FactCheck.org http://www.factcheck.org A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Fri, 29 Aug 2014 20:56:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 Attacking Rick Allen’s Government Contracts http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/attacking-rick-allens-government-contracts/ Fri, 29 Aug 2014 20:16:12 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87866 A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee TV ad relies on innuendo and omission to accuse Georgia Republican Rick Allen of making “insider deals” to get government contracts at taxpayer expense:

  • The DCCC doesn’t provide evidence of “insider deals.” Instead, it assumes corruption because Allen’s company once received a contract when it wasn’t the lowest bidder. It also speculates that Allen benefited from his brother’s position as a county commissioner even though the brother recused himself from votes involving Allen’s company.
  • The ad also says that “Allen’s projects went over budget.” Five projects went over budget by a total of almost $935,000. That’s less than 1 percent of the total amount of government contracts the company received over an 18-year period.
  • And when the ad says “our sales taxes were raised to pay for 16 of Allen’s contracts,” it ignores the fact that county residents voted to increase their own taxes.

Allen is running against Democratic Rep. John Barrow who represents Georgia’s 12th Congressional District. He is the founder and CEO of R.W. Allen LLC, a commercial contracting company based in Augusta. Since 1996, that company has received 26 government contracts worth over $184 million, according to documents cited by the DCCC.

The DCCC has run two TV ads attacking Allen’s business. The first ad, which began airing Aug. 15, suggests that at least some of these contracts were the result of “insider deals.” But there’s no hard evidence that that is the case.

To support its claim, the DCCC pointed to an Oct. 8, 2011, Augusta Chronicle story about the selection of Allen’s company to serve as the “construction manager at-risk” for the second phase of the Charles B. Webster Detention Center expansion project in Augusta. That story said city commissioners voted to award the contract to R.W. Allen “in spite of a ruling by Superior Court Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet that the method used to select construction manager at-risk to oversee the Municipal Building renovations — the same method used to select R.W. Allen for the jail project — violates city and state purchasing laws.” According to the story, Overstreet ruled that the city did not use a competitive bidding process to award the contract as required by state law for projects valued at over $100,000.

The DCCC also says that the International Anti-Corruption Resource Center considers a bid awarded to any other than the lowest qualified bidder to be a “red flag” for  “corruption” and “manipulation of bids.” But the DCCC doesn’t know that Allen’s company wasn’t the lowest bidder. The Chronicle article didn’t say that. It only said that the price of the bids carried little weight in the process used to award the contract.

Allen was originally awarded a contract for the first phase of the detention center project, in 2008, despite not being the lowest bidder. But that decision was reversed after McKnight Construction, which did make the lowest bid, challenged the Allen contract in court.

But even if Allen wasn’t the lowest bidder, that doesn’t necessarily mean the award process was corrupt. The IACRC says that awarding a contract to other than the lowest qualified bidder is “usually the result of corruption,” not always.

In addition, the DCCC noted that Rick Allen’s brother, Charles, sat on the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, when that board awarded contracts to R.W. Allen to work on an animal control building and a health facility and conference room in 2010. But the DCCC’s own background material acknowledges that Charles Allen recused himself from the board’s vote on those projects (see page 135).

We can’t say whether any of R.W. Allen’s contacts were the result of “insider deals” or not, but neither can the DCCC.

Higher Taxes and Over Budget Projects

The same ad attacking Allen for “insider deals” also says that “Allen’s projects went over budget” and that “our taxes were raised to pay for 16 of Allen’s projects.”

The DCCC went on to make those claims the subject of a separate attack ad that began running on Aug. 25. It features Christy Morris, the owner of Round’s Pizza Seafood and More, saying that “Allen’s companies got nearly $200 million in government contracts and we got higher taxes to pay for them. And then they went over budget.”

It’s true that some of the projects that Allen’s companies worked on went over budget. The DCCC’s background document mentions five instances where R.W. Allen was awarded contracts to build Georgia elementary schools that ended up going over budget by almost $935,000, combined. But that amount is just about 3.5 percent of the combined total of the original contracts for the elementary schools. It’s also less than 1 percent of Allen’s $184 million in state contracts that is mentioned in both TV ads.

It’s also true that some of the contracts that Allen’s company received were paid for with money from Georgia’s special-purpose local-option sales tax. What the ad doesn’t say is that it is an optional county tax of 1 percent on items subject to the state sales tax that helps fund projects that benefit residents such as courthouses, jails, roads and bridges. More important, the tax can only be enacted by a local referendum approved by county residents, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

So, county residents voted to raise their own taxes to pay for the projects that Allen’s company worked on.

D’Angelo Gore

Trading Jabs in Michigan http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/trading-jabs-in-michigan/ Fri, 29 Aug 2014 19:45:19 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87939 Republican Terri Lynn Land and the Democratic party trade barbs in the Michigan Senate race, but both ads mislead voters.

  • Land’s ad blames Peters for the fact that “Michigan gas taxes are siphoned off by Washington instead of staying here and being spent on Michigan’s crumbling roads.” But Michigan got a return of $1.03 on every highway dollar spent on federal gasoline taxes in 2012.
  • An ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, claims Land “said guaranteeing equal pay for women who do the same work as men is not a good idea.” Land actually said she supports equal pay for equal work, but the Democratic-sponsored Paycheck Fairness Act wasn’t “a good idea.”

The race to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin is shaping up as a tight battle, with the polling tabulator Real Clear Politics rating it a “toss up.” As a result, both the DSCC and its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have invested heavily in the outcome.

 ‘Siphoning Off’ Gasoline Taxes?

An ad from the Land campaign accuses Peters of supporting a system that allows Michigan gasoline taxes to be “siphoned off by Washington.”

According to the ad’s narrator, “Every Michigan driver knows our roads are a mess. On Congressman Gary Peters’ watch, Michigan gas taxes are siphoned off by Washington instead of staying here and being spent on Michigan’s crumbling roads. Washington’s Gary Peters doesn’t put Michigan first, but Terri Lynn Land will — taking on Washington waste so our tax dollars go to address our needs, like finally fixing our roads.”

That sure makes it seem like Michigan is getting back less in highway funding than its residents pay in gasoline taxes. But the Federal Highway Administration reported that, in 2012, Michigan received $1.03 in highway funding for every $1 in federal highway gasoline taxes collected in the state. Michigan’s return on investment was even better in 2010, according to the Federal Highway Administration, when the state received $1.30 in highway funding for every $1 in federal gasoline taxes it collected; and $1.20 for every $1 in 2011.

In reality, the ad oversimplifies an ongoing battle over federal funding of highways.

Land’s point isn’t just about return on investment, but also increasing local control of highway spending. On her campaign webpage, Land advocates a plan to gradually reduce the federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon to “around 4 cents.” States could then replace that with a commensurate state gasoline tax, or some other tax, thereby “let[ting] states decide” how to spend those transportation dollars in Michigan. Land’s plan is similar to one championed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Tom Graves called the Transportation Empowerment Act. They propose to reduce the 18.4 cents per gallon tax on gasoline to 3.7 cents per gallon over five years.

The Transportation Empowerment Act is opposed by the American Roads and Transportation Builders Association, which says that while Land and other proponents say the idea is not to cut transportation funding — that state taxes would be expected to replace the loss of federal revenue — there is no requirement for states to do that. It would be politically difficult for state legislators to replace that funding, Beth McGinn, a spokeswoman for ARTBA told us. And as a result, she said, Michigan could wind up with a big drop in highway funding.

The way things work now, the federal government collects a tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.3 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and puts it into the Highway Trust Fund. Most of that money (15.44 cents of the 18.4 cents) is allocated to state departments of transportation to “design, construct, improve and preserve” major roads. So the states determine which projects get money, not the federal government.

There is a caveat, however. The federal dollars “cannot be used for routine maintenance such as filling potholes or removing snow.” Land’s ad specifically shows images of potholes, and it’s true that the state cannot spend federal money to fix them. In addition to federal gasoline taxes, every state tacks on its own gasoline tax, though the amounts vary by state. That money, and other levies determined by state government, can be used on routine maintenance.

Since 1982, part of the federal gasoline tax revenues has been earmarked for mass transit expenses. Just over 15 percent (2.86 cents of the 18.4 cent per gallon) of the federal gasoline tax has been set aside for mass transit since 1993. That money is used to “construct and improve subway, light rail and other mass transit systems, purchase buses and make other capital improvements.”

It’s true that Northeastern states with large mass transit networks have historically claimed a disproportionate share of those mass transit dollars, but Michigan has gotten some of that money as well. Examples cited by the U.S. Department of Transportation include $32 million of the $40 million cost of Grand Rapids’ new Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit system, which opened this month; and $25 million, in 2013, to help support a new streetcar line along historic Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

According to Amy Bernstein, a spokeswoman for DOT’s Federal Transit Administration, Michigan contributed $154.7 million to the Mass Transit Account (MTA) from gasoline taxes in fiscal year 2012 (the most recent data available). In FY 2014, she told us via email, Michigan received mass transit allocations, based on formula, totaling $132.2 million from the MTA. However, she said, “Michigan is also a candidate for competitive discretionary funds derived from the MTA. So altogether, Michigan would be in line to at least break even on its contribution to the MTA.”

So while not all of the federal gasoline tax goes toward highways, the mass transit money isn’t necessarily “siphoned” away from Michigan. As we mentioned earlier, of the federal gasoline taxes earmarked for highways — 15.44 cents of the 18.4 cent tax — Michigan gets back all of that money, and then some, in highway funding.

Some states have consistently fared better than others in the return on gasoline tax investment. Alaska, for example — which has fewer residents, but large areas to cover with roads — got back $5.92 for every $1 in federal highway gasoline taxes collected in the state in 2012. The donor vs. donee debate over how to equitably distribute highway funds goes back decades. But according to a Congressional Research Service report in 2011, between 2007 and 2009 “all 50 states were donee states, because outlays from the Highway Trust Fund exceeded federal highway tax receipts in each year.” That’s because the federal government has supplemented the highway budget with money other than gasoline taxes (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for example, included a huge infusion of extra highway funding).

The FHA data suggests that, in 2012, only four states — Arizona, South Carolina, Texas and Utah — got back less than $1 for highway funding for every $1 the state’s residents paid in federal highway gasoline taxes.

So why is Land complaining about Michigan?

Proponents of the Transportation Empowerment Act, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation, argue that the return-on-investment data from the FHA is skewed because the federal money comes with strings attached, namely requirements to pay laborers locally prevailing wages and to comply with federal environmental impact laws. While some conservatives argue such requirements add undue costs to projects, the degree is a matter of some debate, as our colleagues at PolitiFact Georgia found when it looked into a similar issue in March.

The cost of those federal requirements is a legitimate political issue, but the ad goes too far when it says “Michigan gas taxes are siphoned off by Washington instead of staying here and being spent on Michigan’s crumbling roads.” The fact is, Michigan has received slightly more than $1 worth of highway funding for every $1 spent on federal gasoline taxes earmarked for highways. The states decide which roads projects will get that funding, though it cannot be used for routine maintenance such as pothole repair.

 Equal Pay ‘Not a Good Idea’?

An ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, targets women voters with an ad mocking an earlier Land ad in which she concludes, “As a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters.” Republican pollster Frank Luntz called Land’s ad the “worst ad” of the political season.

In the DSCC ad, several women hold up iPads playing that line from the Land ad, and then go on to attack Land as out of touch with Michigan women on abortion and equal pay.

One woman claims “Land doesn’t think women should have the right to choose, even in the case of rape or incest.” Though she has not explicitly stated her opposition to those exceptions, Land received the endorsement of the Right to Life of Michigan — which makes its endorsements conditional on limited abortion exceptions. The group’s endorsement criteria says, “First and foremost, a candidate must be prolife with no exceptions other than life of the mother.” In addition, Politico wrote in February that Land “also said the ‘only exception’ she supported for abortion was to save the life of the mother, not mentioning rape or incest.”

But then, another woman in the DSCC ad says, “Terri Lynn Land said guaranteeing equal pay for women who do the same work as men is not a good idea.”

On screen, the ad shows a picture of Land and says: “On guaranteeing equal pay: ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’” The ad cites an April 12 article in the Wall Street Journal as backup. But that article makes clear that Land’s “not a good idea” comment was referring to the Paycheck Fairness Act, a Democratic bill, not to the idea of equal pay. The article even notes Land’s stated support for “the principle of equal pay for women.”

Wall Street Journal, April 12: HOWELL, Mich.- Criticized by President Barack Obama this week for her stance on equal-pay policy, Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land of Michigan said here that she supports the principle of equal pay for women but would have voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act debated in the Senate this week.

The bill, which was blocked by Senate Republicans, would have allowed employees to discuss their pay without potential retaliation and required employers to show that salary differences aren’t based on gender bias.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, so I wouldn’t have been supportive,” Ms. Land said in an interview Friday evening with The Wall Street Journal. She said she opposed the bill because “that would require that businesses have to post the pay of each individual so it was public… I don’t think you should have to have everyone know what your pay is.”

The bill contains no such posting provision, though supporters said women would be able to ask their human-resources departments for pay information about male workers. Ms. Land’s concern wasn’t among the objections raised by Senate Republicans, who said the bill would have duplicated exiting protections in law and would have opened businesses to new lawsuits based on legitimate decisions about pay.

In other words, Land is not convinced that the Paycheck Fairness Act is the way to go about achieving equal pay for equal work for women. She says on her website that she supports enforcement of the laws that are already on the books to address pay inequity: the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

People may disagree with her  — or object to her ill-informed belief that the bill would have required employers to post employees’ pay — but Land never said “guaranteeing equal pay for women who do the same work as men is not a good idea.”

– Robert Farley


Scandalous Ad in New Hampshire Race http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/scandalous-ad-in-new-hampshire-race/ Thu, 28 Aug 2014 23:30:54 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87977 A conservative group accuses Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in a TV ad of “profiting from her votes in Congress.” But the scandal is how the group distorts the facts.

The ad says that “Shaheen’s wealth has surged while in public office,” but her family’s estimated net worth has actually declined since she took office in January 2009.

There is also less than meets the eye to the ad’s claims about “a shady stock deal and a conflict of interest.”

The claim about “votes” that supposedly enriched her family refers to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — a stimulus plan that was backed by all Senate Democrats. After the plan became law, the National Science Foundation awarded a stimulus grant of less than $78,000 to Ultrawave Labs for breast cancer research. Shaheen’s husband, William, was an adviser to the company at the time and held stock options worth between $1,001 and $15,000. But the Shaheen campaign says the option expired and the family did not earn a profit.

Has Shaheen’s Wealth ‘Surged’?

The ad, titled “Cronyism,” is the work of Ending Spending Action Fund, a conservative super PAC headed by businessman Joe Ricketts, the founder of a company now known as TD Ameritrade. It began airing Aug. 26 and immediately came under attack from campaign lawyers for the New Hampshire Democratic senator, who is running this fall against former Sen. Scott Brown. An NBC affiliate in Boston asked the group to change it after the Shaheen campaign complained.

Brian Baker, the super PAC’s president and general counsel, told us in an email that the group will not change the voice-over but it will add one additional citation to the ad. Baker told us the ad is “100% accurate and truthful and fully supported by the back-up,” which he provided to us.

The ad begins by saying, “New Hampshire families have struggled … but official records show Shaheen’s wealth has surged while in public office.” Shaheen joined the Senate in January 2009.

The super PAC’s backup material says that the Shaheen family’s estimated net worth has increased from $3.4 million in 2008 to $5.4 million in 2012, citing an analysis by opensecrets.org of personal financial disclosure statements that are filed annually by members of Congress.

But that ignores the senator’s latest report filed in May 2013. That report shows her estimated net worth — as calculated by opensecret.org’s method — was $2.7 million in 2013, down 21 percent from $3.4 million in 2008.

Personal financial disclosure reports do not provide precise amounts, but rather ranges — such as $0-$1,000; $1,001-$15,000; $15,001-$50,000; $50,001-$100,000; $100,001-$250,000; $250,001-500,000; $500,001-$1,000,000. Opensecrets.org defines “net worth” as “the average of the maximum debt figure subtracted from the maximum asset figure and the minimum debt figure subtracted from the minimum asset figure.”

The 2008 report showed her family’s assets ranged from $2,944,938 to $6,077,918, while her liabilities ranged from $650,005 to $1,500,000. By opensecrets.org’s calculation that results in a net worth in the range of $4,577,918 to $2,294,933 — which averages to $3.4 million.

For 2013, her family’s assets ranged from $3,746,028 to $7,892,000, while her liabilities ranged from $2,030,012 to $4,200,000, based on our analysis of the 2013 report. Shaheen’s net worth ranged between $1,716,016 and $3,692,000 — which averages to a net worth of $2.7 million, using the opensecrets.org method of calculating average net worth.

In an Aug. 27 Associated Press article, the lawyers for Ending Spending took a different approach to determining Shaheen’s wealth than the one presented in the group’s backup document. “Ending Spending’s lawyers said that Shaheen shouldn’t be allowed to count debts, such as 10 mortgages included in her 2013 financial disclosure,” AP wrote. “Only her assets should be considered, no matter how much they are mortgaged.”

The personal disclosure reports do show that the range of the Shaheen family’s gross assets have increased, from somewhere between $3 million to $6 million in 2008 to $3.7 million to $7.9 million in 2013. But so have the family’s liabilities, which is why it has a lower net worth.

A ‘Shady’ Deal?

The ad then goes on to tie Shaheen’s wealth to her votes in Congress without sufficient evidence.

“News reports raise questions about Shaheen’s family profiting from her votes in Congress, a shady stock deal and a conflict of interest,” the ad says. “Like Shaheen’s vote for Washington’s failed stimulus, which gave taxpayer dollars to a company financially tied to her family.”

All of these claims stem from a June 24 article in the Boston Globe that focused in large part on a relatively small financial stake that the senator’s husband had in Ultrawave Labs, a California-based start-up that is seeking to develop a high-resolution, cost-effective breast imaging system to detect breast cancer.

The Globe said that in 2009 her husband became an adviser in the company and acquired stock options in the firm worth between $1,001 and $15,000. The company that year received $77,715 in federal stimulus money from the National Science Foundation “to fund research in a novel medical imaging technology.”

Shaheen, of course, voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which gained final Senate approval on Feb. 13, 2009, in a 60-38 vote. That was the bare minimum of votes needed to pass the legislation. All 55 Democratic senators present that day voted for the bill, along with two independents and three Republicans.

The Globe and Ending Spending do not provide any evidence that Shaheen voted for the stimulus to benefit her family. The $77,715 project — a rounding error in a bill worth $816 billion — was not earmarked in the legislation at the time of her vote. The NSF awarded the contract on June 6, 2009 — about four months after the Senate’s final vote.

The ad, again quoting from the Globe, goes on to say, “The Shaheen family law firm even tried to profit by helping clients ‘grab a share’ of taxpayer money designed to help ‘jump-start’ our ailing economy.”

The Globe article said that her husband’s law firm, Shaheen & Gordon, had “a government relations arm and set up a ‘stimulus opportunities team’ in 2009 to help clients grab a share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed that year to help jump-start the economy.” However, as the Globe also noted, the stimulus team was a failure.

“The firm, in a statement released by the campaign, said the stimulus practice was short-lived, had no clients, and that William Shaheen was not involved in it,” the Globe wrote.

One last thing about Ultrawave Labs, and that’s the claim in the ad that “Shaheen’s family got stock options, then failed to properly report them, raising ethical questions.” That, too, is a distortion of the facts.

Shaheen did properly report the stock options. The senator’s report covering financial activity in 2009 lists stock options in Ultrawave Labs valued between $1,001 and $15,000, and the transaction date as Nov. 16, 2009.

When the ad says that the family “failed to properly report them,” it is actually talking about the senator’s failure to report that the stock option turned out to be worthless.

Ending Spending cited a June 27 story in the conservative Washington Free Beacon that carried the headline, “Shaheen to Amend Financial Disclosure After Accusations of Shady Stock Deal.” The article said, “Personal disclosure reports filed by Shaheen in May still listed the stocks as assets and also say they are not scheduled to expire on Sep. 1, 2019. However, the Shaheen campaign says those stocks have in fact expired. A Shaheen spokesperson told a Concord Monitor reporter Thursday that Shaheen will amend her financial disclosure statement to correct the information.”

The senator’s 2013 report lists the value of the stock options as “None (or less than $1,001).”

Other Claims

The ad contrasts the Shaheen family’s wealth with New Hampshire families struggling since she took office. The ad says, “Gas prices doubled, higher health care costs, higher taxes, record national debt.”

There’s no question that the federal debt owed to the public has increased steadily since 2009. It now stands at $12.7 trillion. It is also accurate that some taxes have gone up for higher-income Americans as a result of the bipartisan “fiscal cliff” package that Congress passed on New Year’s Day 2013 and the Affordable Care Act. Shaheen voted for both.

Gasoline prices have doubled, too, so that’s accurate — as far as it goes. When Shaheen took office in January 2009, the average retail price of all grades of gasoline sold in New England was $1.81 per gallon. In August, it was nearly $3.68 – slightly more than double, according to the Energy Information Administration data cited by Ending Spending.

But as we have noted in “Obama’s Numbers,” our quarterly reports on key statistical indicators during the Obama administration, the price of gasoline dropped dramatically in late 2008 and early 2009 due to a worldwide recession that had reduced demand. The $3.68 per gallon in August is well below the record for New England of $4.14 set in July 2008, which was before Shaheen took office.

It’s also questionable to blame Shaheen — or any single member of Congress — for the cost of gasoline given that the price for a barrel of oil is set on world markets. She’s no more responsible for gasoline prices than she is for the sharp rise in U.S. domestic oil production that has happened during her time in office. In 2013, U.S. crude oil production reached a 24-year high and net imports dropped to their lowest level since 1996, as the EIA reported in March.

Ending Spending also provided thin evidence for the claim that there are “higher health care costs” in New Hampshire.

The super PAC cited a Dec. 18, 2013, article by the Concord Monitor on a state Insurance Department report on 2012 health insurance rates. The article said that “premiums increased only about 1 percent in 2012, down from a 3.8 percent increase in 2011.” That slight increase occurred before the federal and state health insurance exchanges opened in the fall of 2013, so it wasn’t related to the mandated changes in policies that took effect this year.

As for the cost of health care premiums after the law took effect, the PAC provided an Associated Press article dated Sept. 25, 2013, that said the premium for “a mid-range benchmark plan in New Hampshire will average $360 a month for an individual, slightly higher than the national average.” The article was based on an analysis by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The AP did not say whether rates have gone up or down compared with the previous year.

The article did say, however, that the $360 state average was before federal subsidies. Subsidies could cut costs to $94 for 27-year-old males making $25,000 per year, according to the article.

The super PAC also points to a preliminary analysis of 2015 state Insurance Department rate request filings for health insurance plans on the individual market. But the analysis — which was conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers Health Research Institute — comes with many caveats. It said it had only “limited information” on New Hampshire, as of Aug. 15. The institute gives a proposed 15 percent rate increase for New Hampshire in 2015, but that is based on only one insurance carrier.

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield was the only insurer to offer health plans in New Hampshire on the state exchange in its first year. The state Department of Insurance said in a June 2 press release that it will have four carriers in 2015.

In addition to Anthem, Assurant Health, Harvard Pilgrim and Minuteman Health have announced plans to sell health insurance on the exchange, the state says. “Having a larger number of carriers will give consumers many more choices in terms of cost, plan design, and provider network,” the department said in its press release.

Other caveats: The proposed rates do not include federal subsidies, which will help reduce the cost for some, and the proposed rates must be approved by state regulators.

“Regulators in most states haven’t yet reviewed these proposed rate increases, as they do those variations will likely shrink,” the institute says.

Update, Aug. 29: Ending Spending changed the 30-second version of this TV ad to identify the Center for Responsive Politics as the source of the screen text that reads “Shaheen’s wealth has surged while in public office.” The center operates opensecrets.org. Baker, the super PAC’s president and general counsel, told us that Ending Spending did not change that same image in the 60-second version of the ad, which is the version that we write about here. 

– Eugene Kiely

Presidential Vacations http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/presidential-vacations/ Thu, 28 Aug 2014 13:34:15 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87925 Q: Is it true that George W. Bush took more vacation days than Barack Obama?

A: Yes. Before his two-week trip to Martha’s Vineyard in August, Obama’s count was 125 full or partial days and Bush’s total at the same point in his presidency was 407.


Our inbox is chock full of questions about who took more vacation days, Obama or Bush. (The short answer: Bush. The long answer: There’s no such thing as a true non-working vacation for the president.)

The recent barrage from our readers coincides with Obama’s 15-day family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard — he returned to the White House on Aug. 24 – which occurred during major news events including the beheading of a U.S. journalist by Islamic militants and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man. The vacation also occurred during the funeral of Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, the only general officer killed in Afghanistan.

Obama faced criticism for being on vacation during these times, but those types of complaints are nothing new — either to Obama or presidents in general.

Readers may recall the criticism directed at Bush for the August weeks spent at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Others may remember Democrats chastising President Dwight Eisenhower for spending time on the golf course.

We last dealt with the who-took-more-vacation question in January 2010, at which point Obama had spent 26 days on “vacation” during his first year in office, fewer than the first year totals for Presidents Bush, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Our numbers are all courtesy of CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, who has covered every president since Gerald Ford and tracks the commander in chief’s travel.

But, as we noted then, presidents never fully escape from the job. Knoller told us he doesn’t consider these days away from the White House real “vacation” days. He said then in an email: “I have long held the view that a US president is never really on vacation. The job — and its awesome powers and responsibilities — is his wherever he is and whatever he’s doing.”

Bush officials called the Crawford ranch the “Western White House” to emphasize the days there involved plenty of official business, and Obama’s recent Martha’s Vineyard break included several presidential statements and two days spent back at the White House in the middle of the “vacation.” Presidents may clear brush or hit the links, but they are never actually off the clock.

Still, much is made of these presidential vacation days — and how to count them. Knoller doesn’t include visits to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland often used to host foreign leaders. On Aug. 8, the day before Obama left for Martha’s Vineyard, Knoller tweeted that Obama had spent 125 full or partial days on vacation, and at the same point in Bush’s presidency, he had spent 381 days at his Texas ranch plus 26 days at his parents’ home in Kennebunkport, Maine, for a total of 407.

When we emailed Knoller on Aug. 26, Obama was up to 140 days by his count. Bush’s total for his two terms in office is 533 days, which includes 490 at the ranch and the rest at Kennebunkport. For comparison’s sake, President Bill Clinton’s total is 174 days, and Reagan hit 390 (349 at his ranch and 41 in Palm Springs), according to Knoller.

Adding in Camp David visits would bring Obama’s total to date to 223 (that’s 83 days at Camp David) and Bush’s total for his entire time in office to 1,024 (491 days at the presidential retreat). Note that Obama still has more than two years in office to narrow the gap.

Deciding how to count these “vacation” days can create some confusion. CNN recently listed a count of 879 days for Bush and 150 for Obama, numbers that came from a Washington Post “Outlook” piece on “Five myths on presidential vacations.” (Myth No. 1: “Presidents get vacations.”) The 879 figure, it turns out, is from March 3, 2008, at which point Bush had spent that many days at the ranch and Camp David (but it doesn’t include days in Kennebunkport). The numbers are in a 2008 Washington Post piece and attributed to Knoller.

If readers want to make an apples-to-apples comparison, the best solution is to use Knoller’s figures as of August 8, cited above: Bush, 407; Obama, 125. But the numbers say more about how many days the presidents spent away from the White House than they do about how much time the presidents spent not working.

– Lori Robertson


Knoller, Mark. Email interview with FactCheck.org. 26 Aug 2014.

Knoller, Mark. Twitter feed. 8 Aug 2014.

Farris, Scott. “Five myths about presidential vacations.” Washington Post. 15 Aug 2014.

Froomkin, Dan. White House Watch. Washington Post. 4 Mar 2008.

Gore, D’Angelo. “President Obama’s Vacation Days.” FactCheck.org. 11 Jan 2010.

Mason, Julie. “Bush says it’s no vacation at his Crawford ranch.” Houston Chronicle. 7 Aug 2005.

Superville, Darlene. “Obama Back at White House After Summer ‘Vacation.‘ ” Associated Press. 24 Aug 2014.

Jackson, David. “Obama’s golf: Not like Ike (or Wilson).” USA Today. 30 Dec 2011.

Lin, C.J. “Maj. Gen. Harold Greene receives full burial honors at Arlington.” Stars and Stripes. 14 Aug 2014.

South Carolina Ad ‘Hides’ Key Fact http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/south-carolina-ad-hides-key-fact/ Tue, 26 Aug 2014 21:35:03 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87861 An ad from the Democratic challenger in the South Carolina governor’s race says that when hackers stole 3.6 million Social Security numbers from state computers, Gov. Nikki Haley “hid it from us for over two weeks” — but the ad fails to mention that Haley’s silence was at the direction of state and federal investigators.

“She did what we asked her to do,” State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told FactCheck.org.

Haley’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, has repeatedly criticized Haley for her handling of a security breach at the Department of Revenue that led to a hacker obtaining the personal data of millions of South Carolina taxpayers. Haley initially said the state had done nothing wrong, though she later acknowledged that the state could have done more to protect sensitive data.

The ad takes particular issue with Haley failing to notify state residents about the security breach for just over two weeks.

According to the ad’s narrator, “When our credit card company saw suspicious activity on our card, they called us right away. We can’t say the same for Nikki Haley. When hackers stole the Social Security numbers of 3.6 million South Carolinians, Haley hid it from us for over two weeks. The biggest security breach of any state agency in history. Putting our personal information at risk. And not even a warning from Haley for weeks. When it comes to protecting us, we just can’t trust Nikki Haley.”

The Sheheen ad is airing statewide and is part of a six-figure media buy, the Sheheen campaign told South Carolina newspaper The State. Polls show a tight race between Sheheen and Haley, with three other candidates, independent Tom Ervin, Libertarian Steve French and United Citizens candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves, trailing much further behind. The election is on Nov. 4.

A Historic Cyberattack

On Oct. 26, 2012, Haley’s office announced that someone had hacked into the state Department of Revenue’s computer system and had stolen 3.6 million Social Security numbers and nearly 400,000 credit and debit card numbers. Investigators later said hackers gained access to information from electronically filed tax returns after a state employee opened an email that downloaded malware onto the computer.

At the time, The State reported that it took state officials 10 days to close the hacker’s access, and that the public was informed six days after that. State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said that affected taxpayers were not notified sooner to allow law enforcement time to gather evidence and reach “certain benchmarks in their investigation.”

Keel has maintained that position. He told FactCheck.org that Haley was specifically instructed by him and federal law enforcement officials not to publicly disclose the cyberattack to give investigators time to make some headway.

“Both myself and the special agent in charge at the Secret Service, we asked that [Haley] not go public until we reached certain benchmarks in our investigation,” Keel told FactCheck.org in a phone interview. “She did what we asked her to do.”

That key detail is left out of Sheheen’s attack ad.

Keel said he could not be more specific about what the investigative benchmarks were, since the investigation is still ongoing. No arrests have been made, but some media outlets have reported that it is believed the scheme originated in Russia.

“Once this gets completed, everyone will understand why we did what we did,” Keel said.

“We were doing what we felt was in the best interest of the citizens of our state,” Keel said, adding that the delay was deemed the “best [way] to protect our citizens.”

“I’d like to think that whoever was governor of our state and had all the facts would have done what [Haley] did,” Keel said. “When we accomplished what we set out to accomplish, we told her we’re ready to go public. It wasn’t like she wasn’t wanting to go public every day, but she listened to us.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did” had Haley made the breach public, he said.

The state offered a year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection to those whose information was stolen, although there have been no reports yet of anyone losing money due to the hacking.

In her initial response to the cyberattack, Haley said there wasn’t anything the state government “could have done … to avoid it.” A month later, after the release of a report from a computer security firm hired to find out how the breach occurred, Haley acknowledged that “we should have done more than we did” to protect the data, including encryption of all data. Haley also announced that the director of the Department of Revenue, Jim Etter, would resign at the end of the year, after the two agreed, she said, that “we need a new set of eyes at the Department of Revenue.”

A portion of the report prepared by Mandiant, the cybersecurity firm hired in the wake of the hacking revelation, was made public, but a more detailed report prepared for the state’s constitutional officers still has not been released. Sheheen has called for the report to be fully released publicly, a move that both the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and Secret Service oppose.

Sheheen has been critical of the Haley administration’s actions both before and after the cyberattack, and that’s certainly ripe for political debate. But the ad focuses on the 16-day delay in informing the public, and the delay was at the behest of law enforcement.

Haley campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said in an email to FactCheck.org that disregarding law enforcement’s request would have amounted to “obstruct[ing] a criminal investigation.”

Godfrey, Aug. 22: Even a politically desperate trial lawyer like Vince Sheheen should know better than to obstruct a criminal investigation. It’s shocking that Vince, as governor, would disregard the request of SLED and the Secret Service and compromise the effort to arrest the criminal hacker.

Kristin Sosanie, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Democratic Party, said in a phone interview with us that “law enforcement is always going to err on the side of wanting to keep things more private.” But Sheheen argues that the public’s right to know was more important in this case, she said. “It’s the job of the governor to weigh the public right to know and law enforcement’s tendency to want to keep things private as long as they can,” Sosanie said.

Ultimately, whether Haley should have disregarded law enforcement’s request is a matter of opinion. But that request is a critical piece of information for voters to know when weighing Haley’s decision to delay going public with the security breach.

– Robert Farley

More Senior Scare in Arkansas http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/more-senior-scare-in-arkansas/ Fri, 22 Aug 2014 19:57:33 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87811 A conservative group’s ad attacking Sen. Mark Pryor shows an image of a senior man while saying Pryor “suggested raising the retirement age” for Social Security. He did — but not for the gentleman pictured. Pryor’s suggestion pertained to those who are now teenagers.

The Arkansas Senate race has featured plenty of political messages aimed at scaring seniors. Back in February, Pryor ads made misleading claims about Medicare costs and benefits under a plan that his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, had supported. A few months later, the liberal Senate Majority PAC also ran ads attacking Cotton on Medicare. And now, the conservative Crossroads GPS is criticizing the Democratic senator with an ad that falsely implies he wanted to raise the Social Security retirement age for those who are already retired or close to it.

The ad begins with the image of an elderly woman, while the narrator says, “Arkansas seniors depend on Social Security and Medicare. It’s troubling that Senator Mark Pryor said we should overhaul Social Security and Medicare.”

The reference is to a Jan. 5, 2011, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story that said Pryor was vague on what exactly he supported doing to control spending on these programs. The “overhaul” word was used by the reporter, in the lead of the article: “Despite calling it ‘political dynamite,’ Arkansas’ senior senator Mark Pryor said Tuesday that the country’s deep deficits and sputtering economy require overhauling Social Security and Medicare.”

The newspaper reported that Pryor “avoided saying what concrete steps he favored to rein in entitlement spending. He repeatedly said he liked many of the recommendations released by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. That presidentially appointed panel has urged raising the retirement age and lowering cost-of-living increases for retirees.” The commission, which released its report in December 2010, also recommended gradually increasing the maximum amount of wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes, and gradually changing the benefit formula to be more progressive.

So, we have no specifics on what Pryor wanted to do to “overhaul” Social Security and Medicare. We’d note that many politicians from both parties have proposed ways to control the growth of spending on these programs, particularly Medicare, which has major financial challenges. Whether it’s “troubling” that Pryor wanted to do something about the spending growth is a matter of opinion.

The ad continues: “On Social Security, Pryor suggested raising the retirement age,” while an image of an older man is shown on screen. A video is then shown of Pryor saying, “say that they couldn’t get social security until they turn 68 or 69.”

Who are they? The ad doesn’t say, but the images leave the impression that Pryor proposed upping the retirement age now, affecting those who are very close to, or already in, retirement. It’s a technique we’ve seen in political ads many times, when the images on screen leave the false impression that a politician had made proposals that would impact those who are seniors today.

But Pryor was talking about raising the retirement age for people who are teenagers. Here’s the fuller quote from a June 6, 2011, interview with Hope, Arkansas’ KTSS-TV, with the relevant passage in bold.

Pryor, June 6, 2011: Yeah, Social Security is another thing that’s not in any of the budgets right now, but it is very, very fixable. And again if people get serious about this in Washington, we could fix Social Security next week, if we wanted to. It’s not that hard to do. Especially if we start right now, because Social Security is solvent until, you know, for about 25 years, so if you make small changes now you have 25 years those little changes to accumulate over time and really help. But you could pretty easily make Social Security solvent in perpetuity. Probably the biggest change would be is that you would take my kids’ generation, teenagers today, and life expectancy is longer et cetera, and probably say that they couldn’t get Social Security until they turn 68 or 69. If you just did that one change you would fix about 80% of it right there.

Seniors in high school may be affected by such a proposal, but the senior pictured in the ad clearly would not.

Finally, the ad says that the Affordable Care Act, which Pryor supported, will “cut Medicare Advantage benefits for our seniors.” Fair enough. While the ACA specifically says no guaranteed benefits under Medicare would be cut, the law does gradually reduce extra payments to Medicare Advantage plans to bring them in line with payments for traditional Medicare. MA plans, which receive higher payments on average than traditional Medicare, often offer extra benefits as a result, such as eyeglasses or gym memberships. We’ve long said those extras will likely go away as the extra payments do as well. According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have MA plans, a share that has increased since the ACA was enacted.

It’s worth noting, however, that the ACA also added new benefits for seniors, such as free preventive care, including cancer screenings, and increased prescription drug coverage for those who are in the “doughnut hole” gap in Part D coverage.

– Lori Robertson

Correction, Aug. 28: We originally wrote that the no-cost preventive care for Medicare beneficiaries under the Affordable Care Act included flu shots. The ACA requires private plans on the individual and small-group markets to cover flu shots without cost-sharing, but Medicare already had done so since 1993. More information on the changes in Medicare preventive services can be found here.

Father Doesn’t Always Know Best http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/father-doesnt-always-know-best/ Fri, 22 Aug 2014 17:14:47 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87807 A super PAC formed by the father of Rep. Ted Yoho’s primary challenger claims Yoho is “first in line” at “feeding at the special interest trough,” but offers up two misleading examples:

  • The ad accuses Yoho of taking “a nearly $20,000 junket paid for by a special interest group.” But the ad doesn’t mention that the “junket” was a trip to Israel or that Yoho is a member of the House Foreign Affairs’ subcommittees on the Middle East and terrorism.
  • It also says, “Yoho takes an Obamacare subsidy for himself.” The “subsidy,” as we have said before, is nothing new. The government, like most large employers, has long paid part of health care premiums for its employees, including members of Congress.

The ad is the work of Florida Conservatives United — a group formed in July by Robert Rush, who is the father of Yoho’s challenger, Jake Rush, in the Aug. 26 Republican primary. Robert Rush and his sister, Marian Rush, each donated $100,000 to the super PAC. As of Aug. 6, the PAC had no other donors. Marian Rush works at her brother’s law firm.

‘Junket’ … to Israel

Yoho won election to Florida’s 3rd Congressional District in 2012 with the support of tea party groups. He barely upset 12-term congressman Cliff Stearns in the Republican primary and then coasted to victory in the general election.

The last-minute attack ad from the Rush family PAC accuses Yoho of being a hypocrite. The ad — complete with snorting pigs, stacks of dollar bills and floating dollar signs — quotes him as saying during the 2012 campaign: “Career politicians are like pigs feeding at the trough.”

The ad goes on to say, “Now, he’s first in line at the trough, accepting a nearly $20,000 junket paid for by a special interest group.” A jet plane, stacks of dollar bills and a globe are shown to illustrate the excess.

But the ad leaves out key details, notably the location of the trip and the reason for it.

The trip was to Tel Aviv, Israel, and cost $19,186 for Yoho and his wife, according to Legistorm, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional travel. It was paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an arm of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Yoho is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and sits on two subcommittees: Middle East and North Africa, and Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.

Legistorm describes the trip this way, based on travel documents that it compiled from public records: “Republican members of Congress educational trip including meetings with top Israeli officials, seminars on history and foreign policy, and tours of multiple strategic and historical sites, including Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.”

The Gaza Strip, of course, is now the site of a war between Israel and Hamas, and Yoho sits on a key House subcommittee that deals with trouble in the Middle East. During the visit, the 29-member congressional delegation met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, according to the Gainesville Sun.

Of course, these trips mix business and pleasure, and Yoho told the Gainesville paper that it was “awesome” to visit the historic and religious sites. But to suggest it was a pleasure “junket” with no educational or diplomatic value is misleading.

‘Obamacare Subsidy’ Yet Again

The ad also raps Yoho, an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, for being a hypocrite on Obamacare. It says, “Candidate Yoho opposed Obamacare, but while families suffer under Obamacare, Congressman Yoho takes an Obamacare subsidy for himself.” It shows a doctored image of Yoho wearing an “I like Obamacare” button.

But there is no “Obamacare subsidy.” Members of Congress get the same employer contribution from the federal government to buy health insurance on the exchange created by the ACA as they did when they were buying health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits program.

We have debunked this line of attack so many times that we will just repeat what we said only last week about this gross distortions of the facts:

FactCheck.org, Aug. 20: The Office of Personnel Management pays an average of 72 percent (but no more than 75 percent) of the private health insurance premiums for federal workers under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which until this year also covered members of Congress and their staffs.

But to avoid another bogus criticism — that the Democrats’ 2010 health care bill would somehow have “exempted” members of Congress — the health care law requires House and Senate members and employees to purchase their health insurance through the ACA’s new insurance exchanges, rather than through the FEHB. The Office of Personnel Management proposed to continue the same employer payments when congressional members and aides moved from the FEHB to the new exchanges. “The amount of the employer contribution toward their Exchange premiums is no more than would otherwise be made toward coverage under the FEHB Program,” OPM stated.

Some voters in the 3rd Congressional District may still view the trip to Israel as a “junket” or the employer-contribution for health care as an “Obamacare subsidy” even after learning the details that we lay out here. They are entitled to their opinions. But opinions should be based on facts, and the super PAC ad conveniently leaves them out of this ad.

– Eugene Kiely

Aug. 22: Congress, Presidential Support, Nuclear Power http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/aug-22-congress-presidential-support-nuclear-power/ Fri, 22 Aug 2014 15:35:54 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=88032
Measuring Merkley’s Record http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/measuring-merkleys-record/ Thu, 21 Aug 2014 15:06:41 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87750 An ad from a Koch-backed group labels Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley an ineffective leader because he “wrote only one bill that became law” in six years. This kind of claim is an attack ad staple, but it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways of Congress.

First-term senators, like Merkley, typically get their names on very few bills that stand a chance of becoming law, and even then, the bills usually are relatively minor.

By the ad’s measuring stick, virtually every senator who came into office at the same time as Merkley has been a slacker. Two senators have had two sponsored bills each that became law. Merkley was one of four who had one. Four of the senators — including the only two Republicans who took office that year — have had none.

The claim also ignores proposed bills that Merkley sponsored that didn’t pass as stand-alone legislation but were incorporated into larger bills. And it overlooks a number of amendments that Merkley proposed that ended up being part of bills that ultimately passed.

Freedom Partners, a conservative group that has current and former Koch Industries officials on its board, has invested heavily in the Oregon Senate race, which pits the incumbent, Merkley, against the Republican challenger, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby. The ad is part of a reported $3.6 million ad campaign from Freedom Partners in Oregon. The election is on Nov. 4.

 ’Just One’

“We work hard,” the narrator in the Freedom Partners ad begins. “We deserve leaders who work just as hard for us. But Sen. Jeff Merkley? In six years, Merkley wrote only one bill that became law. Just one.”

That one bill was the relatively obscure S. 1448. Introduced by Merkley in July 2009, it sought to authorize a handful of Oregon Indian tribes to obtain a 99-year lease for trust land. The bill was described by tribal attorney Brett Kenney as a noncontroversial proposal that didn’t appear to have any legislative detractors. It passed the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President Obama in late 2010.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein warned, however, that measuring a first-term senator’s record based solely on a count of sponsored legislation that became law is fundamentally flawed.

Most bills that pass are sponsored by committee chairs or the committee’s ranking member of the minority party, Ornstein explained, or sometimes subcommittee chairs. Those positions are largely based on seniority. Merkley currently chairs two subcommittees, the Senate Banking Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Policy and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Green Jobs and the New Economy Subcommittee. But he wasn’t appointed to either position until February 2013.

Unless you are a committee chairman or the committee’s ranking member of the minority party (currently Republicans in the Senate), Ornstein told us, you are unlikely to have your name attached to a bill, unless it is a minor bill. The statistics back him up. Of the 37 Senate bills that have been signed into law in 2013 and 2014, 23 were sponsored by either a committee chair or ranking member of the committee. The rest were sponsored by subcommittee chairs or ranking members of subcommittees, or by the Senate majority or minority leaders.

In the backup material Freedom Partners supplied to us for the ad, the group noted that when Merkley came into office, Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, and had a supermajority in the Senate. They also noted that Oregon’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, authored and passed six bills during Merkley’s tenure. That’s true, but it only serves to reinforce Ornstein’s point. Wyden has been in the Senate since 1996 and has much more seniority than Merkley. Wyden currently chairs the Senate Committee on Finance.

We looked at the legislative record of all 10 senators who, like Merkley, came into office in January 2009. Two of them, Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Warner of Virginia, have had two sponsored bills become law. Four, including Merkley, had one. And four others — including the only two Republicans to take office at that time — have had none.

Since taking office, Merkley has sponsored 227 bills, amendments and resolutions. That ranks him fourth among the 10 senators who took office in January 2009, based on our analysis. Merkley ranks in the middle of the pack with regard to the number of pieces of sponsored legislation that got committee consideration, floor consideration or passed one chamber of government.

But Ornstein warns that those types of quantitative measures can be misleading.

“This is in no way an effective way to measure the effectiveness of a senator,” Ornstein said. Having only a small number of laws with your name on them “doesn’t mean you are not having an impact on legislation or the legislative process.”

For example, he said, Sen. Al Franken’s name isn’t on the Affordable Care Act, but Franken introduced an important amendment on medical loss ratios, requiring insurers to spend 80 percent to 85 percent of premiums on medical care (rather than administrative costs). When former President Bill Clinton touted the Affordable Care Act in his speech at the Democratic Convention in 2012, he highlighted the fact that “individuals and businesses have already gotten more than a billion dollars in refunds from insurance companies because the new law requires 80 to 85 percent of your premium to go to your health care, not profits or promotion.”

Franken, who came into office six months after Merkley in 2009, hasn’t written any stand-alone bills that have become law.

Some bills don’t pass as stand-alone legislation, but later get folded into larger bills. For example, in July 2009 Merkley proposed the Small Business Jump Start Act of 2009, a bill that sought to increase a tax deduction for start-up businesses. As a stand-alone bill, it was referred to a committee and died. But Merkley later added it as an amendment to the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which was sponsored by former House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank and became law.

Similarly, Merkley’s bill, the Bank On Our Communities Act of 2009  — which sought to create a $30 billion fund to provide capital to community banks for small-business loans — also stalled as stand-alone legislation. But it was folded into the Small Business Jobs Act as an amendment.

Other examples include Merkley’s Crowdfund Act — a bill that sought to limit how much small investors could put into crowd-funding sites — which was added as an amendment to the JOBS Act in 2012, and Merkley’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2013 — a bill that sought to provide loans for communities to repair their water systems — which was added to the Water Resources Development Act of 2013.

Merkley’s campaign provided a number of other examples, but you get the idea.

Merkley also authored the so-called Volcker rule, a key provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — a bill that President Obama called “the toughest financial reform” since the Great Depression. Named after Paul Volcker, a former Fed chairman and Obama economic adviser who proposed it, the rule places restrictions on certain banks and financial firms on proprietary trading — that is, it limits the ability of financial institutions to invest their own money in stocks, bonds and other products for their own profit. Politico called Sens. Carl Levin and Merkley “the two top advocates of strengthening the ‘Volcker rule’ throughout the Wall Street reform debate.” And while the Volcker rule amendment didn’t pass, a compromise was forged in conference committee that Merkley and Levin called “a victory.” Merkley touted the controversial rule as one of his top achievements in Congress in an interview with the Huffington Post in January.

Merkley was also part of a small group of Democratic senators who spearheaded important changes to the filibuster rule, to help expedite executive- and judicial-branch nominations.

Ornstein said that if you talked to committee and subcommittee leaders, “they’d tell you that Merkley is a very effective lawmaker.” We at FactCheck.org take no position on that, of course, but we caution readers not to put much stock into a claim about the effectiveness of a first-term lawmaker based on the number of sponsored stand-alone bills that have become law.

Obamacare and Higher Premiums

The narrator in the Freedom Partners ad also attacks Merkley for his support of the Affordable Care Act, which it refers to as Obamacare.

“He promised to fix Obamacare,” the narrator says, “but last year, our premium increases were the highest on the West Coast. This year, they’re going even higher.”

On screen, the ad shows a graphic claiming rates have gone up 55 percent for people aged 27, 24 percent for people aged 40, and 31 percent for people aged 64. The ad cites a Forbes article about a study of insurance premiums by the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Although the ad, without qualifiers, seems to suggest that rates have gone up by these amounts for all Oregonians, the Manhattan Institute study looked at the changes in insurance rates in the individual market after passage of the Affordable Care Act. The individual market is for those who buy insurance on their own as opposed to through an employer. About 267,000 Oregonians, 7 percent of the state’s population, purchased their own insurance in 2012, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

We have written previously about other qualifiers people ought to consider when weighing the Manhattan Institute analysis. For example, the analysis looked at the five least expensive plans before and after enactment of the ACA, but did not adjust for the fact that the ACA requires certain minimum benefits, which many individual market plans didn’t meet. By and large, the post-ACA plans are more robust (whether purchasers like or want that or not).

The Manhattan Institute analysis also didn’t include premiums for catastrophic plans, which could offer a cheaper option to those 27-year-olds. Nor did it account for subsidies, which the Manhattan Institute estimates will be available to 45 percent of uninsured Oregonians, or 303,690 people.

As for the claim that “this year” insurance premiums are “going even higher,” Freedom Partners points to an Associated Press story that reported that Moda, the insurance company with the largest share of the individual market in Oregon, will increase rates by 10.6 percent on average in 2015. That’s accurate, according to an Aug. 1 report from the state’s Department of Consumer and Business Services, but the report also noted that a number of other companies will be reducing rates in 2015.

Although the rate changes vary by insurer, as well as age, location, number of family members and plan choice,  Oregon’s Insurance Commissioner Laura Cali stated in a press release that “the approved rates are lower on average than in 2014, reflecting the effect of competition and Oregonians’ expanded access to health coverage.” We caution, however, that that’s not a weighted average, meaning the rates of smaller insurers were counted equally with those of larger insurers. A spokesman for the department said a weighted average was not calculated because people can select any plan they wish in the market exchange.

A table showing sample rate changes in 2015 by company and plan can be viewed here.

 – Robert Farley

Headed for the Hall of Shame http://www.factcheck.org/2014/08/headed-for-the-hall-of-shame/ Wed, 20 Aug 2014 22:04:54 +0000 http://www.factcheck.org/?p=87762 A Republican ad attacking Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas says he “voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.” Actually, what Pryor voted for wouldn’t have paid a penny to any immigrant while here illegally.

The ad also claims he voted to “give members of Congress special benefits” to buy health insurance. Actually, the benefits are no more “special” than those of all other federal employees. And Pryor didn’t vote to “give” them; he voted against a partisan proposal to take them away.

The ad is the work of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which started airing it Aug. 19.

‘Benefits to Illegal Immigrants’

The claim about giving benefits to those illegally living in the United States is an old distortion that we debunked back in October 2006, when the NRSC and others were using it to attack Democrats who had supported that year’s immigration bill, which passed the Senate with wide bipartisan support but died in the House. We later put the claim on our list of the “Whoppers of 2006.”

The vote the NRSC cited — then and now — wasn’t a vote to give immigrants who are in the country illegally anything they would not be entitled to under current law. Rather, it was a vote to kill a Republican amendment that would have stripped those gaining legal status under the proposed immigration bill of a right they already had. That is, the right of anyone gaining citizenship or legal status to get credit toward future Social Security benefits based on taxes paid while working in the U.S. without legal permission.

At the time, proponents of the amendment argued that it would prevent those gaining legal status under the immigration bill from being rewarded for illegal activity. The amendment’s author, Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, said during debate: “People who broke the law to come here and broke the law to work here can benefit from their conduct to collect Social Security.”

On the other hand, opponents called Ensign’s amendment punitive. “[E]veryone this amendment would affect will be legal residents under the terms of the bill,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “Those are the hard-working men and women this amendment seeks to penalize.”

That’s a fair debate. And in the end, the Senate voted 50-49 to kill Ensign’s amendment. But to twist a vote to kill Ensign’s measure into a vote to pay benefits to people while they are here illegally is a gross distortion of the facts.

Worth noting, we think, is that one of those voting against Ensign on this issue was Arizona Sen. John McCain, who went on to became the Republican nominee for president in 2008. McCain, too, was falsely attacked in the 2010 Senate primary for “rewarding illegal aliens with Social Security” benefits. We debunked that attack on the same grounds.

‘Special Benefits Under Obamacare’

Another gross distortion is the ad’s claim that Pryor voted “to give members of Congress special benefits to purchase Obamacare.” That’s absurd. Pryor supported continuing the same employer payments for health insurance that members of Congress have had for many years, and which are the same as those paid for millions of other federal employees, retirees and their families.

The vote in question came during the final hours of the partisan maneuvering that resulted in last year’s 16-day government shutdown. In a straight party-line vote, Pryor joined 51 other Democrats (and two independents) to reject a House-passed bill that would have delayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate for a full year in return for providing funding to keep the federal government open through Dec. 15. It also contained a provision that would strip lawmakers and aides of their long-standing health care benefits.

But there’s nothing “special” about those benefits, as we pointed out a few weeks prior to the vote when some Republicans started claiming it was a “special subsidy.” The Office of Personnel Management pays an average of 72 percent (but no more than 75 percent) of the private health insurance premiums for federal workers under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which until this year also covered members of Congress and their staffs.

But to avoid another bogus criticism — that the Democrats’ 2010 health care bill would somehow have “exempted” members of Congress — the health care law requires House and Senate members and employees to purchase their health insurance through the ACA’s new insurance exchanges, rather than through the FEHB. The Office of Personnel Management proposed to continue the same employer payments when congressional members and aides moved from the FEHB to the new exchanges. “The amount of the employer contribution toward their Exchange premiums is no more than would otherwise be made toward coverage under the FEHB Program,” OPM stated.

One Out of Three

The final claim in the ad is that Pryor “voted against a balanced budget amendment.” That’s true; he did, on March 2, 2011.

For the record, what Pryor voted against was a nonbinding measure that said simply: “It is the sense of the Senate that Congress should pass and the States should agree to an amendment to the Constitution requiring a Federal balanced budget.” And the measure failed, even though it received 58 votes, because that fell short of the 60 required for passage. Pryor was among the 40 senators, all Democrats except for two independents, who voted against.

So of the three claims made by this ad, only one is factually accurate. And while batting .333 may get a baseball player into the Hall of Fame, we think it qualifies a political ad-maker for another hall entirely.

– Brooks Jackson