no effort to correct the record after her statement was reported in the media. But the figure she used appears to have been invented itself, with little basis in fact.
The budget cuts being contemplated by Republican and Democratic lawmakers will result in some painful sacrifices, especially as the end of the fiscal year draws near. Respected analysts such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have identified the potential impact. There was no need for Pelosi to hype the potential pain.
Watch Pelosi’s claim: