A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Tall Tax Tales

In the Nevada Senate race, Angle makes the inflated claim that Reid raised taxes 300 times.


Summary

Republican Sharron Angle says in a TV ad that Nevada Sen. Harry Reid "voted to raise taxes" 300 times. A "staggering 300 times." He didn't.

We reviewed the 304 votes provided by the Angle campaign and found its final tally was padded:

  • 86 votes were against proposed tax cuts, not votes to raise taxes. That includes a few votes to cut taxes — just not as much as the Republicans wanted or the kind of taxes that the Republicans were seeking to cut.
  • 153 votes were on concurrent budget resolutions, which are votes on non-binding resolutions that do not go to the president and do not have the force of law. By themselves, they could have not raised taxes.
  • 19 votes were duplicates. This includes procedural votes on the same provisions — such as three votes in 1998 to raise the cigarette tax by $1.10 a pack. It also includes votes for or against a Senate bill and the House-Senate conference report on the same bill.

So, how many times did Reid vote to raise taxes? We found 51 of the 300 votes could fairly be labeled as such. And that's being generous. That number includes, for example, votes on bills that raised taxes for some and lowered taxes for others. And it includes six votes on GOP amendments to the stimulus bill — which overall contained $280 billion in tax relief.

Analysis

It has become a staple of GOP attacks on "liberal" or "tax-and-spend" Democrats to tally up the number of times he or she voted to raise taxes. We saw it during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns against Sens. John Kerry (385 votes) and Barack Obama (94 votes). In both cases, we found "tax tally trickery," as we called it, to pad the numbers, and those same methods have been employed by Angle's campaign against Reid.

[TET ]

Angle for Senate TV Ad: "300"

Announcer: You're looking at every time Harry Reid voted to raise taxes. Income taxes, taxes on social security, taxes on small business, even the dreaded death tax. A staggering 300 times Reid voted to raise taxes. And it's a big reason for Nevada's economic meltdown. Now Reid and Pelosi are planning to raise taxes on 34 million families right after the election. Let's stop Harry Reid from ever raising our taxes again. [/TET]

The Angle ad — which first aired Oct. 13 and is simply called "300" — opens with bill and resolution numbers scrolling quickly across the screen as the announcer says: "You're looking at every time Harry Reid voted to raise taxes." But looks can be deceiving.

Opposing Tax Cuts Not the Same as 'Raising Taxes'

A quick way to get to 300 votes is to include every attempt by the Republicans to cut taxes since 1983 — which is when Reid first joined Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. He later became a senator. For example, the Angle campaign claims Reid voted to raise taxes 16 times in 1995 on various budget bills and amendments that concluded with Senate passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 1995, a budget bill for fiscal year 1996 that contained $245 billion in tax cuts.

But all of Reid's 16 votes were either to block or reduce the scope of the proposed tax cuts. Angle's campaign cites, for example, Reid's vote for an amendment (No. 2785) offered by Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia that would have increased benefits for mentally disabled veterans and offset the cost by limiting the proposed tax cuts to only those families earning less than $100,000. Reid’s vote would not have raised taxes, but rather it would have cut taxes and increased benefits to mentally disabled veterans.

Also worth noting, the Angle campaign does not list a vote Reid cast against a tax hike in the Balanced Budget Act. The budget bill included tighter eligibility restrictions on the Earned Income Tax credit for the working poor to save $43 billion over seven years. That would have effectively raised income taxes on some working poor. Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey sought to send the bill back to the Finance Committee to remove the restrictions. But the GOP leadership succeeded in tabling and effectively killing Bradley’s amendment.

Angle's campaign also padded its count with votes on major tax-cut legislation in 1999 (seven votes), 2001 (21 votes) and 2003 (18 votes). In all, we found 86 votes that either opposed tax cuts or tried to reduce the scope of the proposed tax cuts.

In 1999, for example, the Senate passed a bill that would have cut taxes by $792 billion over 10 years. President Bill Clinton had proposed a $250 billion tax cut over 10 years and threatened to veto the $792 billion bill. So, the debate wasn’t about whether to cut taxes but how large the tax cuts should be. Nevertheless, the Angle campaign claims Reid “voted to raise taxes” in one instance because he supported an amendment offered by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts that would have reduced the size of the GOP tax cuts in order to provide prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients. That’s not raising taxes. Reid's votes would have cut taxes (although not as much as the Republicans wanted) and provided prescription drug coverage for seniors. (This was at a time of budget surpluses.)

Non-binding Resolutions

The majority of the votes Angle counts toward raising taxes — 153 of the 300 — were not bills at all, but rather non-binding concurrent budget resolutions that did not go to the president and did not carry the force of law. The resolutions serve as guidelines or a blueprint for the appropriations and tax-writing committees to follow when writing the annual spending bills. But they are non-binding.

Similarly, there were nine votes on non-binding bills that stated a “sense of the Senate” — such as a vote in 1995 on an amendment (No. 362) that expressed the sense of the Senate that tax cuts would "hinder efforts to reduce the federal deficit." Those, too, do not carry the force of law.

It's true that such votes indicate support for tax increases or opposition to tax cuts, but those votes by themselves do not raise or cut taxes.

Double-Counting

Angle’s list also includes 19 duplicate votes. For example, she counts three votes on a tobacco bill that Reid and other Democrats supported in 1998. But they were all procedural votes that failed to advance the same bill: S. 1415, or the National Tobacco Policy and Youth Smoking Reduction Act, which would have raised taxes by $1.10 per pack of cigarettes. Vote 162 was a procedural vote to advance the tobacco bill. The measure failed, and the bill did not come to a floor vote. Twice, then-Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota attempted to insert the exact same language of the failed tobacco bill into two other bills: the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act (vote 164) and the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (vote 198). All three attempts failed. Angle counted that as three votes to raise taxes; we counted it as one.

There were also 10 times when Angle counted both the vote on the Senate bill and Reid’s vote on the House-Senate conference report on the same bill. You can count passage of the Senate bill or the conference report, but not both, since it is a vote on the same bill. That padded the count by 10 votes. (Some of the duplicates were also on tax-cut measures.)

We did count, however, the numerous times when Reid voted on individual tax-raising measures that were added to the bill and the final vote on that bill.

When Did Reid Raise Taxes?

Reid did vote to raise taxes, of course. But not all tax hikes are equal:

  • Six votes to raise taxes were on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the much-maligned stimulus bill championed by Reid. We counted those. But we should note that the bill contained $280 million in tax cuts, and Angle doesn’t give Reid credit, of course, for his vote on the bill. According to a February 2009 report by the tax-information company CCH, the $280 billion in tax relief represented 35 percent of the bill’s total cost. That includes payroll tax cuts for most Americans and business tax cuts and credits designed to stimulate spending and hiring. Still, Angle counts only the times Reid blocked attempts by the Republicans to cut different taxes.
  • Six of the votes would have raised taxes only on those earning more than $1 million annually. Typically, the new additional revenue would have gone to fund popular programs. Reid, for example, voted in 2004 to reduce the existing tax cuts enacted in 2001 for millionaires to provide an additional $15.8 billion to fund police, fire, and other state and local emergency forces.

We also agreed to include votes on amendments and bills that raised taxes for some, while cutting them for others. For example, Reid voted in 1995 for a motion offered by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey that sought to expand tax deductions for home-based businesses but raise the corporate tax rate from 28 percent to 32 percent. Two other votes would have imposed a "windfall profit tax" on oil companies with the new revenue going to provide consumer rebates or a $100 tax credit for each personal exemption claimed by all taxpayers.

We also included in our tax-raising tally Reid’s votes against any attempts to extend or make permanent existing tax cuts, such the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts during the Bush administration. We recognize that most Democrats would not view these as tax increases, but the public does.

– by Eugene Kiely and Michael Morse, with Lara Seligman and Joshua Goldman

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