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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

New Hampshire Debates, Take 2

Less than 12 hours after the ABC News/Yahoo! debate in Manchester ended, the Republican presidential candidates were at it again — debating on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” As they did the night before, the candidates at times distorted the truth on a variety of topics, including Medicare, job creation, gasoline prices and environmental regulations.

Gingrich vs. Romney on Attack Ads

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed The Washington Post had found “virtually nothing accurate” in a TV spot attacking him, produced by a pro-Romney group. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ticked off a number of statements from the ad that he said were true.

Romney is mostly correct, and Gingrich is wrong. We found that ad had a few false and misleading claims, but also found that many were accurate, as Romney stated.

Gingrich rested his claim on a Dec. 21 story by The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” columnist, Glenn Kessler, who awarded the ad four “Pinocchios,” the worst accuracy rating the Post gives out.

Gingrich: [O]ne of the ads I complained about got four Pinocchios. …  Now, to get four Pinocchios in a 30-second ad means there’s virtually nothing accurate in 30 seconds.

That’s not true. Kessler based his rating on only four claims in the ad (including some we also found to be false). But he let several other claims go without criticism or comment. “There were a number of things in that ad that I did not quibble with,” Kessler told us via email, when we asked for comment on Gingrich’s latest statement. “And it should be noted that Gingrich himself has earned four Pinocchios on two occasions.”

Romney recited several claims he said were from the ad and were true. He said the ad was true when it said “you’d been forced out of the speakership.” (It’s true that Gingrich was forced to step down as speaker, but that’s not mentioned in the ad that Gingrich cited.) Romney said the ad was true when it said “that you had sat down with Nancy Pelosi and “argued for, for a climate change bill,” which he did (although he later opposed the legislation Pelosi supported). Romney also said the ad was correct when it said Gingrich called the Paul Ryan Medicare plan “a right-wing social engineering plan.” (Gingrich did that, and later relented. But the “social engineering” statement is not part of the ad Gingrich mentioned.)

And finally, Romney brought up the House ethics panel’s investigation of Gingrich:

Romney: It said that — that as part of an investigation, an ethics investigation, that you had to reimburse some $300,000. Those things were all true.

This episode is in the ad and it’s mainly true. The ad called it a “fine,” not a reimbursement. The ethics committee characterized it as a “payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation.” For our full analysis of the ad — which is generally less critical of it than Kessler’s — see our Dec. 23 article, “Attacks Against Gingrich: How Accurate?

Gingrich on Gasoline Prices

Gingrich said gasoline prices in 2011 were the highest in U.S. history and a “direct result” of President Barack Obama’s policies. It’s true that the average annual cost of a gallon of gasoline was $3.521 in 2011 — the highest in history. But it is wrong to say that’s a “direct result” of Obama’s policies.

Gasoline prices are volatile, set on the world market and subject to global events. In fact, the average annual cost of gasoline was almost as high under Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, in 2008, before dropping in 2009 and spiking again in 2011.

Gingrich: Under Obama, 2011 was the highest price of gasoline in history. It is a direct result of his policies, which kill jobs, raise the price of heating oil and gasoline, weaken the United States, increase our dependence on foreign countries, and weaken our national security in the face of Iran trying to close the Straits of Hormuz.

The former House speaker joins a long list of Republicans – including Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – who have blamed Obama for high gas prices. It is true that the average cost of a gallon of gasoline has skyrocketed during Obama’s term. It was at $1.847 on Jan. 19, 2009, the day before Obama took office, according to the Energy Information Administration. The weekly price of gasoline reached $3.965 the week of May 9, 2011, and remains high at $3.299 as of Jan. 2.

But the weekly record high was set during the week ending July 7, 2008, while Bush was president, at $4.114 per gallon. In fact, prior to last year, the record for the average annual cost of gasoline was set in 2008, when it reached $3.246. It dropped to $2.353 in 2009, before ticking up to $2.782 in 2010 and setting a new high mark of $3.521 last year.

Bottom line: Obama is no more to blame for the high cost of gasoline than Bush was to blame in 2008. We have written extensively about the topic, including a March 24 article, “Is Obama to Blame for $4 Gasoline?”

Gingrich Repeats Inflated Fraud Claim

Gingrich repeated his inflated claim that by cutting “theft alone we could save $100 billion” in Medicare and Medicaid, and that the only people punished would be “crooks.”

It’s true that Medicare and Medicaid paid about $64.8 billion in “improper payments” in 2011 — not $100 billion — but not all of those payments were fraudulent. Furthermore, Congress has already passed a law implementing the very kinds of solutions that Gingrich touted in the past to recoup money lost to fraud.

The federal government estimates that in 2011 it made $115 billion in “improper payments” in all federal programs — not just Medicare and Medicaid. And the improper payments did not all go to “crooks.” They represent waste, fraud and abuse. The government defines “improper payments” as: payments that go to the wrong recipient; payments that go to the right recipient but are the wrong amount; payments that are made without proper documentation; and payments to recipients who use the money improperly.

About half of improper payments, or $64.8 billion, were in Medicaid ($21.9 billion), Medicare’s traditional fee-for-services program ($28.8 billion), Medicare Advantage ($12.4 billion) and Medicare’s prescription drug program ($1.7 billion). But again, not all those payments went to “crooks.”

When we looked at a similar Gingrich claim in May, Gingrich said that “IBM has agreed to help solve it.” It’s true that the Technology CEO Council, chaired by IBM President Samuel J. Palmisano, has said better use of technology could cut down on fraud. But the group didn’t say the government could eliminate all improper payments. The Technology CEO Council issued a report in October 2010 estimating that the government could recoup $200 billion in fraudulent payments in all federal programs over 10 years by applying “advanced analytics technology.”

The Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which became law a few weeks before the council’s report, requires the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to use advanced analytic technology in an attempt to reduce fraud. A March 2011 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said the new law — coupled with provisions in the new federal health care law — “could help in reducing fraud, waste, and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid.”

Romney Employs Misleading Jobs Claim

Romney made another shaky claim about job creation.

Romney: We created more jobs in Massachusetts than Barack Obama has created in the entire country.

As we’ve said before, that’s technically true but glosses over the fact that Romney governed during a time of economic growth, while Obama took office during one of the worst recessions the country has experienced. Plus, Romney is comparing his four years in office to not quite three under Obama.

Massachusetts gained 45,800 jobs during Romney’s tenure as governor, though the rate of growth ranked the state 47th in the nation, as Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman once again pointed out in the debate Saturday night. Under Obama, the country has lost 1.7 million jobs. However, if we start measuring jobs in June 2009, when economists say the recession officially ended, the nation has added 1.4 million jobs. Since February 2010, when the jobs numbers began rising instead of falling, the U.S. has added nearly 2.7 million jobs.

Phantom Dust Regulations, Redux

Gingrich repeated a false talking point that the Environmental Protection Agency was preparing to regulate farm dust. The agency did review its standards on particulate matter as required by law, but it didn’t issue any new regulations. The EPA administrator had said for many months that the agency wasn’t going to regulate farmers’ dust.

Gingrich: In Iowa they had a dust regulation underway because they control particulate matter. I do agree on clean air. There are things they should do that are right. But dust in Iowa is — is an absurdity. And they were worried that the plowing of a cornfield would leave dust to go to another farmer’s cornfield. And they were going to — they were planning to issue a regulation.

The EPA is periodically required by the Clean Air Act to review the standards for particulate matter to make sure that they are in line with current science. Back in April, the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards recommended that the agency consider “either retaining or revising the current standard” downward for coarse particles, which the agency considers a risk to public health. Inhalable coarse particles — including those found on roadways and in dusty industries such as farming, which are between 2.5 micrometers and 10 micrometers in diameter — would have been subject to the stricter limits.

Farmers opposed the recommendation, because they said it would place a financial burden on their industry by making them reduce dirt and dust from their farms. And several members of Congress then introduced legislation to block any attempt from the EPA to implement stricter limits.

But even during congressional testimony in March 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that while the EPA was conducting the required review, it had no intention of changing the standards currently in place. That was still the agency’s position six months later when an EPA spokeswoman told FactCheck.org that the review was still ongoing, but that there were “no plans to put stricter standards in place.” Then, in letters to Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Amy Klobuchar in October, Jackson announced her final decision, saying she would propose no change to current EPA regulations. She wrote: “I am prepared to propose the retention — with no revision — of the current PM10 standard and form when it is sent to [Office of Management and Budget] for interagency review.”

Huntsman ‘Only One’ to Embrace Ryan Plan?

Responding to a question about how he would balance the budget, Huntsman said he was “the only one standing up here who has embraced the [budget plan proposed by Rep. Paul] Ryan.” Most of the Republican candidates have praised Ryan’s plan, while offering some qualifiers about what they would do a little differently (some more than others). For former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, it was that he didn’t think the Ryan plan went far enough to cut the deficit. Perhaps that is why Huntsman reached over and gave an almost apologetic arm grab to Santorum when he made his statement.

“I support in principle what Paul Ryan is suggesting,” Santorum told Newsmax in June. “The only concern I have is I don’t think Paul Ryan goes far enough. The problem is now. There’s a $1.4 trillion deficit now. We’re on a path where any day now, credit markets could say we can’t continue to keep the credit rating the United States has.”

Romney on Repealing Health Care Law

Romney claimed that repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would save “$95 billion a year.” But that only accounts for spending in the law, not spending cuts and revenue-raising provisions that potentially could save even more.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the coverage expansion elements of the law — providing subsidies to individuals to help them buy insurance, expanding Medicaid and offering tax credits to businesses to help them provide coverage — would cost about $1.4 trillion over the 2012-2021 period, and $1 trillion once CBO factors in related coverage savings, such as an excise tax on high-cost health plans offered by employers. That would be $100 billion per year, a bit higher than the figure Romney used. However, that narrow look at the law doesn’t factor in the revenue-raisers or cuts in the law that would save money. And CBO has said those provisions would more than offset the cost.

The law would increase federal revenues by $520 billion over that same 10-year period, CBO said, by raising payroll taxes on upper-income earners and putting new taxes on drug and medical manufacturers and insurance companies. (Those earning $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for couples, would face a 0.9 percent increase in Medicare payroll taxes and a 3.8 percent tax on investment income.) Plus, cuts in the future growth of spending would save another $732 billion. Overall, that’s a $119 billion reduction in deficits over this time period. That means repealing the health care law would increase the deficit, not save the government money, as Romney claimed. (Note: CBO estimates for different 10-year periods have differed somewhat, because of the timing of implementing various provisions of the law.)

It’s true that the reduced spending on Medicare may not be fully implemented as the law on paper envisions. Experts, such as Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, have doubted that all of the cuts in the future growth of payments to hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and other providers will materialize. That’s partly because Congress has consistently overridden similar Medicare payment cuts to doctors.

Those Medicare savings make up about 40 percent of total projected cuts. Still, even if zero dollars of those potential savings come through as planned, the law calls for new tax revenue and savings from other steps, such as changing Medicare Advantage. That makes Romney’s claim misleading and, at best, inflated.

— Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley and D’Angelo Gore