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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Democratic PAC Revisits Old Claims

In ads airing in three states, a Democratic PAC repeats familiar, and misleading, attack lines — saying one Republican lawmaker voted to “essentially end Medicare” and another voted for billions in earmarks and turned a surplus “into a massive federal deficit.”

The Majority PAC, a political action committee that aims to “[p]rotect the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate,” launched ads on July 24 criticizing Republican candidates in Senate races in North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Same Old ‘End Medicare’ Claims

The North Dakota ad goes after Republican Rep. Rick Berg for voting in support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s two most recent budget proposals, which included plans for a major overhaul of Medicare. Berg supported the budgets, which were proposed by Budget Committee Chairman Ryan. But Majority PAC uses an out-of-context quote from the Wall Street Journal to claim the Medicare plan would “essentially end Medicare.” The Journal actually said the 2011 plan would “essentially end Medicare … as a program that directly pays those bills,” some vital wording that this ad — and several other Democratic attack ads — conveniently leaves out.

Ryan’s 2011 plan proposed to change Medicare for those turning 65 in 2022 to a private-insurance Medicare exchange, where seniors would choose health plans, purchased with the help of government subsidies. His revamped 2012 plan would keep traditional Medicare as an option, even for those turning 65 a decade from now, and it would increase the amount of the subsidy at a greater rate, making it a more generous plan. That bring us to the next claim in the ad: “Experts say Berg’s plan more than doubles out-of-pocket expenses to seniors.” That’s an outdated reference to the 2011 Ryan plan.

In its analysis of Ryan’s 2011 proposal, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that a typical 65-year-old in 2022 would pay substantially more out of pocket under the Ryan plan than under traditional Medicare. It said a senior would pay 30 percent of the cost of a private plan under Medicare as it is now, but 61 percent under Ryan’s proposal. But that’s the old plan — which would increase the subsidies with the rate of inflation. The new one offers more generous growth in government subsidies. The “premium-support” payments would be tied to the cost of the second-cheapest plan on the Medicare exchange. (For more on Ryan’s plans see our July 6 article “No End to ‘End Medicare’ Claims.”)

Finally, we find it curious that the ad says Berg “voted not once, but twice to drastically cut Medicare.” The ad is a response to a Berg campaign ad, in which his mother says Berg will repeal Obamacare and “its cuts to Medicare.” The truth is that both the Affordable Care Act and Ryan’s budgets make substantial cuts — or savings, if you’d rather — to Medicare to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Ryan’s plan would keep many of the savings called for in the federal law, in fact, but it wouldn’t reduce payments to private Medicare Advantage plans, as the law calls for. It also would not increase prescription drug coverage for seniors, as the law also does. Democrats and Republicans may disagree on how exactly the growth of Medicare spending should be lowered, but both of these measures call for spending reductions in the hopes of extending the life of a burgeoning government program.

Virginia Re-runs

Majority PAC’s ad in Virginia pumps up the record of Democrat and former Gov. Tim Kaine and portrays former Sen. George Allen as a frivolous spender. It’s similar to an ad we wrote about on June 21. The new claim in the latest ad is that Allen “voted for $121 billion in earmarks. Earmarks for imported fire ants, Alaskan berry research, and DNA study of bears in Montana.” That’s a bit misleading.

The ad cites an April 18, 2012, story by PolitiFact to back up its claim, but that PolitiFact article raised some questions about the earmark criticism. Yes, the 2002 to 2006 budgets approved during Allen’s tenure in the Senate contained $121.8 billion for 52,319 earmarks, according to the watchdog organization Citizens Against Government Waste. Earmarks, also known as pork-barrel projects, are pet projects lawmakers attach to appropriations or authorization bills. But Allen’s votes weren’t solely on the projects mentioned in the ad.

As CAGW told our colleagues at PolitiFact, the group is more concerned with how much pork a lawmaker personally requested than how much total were in budget bills that contained a lot more than just pork. “If anyone against earmarks voted against appropriations bills, we wouldn’t get anything done,” media director Leslie Paige said. “We don’t think that’s very telling. We would really rather look at what the member of Congress requested in earmarks and what bills they introduced on their own.”

CAGW President Tom Schatz told us that he had seen the latest Majority PAC ad and thought “that is not right.” If Allen could be held accountable for all of the earmarks in the appropriations bills, “that would mean every member who voted for every appropriations bill would be tagged for every earmark.” And that’s not how pork-barrel spending has been analyzed. Back before the congressional disclosure rules changed, CAGW wouldn’t attribute an earmark to an individual member unless the lawmaker had been specifically associated with it.

Unfortunately, earmark disclosure for lawmakers wasn’t instituted until 2008, after Allen had left office. Still, Allen, like many if not most lawmakers, was pleased when he secured funding for projects in his home state. In 2006, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a list of earmarks that Allen and fellow Virginia Sen. John Warner had announced late the previous year. The list included millions for a cancer treatment center, bus facilities, beach nourishment, a pathogen project at Virginia Tech, a sewer-overflow project in Richmond, and a transit project in Northern Virginia’s Dulles corridor, just to name a few of the projects. It doesn’t seem likely that he would have requested an earmark for berry research in Alaska or a Montana study of bears, and we couldn’t find any evidence that he would have requested money for “imported fire ants.”

CAGW’s statistics also show that 2002 to 2006 were good years for earmarks. The amount requested peaked, in fact, in 2006, with $29 billion in earmarks, and has declined significantly since. There was $16.5 billion in pork-barrel spending approved in 2010.

But as we said, Allen wasn’t responsible for all of those requests, and his votes weren’t solely on whether to approve pork.

The ad then repeats claims we checked in our last story about Majority PAC’s attack on Allen, and support of Kaine. It says Kaine “cut nearly $6 billion in state spending” — that’s up from $5 billion, the claim in the last ad. The group points to a short Associated Press story that does say “nearly $6 billion” but doesn’t go into any detail.

When we looked into this, we found that Kaine really had cut only $3.5 billion. Kaine’s campaign argued that he also proposed cuts of $2.3 billion in a 2010-2012 budget, but that budget was modified and then passed by Kaine’s successor.

The ad boasts that Kaine “balanced the budget as governor,” citing a FactCheck.org story from November 2011 as documentation. We did indeed say that Kaine had balanced the state budget, but we added “as required by state law.” Our story also included a quote from Kaine acknowledging that the state Constitution required that: “I left office with two balanced budgets that I submitted because you have to, by law, submit balanced budgets,” he told WVEC ABC 13 in November.

The ad also says Allen “turned America’s largest budget surplus into a massive federal deficit.” Obviously, he didn’t do that all by himself — the rest of Congress and the executive branch played a role. As we pointed out before, the appropriations bills during Allen’s time in the Senate passed with bipartisan support.

Wisconsin Name-Calling

Finally, Majority PAC goes after Republican Senate candidates in Wisconsin running to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl.

The ad says that candidate Eric Hovde was “a D.C. fund manager who’s invested millions in bailout-funded banks involved in fraudulent loans.” Hovde Capital invested money in 33 banks that received $188 billion in bailout funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, according to reporting by the Associated Press. The firm invested $28 million, for instance, in Bank of America, according to reporting by Politico. This has become an issue because Hovde has said he is opposed to such bailouts.

As for banks “involved in fraudulent loans,” Majority PAC points to Bank of America’s involvement in a $25 million settlement with 49 state attorneys general and the federal government. The attorneys general that negotiated the settlement said: “The agreement settles state and federal investigations finding that the country’s five largest loan servicers routinely signed foreclosure related documents outside the presence of a notary public and without really knowing whether the facts they contained were correct. Both of these practices violate the law.” The agreement also included $1 billion to settle an investigation into fraudulent actions on FHA loans and inflation of appraisals by Bank of America and Countrywide entities, according to the Justice Department.

The ad goes on to attack former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, saying he “raked in millions on K Street working for a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that represents pharmaceuticals and insurance companies.” The support for that claim shows just $1.1 million, not “millions,” made as a partner in the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, his clients included “PhRMA, the trade/lobbying group that represents the nation’s largest drug makers; Novavax, a maker of vaccines; and Pharm Athene, which makes medical products to counter chemical weapons.”

Thompson, who also was the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, was not a registered lobbyist — though the ad only says he worked for a “lobbying firm.” Thompson told the Journal Sentinel in January that his expertise on health care was valuable to such companies. “Who better than me, that’s been secretary of health, to be a consultant and an adviser and also an investor in health care? That’s my strong suit!” he said.

Voters can decide for themselves whether these issues — Hovde’s banking investments or Thompson’s involvement with health care companies — are important to them. The Republican primary is August 14.

— Lori Robertson