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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Democratic Assault on Cassidy’s Record

In a double-barreled assault on Rep. Bill Cassidy, two Democratic groups are airing an identical TV ad that claims Cassidy “voted for a plan that would cut veterans benefits.” That’s not accurate.

The ad references a February 2012 vote related to a Republican-sponsored bill that would have changed the budget process in a way that may or may not have resulted in budget cuts. Under the bill, baseline budget projections would not be adjusted for inflation. But Congress would still need to decide how much to spend above or below the baseline. The Congressional Budget Office said in an analysis of the bill: “Any impact on the budget would depend on the extent of future legislative actions.”

The Democrats have made veterans benefits a key issue in the Louisiana Senate race, which pits Cassidy against Sen. Mary Landrieu. In May, the DSCC issued a press release that carried the headline, “Let’s Make 2014 About Veterans: Bill Cassidy’s Career Reveals a Shameful, Anti-Veterans Record.”

Since July 24, Democratic groups have aired five TV ads that attack Cassidy on the issue of veterans benefits, according to Kantar Media Intelligence’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ad spending.

One of the latest anti-Cassidy ads — titled “Betrayed” — is being run separately by the Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority USA, two Democratic-aligned groups that have worked together jointly on other ad campaigns in the Kentucky and Arkansas Senate races.

The two Democratic groups combined have spent $34.2 million on independent expenditures during the 2014 campaign — including more than $4 million against Cassidy. Patriot Majority USA has spent $2 million on ads opposing Cassidy, while the Senate Majority PAC has spent $2.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ website, Opensecrets.org. Neither has yet to spend money in support of Cassidy’s Democratic opponent.

The ad “Betrayed” features a Vietnam veteran who says Cassidy, a doctor, has betrayed veterans on health care benefits. The veteran says, “It just doesn’t seem to me that a doctor should be in the business of cutting health care benefits at all. For someone to betray the veterans the way he has and the way he is doing.”

On the screen, viewers see the words: “Bill Cassidy voted for a plan that would cut veterans benefits.” The ad cites one source for this claim: House roll call vote 31 on Feb. 3, 2012.

That vote was on a Democratic motion to the Baseline Reform Act of 2012, a Republican-sponsored bill that would have changed the budget process. Specifically, the bill would have changed how CBO determines baseline projections used to measure the impact of changes in law. Under current law, baseline budget projections are based on the current year appropriations, but adjusted for inflation. The GOP proposal would have required that baseline projections no longer be adjusted for inflation.

But, as CBO explained in its analysis, the bill “would not affect direct spending or revenues.” That’s because Congress would still need to determine the spending levels for each individual spending account. “Any impact on the budget would depend on the extent of future legislative actions by the Congress and the President,” CBO said.

The vote on the Democratic motion — the one cited in the ad — would have sent the bill back to committee with instructions to maintain inflation-adjusted funding levels for “all discretionary spending that provide benefits for veterans.”

Cassidy voted against the motion to recommit, which failed, and then he voted next for passage of the bill, which passed 235-177. Both votes were largely along party lines. The bill died in the Senate.

Ty Matsdorf, a spokesman for the Senate Majority PAC, told us in an email: “This is actually quite simple: if benefits don’t keep up with inflation, then Veterans benefits are being cut.”

But it’s not that simple. As we explained, it is possible that veterans benefits would not be cut. The baseline budget projection is just the start of the budget process, not the end of it.

Matsdorf sent a backup document to support the claims that included another vote by Cassidy that is not cited in the TV ad. That was Cassidy’s vote for the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2012 — a Republican-sponsored bill that passed 234-190 on July 19, 2011, largely along party lines.

The bill was “largely symbolic,” as the Los Angeles Times put it, because it was advanced by the House Republicans during the debt-ceiling debate even though it stood no chance of becoming law. The bill would have allowed an increase in the nation’s borrowing limit, but only under conditions that President Obama and the Democrats would not accept. As the Times explained it: “The proposal would cut spending by $111 billion in 2012 and cap future outlays to 19.9% of the nation’s gross domestic output. It also would require that Congress send a balanced-budget constitutional amendment to the states for ratification, a lengthy process.”

But even this bill would not have resulted in automatic cuts to veterans benefits.

The backup document provided by Matsdorf cites an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress that said the bill “would require a 25 percent cut to everything in the federal budget — from Social Security to veterans’ benefits to the Pentagon to education.” However, as the CAP goes on to say, “Congress could try to protect some programs from such severe reductions but then, of course, other areas would have to be slashed even more.”

Cassidy is a Republican who supports cutting spending. Neither side disputes that. Cassidy is not the most conservative House member, but the American Conservative Union scored his votes as 80 percent conservative last year. The nonpartisan National Journal gave him a conservative score of 84.2 percent (which ranked Cassidy as the 49th most conservative House member). The Club for Growth, however, gave him lower scores: 64 percent last year and 76 percent lifetime.

This ad, however, is wrong when it says Cassidy’s vote for the Baseline Reform Act “would cut veterans benefits.”

— Eugene Kiely