A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Extras: Obama, Bush, Health Care and More


In this edition of Extras, we look at morphing presidents, a piece of health care pie chart and an ad that checks itself.

Mighty Morphin’ Presidents

In Sunday’s New York Times, the American Civil Liberties Union took out a full page ad urging President Obama to try Sept. 11 defendants in criminal court, as opposed to military tribunals. The ad even included a stark graphic morphing Obama’s face with former President Bush’s:

But the ad cites a questionable statistic. It says that "our criminal justice system has successfully handled over 300 terrorism cases compared to only 3 in the military commissions." There have only been three cases tried in front of military commissions, but the civilian criminal justice system is another matter.

The ACLU told us that it took the 300 figure from Attorney General Eric Holder, who cited it during congressional testimony in 2009. As we pointed out a few weeks ago, that number can be traced back to a Bush era Department of Justice budget request that said department work had "resulted in the securing of 319 convictions or guilty pleas in terrorism or terrorism-related cases arising from investigations conducted primarily after September 11, 2001." But as we noted then, a media relations officer could not verify those numbers.

Rather, the most thorough source of terrorism case statistics we’ve been able to find is the New York University Center on Law and Security. The center recently released a Terrorism Report Card that identifies 174 individuals who were "convicted of terrorism or national security violations" by civilian courts. But, as Karen Greenberg, the NYU center’s director, told us: "You can come up with any number by putting whatever you’d like to in a category and that’s not particularly helpful." Greenberg’s center tallied 523 convictions on "terrorism-related" charges, which include lesser offenses than terrorism per se.


A Small Slice of the Pie?

The insurance companies’ lobbying group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, has been fighting a bad reputation for the industry during the debate over health care legislation. The Obama administration, as well as liberal groups, has blamed the insurance companies for overcharging and mistreating consumers, and the Democrats’ legislation aims to regulate the industry. AHIP’s latest counter message is an ad that says insurance costs are a mighty small part of the health care spending pie. The statistics, though, could use some explanation.

The ad says that “health insurance companies’ costs are only 4 percent of all health care spending.” Some viewers might think the ad is referring to health care premiums. That’s not the case. The line refers to the net cost of private health insurance, which is the difference between premiums the companies took in as revenue and the benefits they paid out, as well as administrative costs, marketing, commissions and profits. Total national health care spending for 2009 was projected to be $2.47 trillion, and the companies’ net costs were projected to be $92 billion, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which compiles these figures.

As for premiums, consumers are expected to pay $808.7 billion in private health insurance premiums in 2009, which is 33 percent of national health care spending. Plus, out-of-pocket payments for consumers would total $284 billion, which is 11 percent of national spending (see table 4).


Doing Our Work for Us

Finally, here’s a candidate for the easiest bit of fact-checking we will ever have to do: The American Future Fund is airing an ad that makes a claim about Democrats that just as well could be made about Republicans.

AFF says Democrats have engaged in "hypocrisy" by proposing to use reconciliation to pass a health care bill, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others opposed reconciliation when Democrats were in the minority and Republicans wanted to use it. That’s a fair point, but the same hypocrisy charge can (and has) been made against Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who favored reconciliation when Republicans were in charge but now has the opposite view of this congressional procedure.

The ad also says:

AFF ad: Now Reid and Obama plan to dodge Senate rules. They’re resorting to a legislative trick called the Nuclear Option because they don’t have the votes.

The "Nuclear Option" is a reference to reconciliation. But it’s not a "dodge" of Senate rules because it is part of the Senate’s rules. It was created as part of the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act.