A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

AFSCME’s Big, Brazen Attack

Labor union spends a pretty penny on misleading ads against GOP House candidates in Michigan and Nevada.


Summary

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is spending more than $1.5 million on ads that attack Republican congressional candidates in Michigan and Nevada. The big ad buy from the labor union also comes with some grandiose — and misleading — claims:

  • An ad in Michigan says GOP candidate Tim Walberg cast votes that "helped burn down our economy." But the four Democratic-backed bills the ad cites all passed — regardless of how Walberg voted.
  • The ad also charges that Walberg "skipped out on a vote" to save auto industry jobs. He was in the hospital, recovering from surgery, when the House voted on, and easily passed, the automakers bailout bill.
  • In Nevada, an ad claims that Republican Joe Heck’s Social Security proposal "would have erased" a woman’s retirement. But Heck has called for voluntary private accounts, not forced "privatization" of the whole system.
  • Another ad makes the over-the-top charge that Heck is "dangerous to women," because of his Social Security idea and his opposition to a state bill to require insurance coverage of a cervical cancer vaccine. Heck opposed the bill, but it easily became law. 

Both Republican candidates are running against freshman Democrats in the House.

Analysis

In Michigan’s 7th District, Republican Tim Walberg is running against Democratic Rep. Mark Schauer, who defeated Walberg in 2008. The race is a rematch for a seat Walberg used to hold — he won it in 2006.

AFSCME’s ad attacking the Republican is misleading — beginning with the central theme that Walberg’s "votes helped burn down our economy, damaging families and industries across Michigan." The ad cites four votes, but none of them support such a claim. 

In fact, all four of the Democratic-sponsored bills passed in some version — with or without Walberg’s support. None of them has been tied to the nation’s deep economic problems.

[TET ]

AFSCME TV Ad: "Burned"

Announcer: When Tim Walberg went to Congress, his votes helped burn down our economy. Damaging families and industries across Michigan. Rather than cut taxes for the middle class, Walberg sided with big oil and hedge funds — gave them tax loopholes. With the auto industry in crisis, layoffs happening daily, Walberg skipped out on a vote to save those jobs. And now Walberg wants his job back? Hmm, haven’t we been burned badly enough?

[/TET]

Opposed Middle-Class Tax Cuts? Not Really.

Let’s start with the middle-class tax cuts. The ad, which cost $750,000, says: "Rather than cut taxes for the middle class, Walberg sided with big oil and hedge funds — gave them tax loopholes." That’s not exactly true. He did vote for the middle-class tax cut in question in 2007, and when the tax cut bill came up again in 2008, it went unresolved before he left Congress. (We’ll get to the "tax loopholes" later.)

The tax bill at issue — in 2007 and again in 2008 — was designed to help middle-class taxpayers avoid the Alternative Minimum Tax. The AMT, as its name implies, is an alternative to the regular tax system and requires taxpayers earning above a certain amount to pay a minimum tax. It was designed to make sure wealthy taxpayers do not use tax deductions to greatly reduce or even eliminate their income tax liability. The tax law was enacted in 1969, but it has not been adjusted for inflation and, as a result, more and more taxpayers have been required to pay the alternative tax. Every year since 2001, Congress has temporarily raised the threshold for imposing the tax to avoid forcing middle-class taxpayers to pay higher taxes. (For example, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says 4 million taxpayers had to pay the AMT in 2009 — a number that will jump to 27 million, unless Congress acts again this year.)

Now, Walberg voted against the House version of the Temporary Tax Relief Act of 2007 (later renamed the Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2007). But a month later he voted for the final version, after the bill was amended by the Senate to remove House language that would have raised taxes on the wealthy to offset the cost of the AMT fix. President Bush signed it into law.

So, the middle class got the tax break and Walberg voted for it. As the Los Angeles Times reported: “Both parties agreed that middle-income taxpayers should be protected. The issue was the cost. Wednesday’s vote marked a significant defeat for congressional Democrats, who had fought to offset the lost revenue with taxes on a small group of very wealthy Americans.”

In 2008, the same partisan gamesmanship played out — except this time the Democrats wanted to pay for the middle-class tax cut by closing "tax loopholes" on investment fund managers and oil companies.The House Committee on Ways and Means estimated that the 2008 bill would have raised $31 billion over 10 years from hedge fund managers and $13.6 billion over 10 years from oil companies. Walberg voted against the Alternative Minimum Tax Relief Act of 2008, as did most Republicans, because of the tax hikes. The bill made it out of the House, but Democrats failed to get the votes to bring the bill to a floor vote on Dec. 11, 2008.

Of course, Congress wasn’t going to allow millions of middle-class taxpayers to get socked with higher taxes, so the AMT "patch" was included in President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill. By that point, Walberg had been defeated in the 2008 general election and was no longer in Congress.

‘Gave Them Tax Loopholes?’ Not Really.

In addition to voting against the tax increases on investment managers and oil companies, Walberg voted against H.R. 6 — an energy bill that would have repealed about $22 billion worth of oil and gas subsidies to help pay for tax incentives for energy efficiency and renewable energy provisions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The ad cites this as further evidence that he sided with oil interests and "gave them tax loopholes," rather than cut taxes for the middle class.

But voting against a bill that seeks to close loopholes or impose new taxes (depending on your viewpoint) is not the same as creating tax loopholes — which is what the ad says when it claims he "gave them tax loopholes." 

And, in the end, the tax laws never changed — not because of Walberg but because of Senate Republicans. The House’s attempt to repeal the tax breaks was largely stripped from the final bill in the Senate. Walberg voted against the Senate version, too, even though it kept the tax loopholes in place, and so did the sponsor of the House bill, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia.

Opposed Auto Bailout? Not Really.

Finally, the ad slams the Michigan Republican for missing a critical vote for his district and state. And it is true. He missed the Dec. 10, 2008, vote in the House that provided automakers with $14 billion in emergency loans. "With the auto industry in crisis, layoffs happening daily, Walberg skipped out on a vote to save those jobs," the ad says, showing a man holding a placard that reads, "SAVE JOBS!"

The implication is that Walberg turned his back on his constituents at their most urgent hour. But there are two mitigating factors that voters should know.

First, Walberg "skipped out" on the vote because he was in the hospital recovering from surgery. A week after the vote, he told the Ann Arbor News that he would have voted for the bill, but he planned the surgery for December, when Congress usually isn’t in session. The vote was not in jeopardy in the House, but it was expected to face stiff opposition in the Senate.

Second, Walberg did actively support federal aid for the ailing auto industry. Walberg and the rest of the Michigan delegation — Democrats and Republicans alike — signed a letter urging President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to provide emergency loans to the auto industry “to protect millions of jobs at risk.” The letter said, “We cannot simply let these jobs and these companies disappear because we will never be able to replace them.”

So, he missed the vote, but he didn’t oppose federal action to help the industry and save jobs. Voters can decide whether to hold that against him.

Social Security Gambling

In Nevada, AFSCME is also spending $750,000 on an ad to attack Republican Joe Heck, a former state senator who is running to unseat Democratic Rep. Dina Titus in the state’s 3rd Congressional District. That ad began airing last week, and a second ad against Heck was launched this week, airing Aug. 30 for the first time. Both ads claim that Heck supports "privatized" Social Security. The second spot goes as far as to say "he would have erased" one woman’s retirement, "gambling it away on Wall Street." 

[TET ]

AFSCME Ad: "Phyllis Hamilton"

Narrator: Phyllis Hamilton worked every day for 40 years, raised a son on her own. But if it was up to Joe Heck, he would have erased her retirement, gambling it away on Wall Street. Turning Social Security into another Wall Street bailout, where $6 trillion was erased when the economy crashed. 40 years of work, only to be erased by more Wall Street recklessness? Tell Joe Heck that’s not a risk Phyllis or any of us want to take. AFSCME is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET]

But Heck doesn’t propose to force anyone to "gamble … away" their Social Security on the stock market. Instead, he has called for voluntary personal accounts.

The very support cited in the ads makes this clear. The labor union points to Heck’s stated position in a May interview. He called for a voluntary program in which employees could invest their portion of Social Security taxes in private accounts — whether it be CDs, mutual funds or individual stocks. The portion of taxes paid by employers would remain in the current Social Security system.

Here’s what Heck said in response to the question: "How would you propose to reform the Social Security program?"

Heck, Nevada News & Views interview, May: I believe that any individual should have the right to voluntarily take their portion of Social Security withholding and invest it as they deem appropriate. It is arrogant of government to think that they can invest someone’s money better than they can. Since this would be voluntary, any individual who would exercise this option must understand that they are assuming the risk associated with private investment. The employer contribution should continue to go to the Social Security program and the benefit upon retirement calculated based on those contributions.

The "privatize" claim is a favorite — and usually misleading — Democratic talking point that’s been around since President George W. Bush proposed creating private accounts for younger workers. What Heck calls for is a much more expansive proposal than the one pushed by Bush, who wanted to allow younger workers to invest just 2 percent of their taxable earnings in a few, government-controlled and diversified funds. Heck’s idea would allow people to invest 6.2 percent any way they wished. Someone could potentially "gamble" away half of their Social Security funds, and Heck warns that those who choose to manage their funds would be "assuming the risk associated with private investment."

AFSCME’s ad instructs viewers to "[t]ell Joe Heck that’s not a risk Phyllis [the woman in the ad] or any of us want to take." That’s fine by Heck’s proposal — no one would be forced to invest Social Security funds in the stock market. His program would be strictly voluntary. And no one’s retirement could be "erased" completely; half of Social Security withholding would remain in the current system.

‘Dangerous to Women?’

The first ad AFSCME launched opens with an ominous "warning" to "Nevada women" that Heck is "dangerous." An on-screen graphic underscores the charge, saying that Heck is "dangerous to women." That sounds like AFSCME wants to put out an APB for his arrest. But there’s no criminal activity involved here. Instead, the labor union takes issue with Heck’s opposition to requiring insurance companies to pay for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that prevents cervical cancer.

[TET ]

AFSCME Ad: "Warning"

Announcer: Warning – Nevada women, Dr. Joe Heck is running for Congress and he’s dangerous. Even though nearly 4,000 women die every year from cervical cancer, Heck voted against requiring insurance companies to cover the vaccine, saying they wouldn’t need it if they didn’t engage in risky behavior. What’s more, if up to Heck, women’s retirement would be privatized, gambled away on Wall Street. Dr. Heck may have taken an oath to protect us, but his actions are dangerous to women and to all of us. AFSCME is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET]

The announcer in the ad is correct in saying that Heck, a physician, "voted against requiring insurance companies to cover the vaccine." As a state senator in 2007, Heck opposed the measure, SB 409 (which was proposed by then-state Sen. Dina Titus), in a 14-7 Senate vote. An on-screen graphic in the ad is wrong, however, when it says Heck "voted against cancer vaccine." Viewers who aren’t listening closely may not pick up on the announcer’s version, that Heck voted against making insurance carriers pay for it. He didn’t vote against the vaccine itself.

AFSCME’s ad then charges that Heck opposed the bill, "saying [women] wouldn’t need it if they didn’t engage in risky behavior." That’s not exactly what Heck said, though he did open himself up to criticism by saying he had a "philosophical issue" with a vaccine for a cancer caused by "behavioral" "risk factors."

Here’s what the Las Vegas Sun reported on Heck’s comments:

Las Vegas Sun, Sept. 24, 2008: Heck, of Henderson, told a 2007 state Senate committee that he had “philosophical” objections to mandating coverage of the vaccine because there were preventable risk factors, including multiple sex partners, that sometimes lead to HPV transmission and then cancer.

Here’s what Heck said at the 2007 committee meeting: “I do have a bit of a philosophical issue with this vaccine in that this type of cancer is, ah, three of the major types of risk factors are behavioral for this type of cancer.”

He compared it to a vaccine for lung cancer.

“I wonder if it opens the door that, should some great day we develop a vaccine for the type of cancer that’s caused by smoking, are we then going to mandate that everybody who smokes needs to have an insurance-paid or government-paid vaccine?”

Democratic script writers drew an inference, fairly or not: Heck believes women shouldn’t be granted a vaccine to allow them to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Heck told the Sun that he actually opposed the legislation because he believed a mandate to cover the vaccine would drive up the cost of insurance. But he also elaborated on his analogy to smokers, saying: “I wasn’t trying to say women are bringing this on themselves. I was saying, ‘Do you say to someone who’s smoking tobacco, we’re going to mandate the insurance company cover a vaccine for lung cancer, and then you can smoke with impunity?’ ”

Titus’ bill passed the Legislature by a 36-6 vote and became law in 2007.

Heck’s website makes no mention of his "behavioral" comments and instead says that he "believes that Nevada’s women should decide for themselves — in consultation with their doctor and family — whether they should receive this vaccination which has a history of adverse side effects including several reported deaths." But the bill didn’t require anyone to get the vaccine — it required insurance companies to pay for it if a woman chose to get it. The Associated Press reported in 2007 before the bill became law that most insurers in the state already were covering it. Heck spokeswoman Mari Nakashima told us that the statement was a reference to the bill forcing the vaccine onto all insurance plans, whether women wanted that coverage or not.

Controversy has surrounded the HPV vaccine, particularly because it is recommended that 11- and 12-year-old girls get the vaccine, which prevents a very common sexually transmitted virus — at least 50 percent of men and women who are sexually active will get the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the time, those with HPV don’t have any health issues, but it can cause cervical cancer if left untreated. As for reported deaths, the CDC said that 53 deaths of those who had received the vaccine had been reported to a voluntary, unverified system CDC uses, as of the end of May. A total of 29.5 million doses had been given. Of the reported deaths, scientists were only able to follow up on 29 — the others didn’t leave identifiable information. CDC said that "there was no unusual pattern or clustering to the deaths that would suggest that they were caused by the vaccine."

We take no position on the vaccine itself, the bill Heck opposed, or his reasons for opposing it. We leave it to readers to form their own opinions on these issues. But we can say that AFSCME’s charge that Heck is "dangerous to women" is over-the-top.

— by Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson

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