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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

NRSC Distorts Braley Tax Record

In Iowa, a Republican ad claims that Democratic Senate nominee Bruce Braley “voted to raise taxes on every single Iowa taxpayer.” That badly distorts Braley’s clearly stated position. The fact is, Braley voted most recently to raise taxes on only about the top 1 percent, while keeping federal income taxes the same for all who are less affluent.

Braley consistently favored holding income-tax rates steady for all but individuals making more than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for couples. The vote cited by the ad is one Braley cast in the House in 2010 as a protest against extending Bush tax cuts for another two years for the more affluent — which Braley called “a Christmas bonanza to the privileged few” — as a condition for extending the cuts for the less affluent.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee released the ad Oct. 21. The narrator says that “even Obama thinks Braley is too extreme on taxes,” and goes on to cite Braley’s vote on Dec. 17, 2010, against a tax bill that represented a compromise between Obama and congressional Republicans. Braley was one of 112 House Democrats who opposed the measure (as did 36 House Republicans).

Had the bill failed, the Bush tax cuts might have lapsed on schedule on Jan. 1, 2011, for “every single” taxpayer, as the ad claims — assuming no other compromise was worked out. As it happened, the bill passed by a more than comfortable margin of 277 to 148.

In the end the measure had the support of most House Democrats, and once House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed it to go to the floor, there was little doubt it would pass. (She later grumbled that Republicans were forcing Democrats “to pay a king’s ransom in order to help the middle class.”) That made Braley’s 2010 vote little more than symbolic.

Braley had spelled out his reasons several days before in a news release dated Dec. 9:

Braley, Dec. 9, 2010: As the tax cut package takes shape, I want to reiterate my support for a tax cut extension for every American family on incomes up to $250,000. I continue to fight for an extension of unemployment benefits, especially during the holiday season. I remain extremely concerned that extending Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthiest 2% of Americans will explode the deficit.

I continue to fight to cut taxes for Iowa’s families and working to ensure our future generations are not saddled with extreme debt. I look forward to reading the legislative language produced on the bill to make a firm decision on these provisions.

And during debate on the measure, Braley reiterated that he opposed any increase in taxes on the majority of taxpayers, saying the deal included at least an $81 billion tax break for “the wealthiest people in this country.” As recorded in the Congressional Record:

Braley, Dec. 17, 2010: Mr. Chairman, today, the House will vote on a bill that will explode the deficit by $858 billion. While this package includes several programs I have proudly supported, I cannot support the underlying bill.

As recently as last week, I voted to give every American a tax cut by making the middle class tax cuts permanent for the millions of American families, consumers, and small-business owners who drive our economy. I have consistently voted to extend unemployment insurance to assist the families struggling in this difficult time.

Those were some of the good things included in this deal. Unfortunately, the merits of these good things do not outweigh the bad things in this deal. I cannot justify mortgaging our children’s futures to provide a Christmas bonanza to the privileged few. I refuse to support increasing the deficit by at least $81 billion to provide a tax break to the wealthiest people in this country. I refuse to support a bill that would balloon the deficit by $23 billion to provide an average tax break of more than $1.5 million to only 6,600 families a year.

That is why I am voting “no,”‘ and I urge you to do the same.

Whether that vote makes Braley “extreme” or not is a matter of opinion. Obama himself said when he signed the bill that “there are some elements of this legislation that I don’t like,” so the difference between him and Braley may not be as wide as the NRSC ad would have viewers believe. Obama, like Braley, wanted tax rates increased on those making more than $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for couples. But Republicans insisted on continuing the Bush cuts even for the most affluent, and Obama gave in.

There’s no question, however, that Braley and Obama were indeed on opposite sides on this bill. The president supported the bill in order to get a temporary, one-year 2 percentage point reduction in the Social Security payroll tax as an economic stimulus measure, as well as a 13-month extension of federal unemployment benefits. (Unemployment was still at 9.8 percent in November of that year.) But, as the Washington Post reported Dec. 7, 2010, in a story cited on screen in the NRSC ad, the president’s “liberal supporters are furious about the decision” to compromise with Republicans on extending tax cuts for higher-income taxpayers. Braley was among those holding out for a tax hike on top earners.

But just because Braley cast a protest vote against that bill doesn’t mean that he favored raising everybody’s income taxes. In fact, he clearly didn’t. Furthermore, had the bill failed, further negotiations could well have led to a different compromise that Braley might have supported. And in fact, just such a compromise followed a little more than two years later when the “fiscal cliff” deal raised tax rates only on those earning more than $400,000 a year ($450,000 for couples) effective in 2013.

That bill raised taxes on even fewer affluent Americans than Obama or Braley wanted. But Braley voted for the bill anyway — extending tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans and raising taxes only on about the top 1 percent. (According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 1 percent of income earners took in a minimum of $434,000 each, and the average was much higher, in 2010 for a two-person household.) Braley was among 172 Democrats and 85 Republicans who supported that legislation.

— Brooks Jackson