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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

SEIU Distorts Halvorson’s Record in Illinois Race

A radio ad from the Service Employees International Union grossly distorts the voting record of former Rep. Debbie Halvorson in the final days of the Democratic primary to fill the House seat left vacant by Jesse Jackson Jr.’s resignation. The union claims:

  • Halvorson “voted against extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans.” That’s false. Congress extended or expanded the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program seven times while Halvorson was in the House, and she voted to approve each bill. The union cites her vote on a House rule, rather than legislation itself, to support its bogus claim.
  • Halvorson “voted for lower inheritance taxes” for the wealthy. That’s true, but not the whole story. Halvorson opposed a Democratic amendment that would have reinstated the estate tax — which was eliminated in 2010 — at 2009 levels. But she voted exactly as Obama wanted, so it’s misleading to use this vote as evidence that Halvorson “didn’t stand with President Obama.”
  • Halvorson voted “like a Republican over and over again” while in Congress. That’s debatable. According to Congressional Quarterly, Halvorson supported Obama on 92 percent of votes in 2009 and 90 percent in 2010 — including legislation (the stimulus and health care bills) that got no support from Republicans.

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who pleaded guilty Feb. 19 to campaign finance-related charges, resigned from Congress shortly after winning reelection in November. A total of 14 Democrats are actively running in the Feb. 26 primary for the right to represent the party in the April 9 special election. The Illinois 2nd Congressional District is heavily Democratic, so the primary winner is expected to win the seat in April.

Debbie Halvorson, who lost to Jackson in what the Chicago Sun-Times called a “bitter primary battle” in 2012, is hoping to return to Congress. She served two years in the House, from Jan. 3, 2009, to Jan. 3, 2011, losing reelection to Adam Kinzinger in 2010.

The Illinois chapter of the SEIU has endorsed one of her opponents, Robin Kelly. On Feb. 14, the union — which represents 2.1 million workers, mostly in the health care field — began airing a 60-second radio ad that attacks Halvorson’s voting record.

Unemployment Benefits Blunder

The SEIU ad strings together two false claims — on unemployment benefits and the estate tax — to portray Halvorson as someone who “voted with Republicans” and “didn’t stand with President Obama” during her time in Congress. Both claims are way off the mark.

SEIU radio ad, male actor: When she was in Washington, she voted against extending unemployment benefits for millions of Americans.

Female actor: End unemployment benefits?

Male actor: Yeah. Cut benefits for millions of folks who lost their jobs and voted for lower inheritance taxes for the richest 1 percent.

Let’s take the first claim about unemployment benefits. It’s pretty simple: Halvorson voted every single time to pass legislation to extend or expand unemployment benefits.

President George W. Bush created the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, which was included in a supplemental war spending bill he signed June 30, 2008. The Congressional Research Service explains the history of the program in a March 4, 2011, report. Under Bush, the program at first provided 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits for workers who exhausted their state benefits. The law was set to sunset March 29, 2009, with no benefits paid beyond July 4, 2009.

But, as the recession deepened, Bush (once) and Obama (seven times) expanded benefits and extended the life of the program. Halvorson took office just days before Obama and voted to approve the expansion or extension of benefits all seven times during the Democratic president’s first two years in office.

Here’s a timeline of actions taken by Obama and Congress on unemployment benefits, as explained in Table 1 of the CRS report:

Feb. 17, 2009: Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus, which extended the EUC program until Dec. 26, 2009 (paying no benefits past June 6, 2010). It also increased unemployment benefits by $25 per week. Halvorson voted for the stimulus, which received no Republicans votes in the House.

Nov. 6, 2009: Obama signed the Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act, which expanded benefits but kept the effective dates the same. Originally titled the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009, the law extended unemployment benefits in all 50 states by 34 weeks. Workers got an additional 13 weeks in states with an unemployment rate averaging 6 percent or higher, and 19 more weeks in states with unemployment rates 8.5 percent or higher. Halvorson voted for the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act, which passed the House 331-83 on Sept. 22, 2009. She also voted for the Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act, which gained final approval 403-12 on Nov. 5, 2009.

Dec. 19, 2009: Obama signed the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, which extended the date when benefits would be exhausted from June 6, 2010, to July 31, 2010. The House initially passed the bill 400-30 on July 30, 2009, and gave it final approval on Dec. 16, 2009, by a 395-34 vote. Halvorson voted for it both times.

March 2, 2010: Obama signed the Temporary Extension Act of 2010. Benefits remained the same, but the program was extended to April 3, 2010, (with no benefits paid out beyond Sept. 4, 2010, rather than July 31). It was passed by voice vote in the House.

April 15, 2010: Obama signed the Continuing Extension Act of 2010 — extending the program once again, this time until June 2, 2010, (with no benefits paid out beyond Nov. 6, 2010, rather than Sept. 4, 2010). It was initially passed by voice vote in the House on March 17, 2010. It received final House passage on April 15, 2010, by a 289-112 vote. Halvorson voted for it.

July 22, 2010: Obama signed the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010. The additional $25 per week payment created under the stimulus law was allowed to expire on June 2, 2010, but all other benefits were extended. The program would now expire on Nov. 30, 2010, (not June 2) and no benefits would be paid beyond April 30, 2011, (not Nov. 6, 2010). The House initially approved the bill 241-181 on Dec. 9, 2009, and gave final approval, 272-152, on July 22, 2010. Halvorson voted for it both times.

Nov. 18, 2010: The House failed to get the two-thirds votes necessary to suspend the rules and approve the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Continuation Act. The bill received 258 votes in support and 154 against. Halvorson voted for it.

Dec. 17, 2010: Obama signed the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act. Benefits remained the same, but the program was extended until Jan. 3, 2012– by which time Halvorson was gone from Congress. Yes, she voted for it. Three times: once by voice vote on March 17, 2010, and twice by recorded votes on Dec. 2 and Dec. 17.

So, what is the SEIU talking about?

The union points to a procedural vote taken on May 28, 2010, when Congress was considering the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act — the bill that Obama signed on July 22 of that year. It’s true that Halvorson voted against House Resolution 1403, a rule that set the terms of the debate, accepted the Senate amendment to the House bill and allowed for an expedited vote on the amended bill.

We asked the Halvorson campaign why she voted against the House rule. The candidate got on the phone with us. She said she could not recall the exact reason, but that it was not uncommon for her to object to the rules of the debate, especially when she felt she did not have enough time to study the bill or there was insufficient time given to debate the bill. “I don’t just rubber stamp every rule that comes to the floor,” she said.

Regardless, Halvorson did vote to pass the bill just hours later that same day, and her record of support for extending unemployment benefits is abundantly clear to us — and should be to members of the SEIU.

Estate Tax Scam

The SEIU also distorts a vote that Halvorson cast during House consideration of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 — a compromise tax bill that the Obama administration worked out with Republicans. In the tax deal, Obama got a payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment benefits, while the Republican leaders got a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

But after the bill passed the Senate, some House Democrats were unhappy that it would have reinstated the estate tax below 2009 levels — triggering a public dispute between the White House and liberal House Democrats.

Here’s why: The 2001 tax law signed by President Bush “raised the estate tax exemption … to $3.5 million in a series of steps through 2009,” reducing the number of estates subject to the tax, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The estate tax was eliminated entirely in 2010, but it was scheduled to return to pre-2001 levels unless Congress acted. Obama and Republican leaders struck a deal that “put in place an estate tax with a $5 million exemption and 35 percent rate for 2011 and 2012” – even more generous than the 2009 levels, as explained by TPC.

Rep. Sander “Sandy” Levin of Michigan introduced an amendment that would have reinstated the tax at 2009 levels: a maximum 45 percent rate with a $3.5 million exemption. The White House and Republican leaders opposed the Levin amendment.

In the days leading up to the vote, the Obama White House urged the House to pass the bill without amendments. On Dec. 12, 2010, White House senior adviser David Axelrod appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” and warned House Democrats that it would be wrong to “cut your noses off to spite your face” by voting to amend the compromise bill.

Axelrod, Dec. 12, 2010: There are elements of this plan that we didn’t particularly like. We didn’t particularly like even temporarily extending these high-end tax cuts, which cost money that we could apply to our deficit. We didn’t particularly like the treatment of the estate tax for wealthy estates, but compromise by its very nature includes things that you don’t necessarily like.

On Dec. 16, 2010, a day before the House vote, Bloomberg News wrote: “Republicans said any significant changes made by the House would be rejected in the Senate and would risk scuttling the entire agreement.”

Halvorson sided with the White House and voted against the Levin amendment, which failed 194-233. It’s particularly misleading for the SEIU to use this vote as evidence that Halvorson “didn’t stand with President Obama” when she was in Congress.

Votes Like a Republican?

After distorting Halvorson’s votes on unemployment insurance and the estate tax, the SEIU ad says Halvorson “didn’t stand with President Obama” and “calls herself a Democrat but votes like a Republican over and over again.”

This claim is debatable. Halvorson served two years in Congress, and her level of support for the president wasn’t the highest — but it wasn’t the lowest, either. Congressional Quarterly, a nonpartisan publication, has published voting studies each year since 1953. It analyzed 991 roll-call votes cast in the House in 2009 and 660 in 2010.

In 2009, CQ found that Halvorson supported the president on 92 percent of her votes. Overall, we counted 187 Democrats who voted with Obama 92 percent or more, while 66 Democrats — a quarter of the 253 Democrats who voted that year — had presidential support scores lower than Halvorson.

In 2010, Halvorson supported Obama on 90 percent of her votes. Although her percentage declined, her support for Obama relative to other Democrats actually rose. That year, there were 112 Democrats who had presidential support scores of 90 percent or higher, while there were 143 Democrats — 56 percent of the 255 Democrats who served in Congress that year — who had support scores below 90 percent.

On most major bills, Halvorson voted with her party and in support of the president. She voted for the stimulus twice, including final passage. She also voted for the Affordable Care Act four times, including final passage and the reconciliation vote that was part of a parliamentary maneuver by the Democrats to protect the bill from being filibustered in the Senate by Republicans. Neither bill received a single Republican vote in the House.

Halvorson did, however, break with her party and the president on another high profile bill: the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. She joined 26 other Democrats and 175 Republicans in voting against the bill. Despite some Democratic defections and strong GOP opposition, the bill passed 223-202 and became law.

We will leave it for you to decide whether Halvorson’s voting record supports the ad’s claim that she “votes like a Republican over and over again.”

— Eugene Kiely