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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A ‘Whopper’ in Arkansas Debate?

At an Oct. 13 Arkansas Senate debate, Rep. Tom Cotton claimed that Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor “voted for every one of Barack Obama’s tax increases.” Pryor called this a “whopper,” and countered that he “voted against every budget that President Obama has offered.” We find that both are not telling the whole story.

Pryor voted for two laws championed by the president — the Affordable Care Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act — that contained tax increases. But the senator also voted against other tax increases proposed by the president. The distinction between enacted tax increases and proposed tax increases may have been lost on viewers left with the impression that Pryor has voted for all of Obama’s tax increase proposals.

However, Pryor cannot say he voted against “every budget” offered by Obama. The president has offered six budgets, and none of them were really voted on by Congress. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions twice sponsored budget resolutions that claimed to be Obama’s budgets. In both cases, the Senate unanimously rejected the resolutions, with Republicans gleefully declaring that the “president’s budget” had not gotten a single vote and Democrats dismissing the votes as political theater.

Obama’s Tax Increases

Let’s first take Cotton’s claim about Pryor’s record on voting for “Obama’s tax increases” — a statement he made twice within the span of two minutes.

Cotton, Oct. 13: The last thing our economy needs is tax increases and Mark Pryor has voted for every one of Barack Obama’s tax increases. … We don’t have a taxing problem in this country. In fact, last year the federal government had the highest tax collections that we’ve ever had in the history of our country. We still have deficits because we have a spending problem. Mark Pryor’s solution is to keep increasing taxes. He’s never voted against one of Barack Obama’s tax increases.

Pryor did vote in 2009 for the Affordable Care Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act — the only two bills on the conservative Americans for Tax Reform’s “full list of Obama tax hikes.” The health care law increased taxes by about $1 trillion over 10 years, mostly on high-income taxpayers and health-related companies, and the CHIP reauthorization raised tobacco taxes, including an additional 61-cents per pack of cigarettes. Both tax increases went to expand access to health care.

So Cotton is correct — if the universe is limited to enacted tax increases. If not, Pryor can point to at least two votes in 2012 against proposed tax increases: Pryor’s vote against Obama’s proposed “Buffett Rule,” which would have required high-income taxpayers to pay an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, and his vote for a Republican proposal opposed by Obama that would have extended all Bush-era tax cuts for one year. Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget proposed allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000.

Ultimately, both parties agreed to a compromise on the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012 to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. The American Taxpayer Relief Act, which was the title of the bipartisan fiscal cliff agreement, increased the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent for individuals earning more than $400,000 and families earning more than $450,000. It also kept the estate tax and gift exemption at $5 million, but raised the estate and gift tax rate from 35 percent to 40 percent, and reduced the value of itemized deductions and other tax preferences for those earning more than $250,000 and families earning more than $300,000.

The bipartisan compromise raised taxes on the wealthy by $618 billion over 10 years, but kept the Bush income tax cuts in place for most Americans. Compared with current law — that is, if the tax cuts had expired as schedule — the American Taxpayer Relief Act provided a net $3.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The bill passed the Senate 89-8 on Jan. 1, 2013. Pryor voted for it.

It’s also worth noting that in addition to voting for $3.6 trillion in tax cuts in the American Taxpayer Relief Act, Pryor also voted in 2009 for about $232 billion in temporary tax cuts and credits as part of the president’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or stimulus act.

So, Pryor has voted for Obama’s tax cuts as well as his tax increases — but Cotton ignored that.

‘A Whopper’?

In his closing statement, Pryor took issue with Cotton’s claim on Obama’s taxes.

Pryor, Oct. 13: Before I go on with my closing statement, I have to go back for just a minute because Congressman Cotton just told a whopper when he said that I have voted for every single one of Barack Obama’s taxes. It’s not even close. In fact, I voted against every budget that President Obama has offered.

We already found this claim about voting against Obama’s budget to be bogus when we fact-checked a TV ad by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. Pryor’s campaign cites Pryor’s votes against budget resolutions sponsored by Republican Sen. Sessions in 2011 and 2012. In both cases, Sessions set forth the president’s budgetary levels for a 10-year period, and in both cases the resolutions did not receive a single vote. So Pryor was not alone in voting “nay.”

The Democrats rejected Sessions’ resolution in 2011, saying the budgetary levels contained in the bill were outdated and no longer represented the president’s budget plan. It failed 0-97. In 2012, the Democrats denounced the GOP-sponsored resolution for lacking the president’s detailed policy language. Prior to the vote — six hours and 24 minutes into the debate — Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad held up several thick books and said “this is the president’s budget.” He then held up the 56-page budget resolution. “Do you see a difference?” Conrad asked. “This is not the president’s budget, so of course we are not going to support it.” It was defeated 0-99.

We agree with Conrad that there is a big difference between Sessions’ resolutions and the president’s actual budgets. Even if one disagrees with Conrad, Pryor certainly cannot claim that he has voted against “every budget that President Obama has offered,” since the Republicans offered these resolutions only twice.

We also wouldn’t call Cotton’s statement on taxes a “whopper,” as Pryor did. After all, Pryor did vote for both of Obama’s enacted tax increases. But Cotton is not telling the whole story, because Pryor has voted against some of Obama’s tax proposals.

— Eugene Kiely