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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Outside Attacks in Massachusetts

New ads from outside Democratic groups attacking Massachusetts Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez distort his positions on Social Security and taxes.

  • An ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claims Gomez “supports protecting special tax breaks for corporations and multimillionaires – like himself.” But Gomez has supported the elimination of special tax breaks, so long as it is part of a comprehensive tax reform.
  • An ad from the Senate Majority PAC shows images of worried seniors and warns that Gomez “wants to raise the retirement age.” The images are misleading. It’s true that Gomez has talked about raising the retirement age by two years, but slowly — one month each year over 24 years. Gomez has not proposed any abrupt changes for those nearing Social Security age.
  • The ad also claims Gomez “supports a plan that the AARP says would cut Social Security benefits by $127 billion.” It is true that Gomez supports a new method for inflation adjustment — called the “chained” Consumer Price Index — that would slow the growth of future Social Security payments. But the ad leaves out some important context: AARP’s $127 billion estimate is over 10 years; many economists say the chained CPI is the more accurate cost-of-living adjustment; and the proposal was included in President Obama’s latest budget.

A recent poll found that Gomez is trailing his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ed Markey, by seven points, but national Democratic groups aren’t taking the race for granted. The Senate Majority PAC and the DSCC are spending hundreds of thousands on new ads attacking Gomez, trying to make the case that Gomez’s positions are too conservative for Massachusetts.

Corporate Tax Breaks

The DSCC attacked Gomez on taxes, but presents a misleading view of Gomez’s stated positions.

According to the ad, Gomez “supports protecting special tax breaks for corporations and multimillionaires – like himself.” But he has said that he supports eliminating at least two special tax breaks for multimillionaires.

In its backup material, the DSCC points to a June 3 article in The Republican in Springfield, Mass., which states:

The Republican, June 3: Gomez said he would not raise tax rates on anyone. “Raising taxes again will hurt the economy and kills jobs,” Gomez said. “Raising taxes on top earners will not solve our nation’s fiscal crisis. We need to address spending.”

The DSCC then goes on to cite a report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which concluded:

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 30, 2012: The tax cuts first enacted under President Bush in 2001 and 2003 have made the tax code less progressive and delivered a large windfall to the highest-income taxpayers. … The average tax cut that people making over $1 million received exceeded $110,000 in each of the last nine years — for a total of more than $1 million over this period. The tax cuts made the tax system less progressive. In each of the nine years from 2004 through 2012, the tax cuts increased the after-tax income of the highest-income taxpayers by a far larger percentage than they did for middle- and low-income taxpayers.

The DSCC also cites a 2004 report from yet another left-leaning think tank, Citizens for Tax Justice, which found: “Eighty-two of America’s largest and most profitable corporations paid no federal income tax in at least one year during the first three years of the George W. Bush administration — a period when federal corporate tax collections fell to their lowest sustained level in six decades.” The report blames this, in part, on expansions of corporate tax breaks in 2002 and 2003.

The problem with the DSCC ad’s backup, however, is that the story in The Republican says nothing about Gomez’s position on the Bush tax policy. Rather, Gomez was commenting on whether he would support further tax increases on the wealthy, beyond those agreed to in the “fiscal cliff” compromise in January.

The DSCC ad’s claim that Gomez “supports protecting special tax breaks for corporations and multimillionaires — like himself” is contradicted in that same news article. In the questionnaire that underpinned the article, Gomez was asked specifically if he would eliminate some corporate tax breaks.

Gomez, June 3: I would favor eliminating many corporate tax breaks in exchange for a lower rate and in the context of comprehensive tax reform, evening the playing field for all businesses.

In that questionnaire, Gomez was asked about companies that avoid paying U.S. taxes by keeping money overseas, and what the U.S. should do to “get companies to bring their profits back to the U.S. and make their earnings subject to U.S. taxes.”

Gomez, June 3: I support the idea proposed by the President’s own bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, which was to move to a territorial tax system that would help put the U.S. system in line with other countries around the world and encourage U.S. corporations to bring their capital back home.

Markey, and the Obama administration, oppose moving to a territorial system, and Markey noted his support for the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act. So the two candidates propose different approaches. The article quotes a Tufts professor criticizing both Markey and Gomez for “maximum sound bite appeal and minimum specificity” in their tax plans.

Asked by the Boston Globe to be specific about which loopholes he would eliminate, “Gomez cited two examples frequently targeted by Washington Democrats: tax breaks for corporate jet owners and a special ‘carried interest’ tax break that benefits wealthy hedge fund managers and private equity investors such as Gomez.” In other words, he would support elimination of a special tax break for “multimillionaires – like himself,” though the ad alleges the opposite.

The Chained CPI

An ad from the Democratic group Senate Majority PAC warns: “If you’re worried about your retirement, then you can’t trust Gabriel Gomez. Gomez supports a plan that the AARP says would cut Social Security benefits by $127 billion. But it’s not just that, Gomez says he wants to raise the retirement age.”

The first claim in the ad —  that “Gomez supports a plan that the AARP says would cut Social Security benefits by $127 billion” — is tied to his support for an alternative cost-of-living formula for Social Security called the “chained CPI.” As we explained in our article “Chained Explained,” leading economists have long pointed out that the traditional CPI goes up faster than the average person’s actual cost of living.

AARP argues that the chained CPI is less accurate for seniors and would result in a reduction in the growth of cost-of-living increases of $127 billion over the next 10 years (or $2,000 less for the average senior). Using the chained CPI for cost-of-living adjustments for federal benefit payments and tax brackets also has come under fire from the right. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform objects to the slightly higher federal income tax liabilities that would result from using it to adjust tax brackets for inflation each year.

Nonetheless, President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal called for switching to the chained CPI formula, though the proposal was condemned by a group of 82 House Democrats.

While the chained CPI would grow more slowly than traditional CPI, it would be more accurate to say that Gomez supports a new cost-of-living formula that would reduce the future growth of Social Security, rather than that Gomez supports a plan to “cut” Social Security.

Retirement Age

To back up its second claim — that Gomez wants to raise the retirement age — the ad features a partial quote from Gomez at a Republican primary debate at Stonehill College on March 12: “I think you can think about increasing the retirement age … ”

But here’s the fuller context of Gomez’s statement at the debate (starting at about the 18:20 mark):

Gomez, March 12: Like I said, if you’re on Social Security or if you’re close to receiving Social Security, you’re not going to be impacted. For people of my generation and my kids’ generation, then I think you can think about increasing the retirement age. When Social Security was enacted in 1935, the life expectancy was considerably less than it is now. I mean, you have people in their 80s running marathons right now, still. … Another one of the solutions that’s out there is that you can increase the age by a month over 24 years and you can increase it by two years over 24 years. One month per year for 24 years. But this would have no impact on the current people who are receiving Social Security or those even close to receiving Social Security.

So Gomez did say he’d consider raising the retirement age by two years, albeit over a long period of time: one month per year over 24 years. The problem with the ad’s claim is that the images of senior citizens shown at the beginning of the ad are inconsistent with Gomez’s repeated assurances that his plan would not affect even seniors nearing retirement age. The ad uses a technique dubbed by our sister site, FlackCheck.org, as “Misleading Audio/Visual Cuing” — one in its list of “Patterns of Deception” in politics. The ad leaves the false impression that Gomez has proposed to raise the retirement age for those elderly residents pictured in the ad.

The DSCC ad also makes a similar claim about Gomez wanting to raise the retirement age, again showing images of worried seniors, despite Gomez’s assurance that he was not suggesting an increase in the retirement age for those currently on Social Security, or those nearing eligibility age.

— Robert Farley