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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Burrowing into “Borrowing”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies have launched a last-minute TV attack claiming that "Washington wants 600 billion in new borrowing for their health care bill," despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office projects the bill will reduce the federal deficit over the next 10 years, and for the 10 years after that, as well.

The ad was announced Thursday, March 18 by Employers for a Healthy Economy, a coalition of business groups opposed to the legislation. The group said the spot is airing on national cable television and in nine states.

While the words "Debt Crisis" appear on screen accompanied by ominous chords of music, an earnest female announcer says that "Washington isn’t listenting" and that it "wants 600 billion in new borrowing for their health care bill." That’s reinforced by the words "Borrow an additional $600 billion," which appear on screen.

But wait a minute. The nonpartisan CBO said — also on March 18 — that the Senate bill combined with the House modifications "would produce a net reduction in federal deficits of $138 billion over the 2010–2019 period as result of changes in direct spending and revenue." CBO said the deficit reductions are likely to continue into the next decade as well — by one-quarter to one-half of a percent of the value of the nation’s economy as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP.

So how can a bill that is officially projected to reduce the deficit by $138 billion result in $600 billion in "new borrowing"? The ad’s sponsors don’t say, except to cite Fortune magazine briefly on screen. That refers to a March 12 article by Fortune Senior Editor at Large Shawn Tully, who’s been a relentless critic of Democratic health care legislation. Tully argues, for one thing, that the $371 billion cost of staving off a scheduled 21 percent cut in physicians’ fees under Medicare should be charged to the health care bill, even though it was handled separately and is not actually part of the current legislation. He even adds interest expense to the "borrowing" that he claims will result.

That accounts for roughly half the difference between CBO’s accounting and Tully’s. He makes other arguments as well, which we won’t attempt to summarize here. The Chamber’s TV ad, however, might have been more accurate had it attributed its claim to "the opinions of one business magazine columnist."

Footnote: A tip of the hat to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder for noting the family resemblance between this ad and the 2004 "Wolves" ad run by the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. That attack, produced by the same Republican media firm responsible for this one, was also misleading.