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Misleading Ads from the DCCC

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is airing ads across the country to boost Democrats’ chances of taking control of the House. But we found several ads that ran afoul of the facts.

  • An ad in Iowa misleadingly says that “50 percent” of the nonelderly in the 3rd District “have preexisting conditions,” yet Rep. David Young “voted to deny protections for their health care coverage.” His vote for the American Health Care Act would have lessened such protections for those on the individual market, where 6 percent of all Iowans get their coverage.
  • Two other DCCC ads say Republican candidates in Colorado and Pennsylvania cast votes against those with preexisting conditions, even though the lawmakers ultimately joined Democrats to vote against the AHCA.
  • In Pennsylvania, the DCCC claims that Rep. Mike Kelly’s “net worth increased by millions” while in Congress. But the source DCCC cites show that Kelly’s net worth has gone down since he took office.
  • In Minnesota, an ad against Pete Stauber claims he’s in an “email scandal,” saying he “was caught using county tax dollars to help his congressional campaign.” Stauber, a county commissioner, swapped 15 emails with the National Republican Congressional Committee that the county said didn’t warrant any further action.
  • In Virginia’s 10th District, the DCCC uses a familiar talking point to misleadingly claim Rep. Barbara Comstock voted for “the Trump tax plan that gives almost all the benefit to the richest 1 percent, while middle class families pay higher taxes.” That’s only the case after 2025, when most of the individual income tax changes are set to expire.

The DCCC, an official party committee, is the second biggest spender behind the Congressional Leadership Fund, which calls itself “the super PAC endorsed by House Republican leadership.” As of Oct. 19, CLF has spent more than $93 million, while the DCCC has spent nearly $66 million, on so-called “independent expenditures,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Independent expenditures are TV ads and other forms of political communications that advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. 

Earlier this week, we looked at some of the TV ads being run by CFL. Here we look at a sampling of DCCC ads that have aired this month.  

Preexisting Talking Point

The DCCC uses a misleading talking point in an ad in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, saying that “50 percent” of “Iowans under 65 in David Young’s district have preexisting conditions. But Young voted to deny protections for their health care coverage.”

Young’s vote was in 2017 for the Republicans’ American Health Care Act, which would have lessened the protections under the Affordable Care Act for those with preexisting conditions — but it wouldn’t have eliminated all of them. And, more important, the changes would have applied to the individual market, where 7 percent of the U.S. population (and 6 percent of Iowans statewide) buys insurance.

The 50 percent figure comes from the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, which applied Census Bureau population data to an Obama-era Department of Health and Human Services report. That report estimated how many Americans could be denied coverage, charged more or faced coverage exclusions if they were seeking coverage on the individual market before the ACA’s protections went into effect in 2014, because of their preexisting conditions. Those conditions ranged from high cholesterol and arthritis to cancer and heart disease.

As the CAP analysis notes, those not seeking insurance on the individual market — including those with employer-sponsored insurance, which is where about half of Americans get their coverage — wouldn’t lose their insurance because of any preexisting conditions.

CAP, April 5, 2017: While people with Medicaid or employer-based plans would remain covered regardless of medical history, the repeal of pre-ex protections means that the millions with pre-existing conditions would face higher rates if they ever needed individual market coverage.

The American Health Care Act, as we’ve explained before, would have prohibited insurance companies from denying coverage based on health status, like the ACA. However, unlike the ACA, it would have allowed insurance companies on the individual market to price premiums based on health status in some cases. Under the plan, which passed the House but not the Senate, a state could apply for a waiver to allow medical-based pricing for people who do not maintain continuous coverage, defined as a lapse of 63 days or more over the previous 12 months.

Those policyholders could be charged higher premiums on the individual market for their preexisting conditions for one year. After that, as long as there wasn’t another 63-day gap, the policyholder would get a new premium not based on health status.

States with those waivers would have to set up high-risk pools or risk-sharing programs, designed to assist those with high medical costs.

The GOP plan also wouldn’t have allowed insurers to exclude coverage of someone’s particular medical conditions. However, states also could get a waiver to set their own requirements on what essential benefits insurers had to include in their plans. Under the ACA, insurers must cover a list of 10 benefits.

So, Young did vote for a plan that would have lessened preexisting condition protections for those on the individual market — but the estimated 50 percent of people in his district with some kind of medical condition would have to be seeking insurance on that market before they potentially could have been charged higher premiums under that plan.

They Voted Against the GOP Plan

Two other DCCC ads say the Republican candidates cast votes against those with preexisting conditions, even though the lawmakers ultimately voted against the AHCA — and in doing so, cited their concerns that the Republican-sponsored bill didn’t do enough on patient protections.

In Colorado’s 6th District, the DCCC has aired an ad that says Rep. Mike Coffman “voted to end protections for preexisting conditions,” and on-screen it says “13 times.” A DCCC press release links to four of those votes — to repeal the ACA, or state that it should be repealed — that were cast in 2011, 2012 and 2015. As we said, the ACA includes several provisions to protect those with preexisting conditions, and with these votes, Republicans didn’t offer a substitute for the health care law.

So, it’s true that the votes would have ended those protections. Then again, lawmakers knew the repeal measures were symbolic votes, taken while Barack Obama was still president and had veto power.

But Coffman’s repeal votes don’t tell the whole story. When it came time for the House to actually pass a repeal-and-replace bill, Coffman voted against the American Health Care Act. In all, 20 Republicans voted “no.”

He also cited his concerns about provisions regarding preexisting conditions in doing so. In a press release on the day of the vote, Coffman cited Rep. Tom MacArthur’s amendment — which added the provision about state waivers to charge some policyholders more on the individual market.

“At this time, I cannot support the AHCA with the MacArthur amendment because I’m concerned that a small percentage of those with preexisting conditions may still not be protected,” Coffman said. “This does not take away from the fact that the Affordable Care Act is failing and American families are hurting. In my conversations with House leadership and the Administration over the last 72 hours, I made it clear that additional language was necessary to protect this vulnerable group.”

Similarly, a DCCC ad against Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania’s 1st District cites three procedural votes in claiming the Republican lawmaker “voted against protecting people with preexisting conditions.” (Coffman sided with Republicans, too, on those votes.)

But Fitzpatrick, like Coffman, voted against the GOP health care bill.

The Washington Post Fact Checker reviewed the three votes in question in depth, finding they were “minor procedural votes,” not votes to actually pass legislation. “All of these votes have to do with parliamentary actions — a vote on the previous question (in plain language, ending debate) and a motion to send a bill back to committee,” the Fact Checker wrote.

Two of the votes — on May 3 and 4, 2017 — were Democratic efforts to change House rules to block health care legislation that would end preexisting condition protections. And the other vote would have sent a bill back to committee with instructions to add language regarding such protections.

But the Republican votes wouldn’t have ended the ACA’s protections.

In ultimately voting against the GOP health care plan — a measure that would have ended some of those protections — Fitzpatrick said in a statement that “any changes to our current system must ensure both the continuity of coverage and the continuity of patient protection provisions.”

DCCC Sales Job on ‘Car Dealer Mike Kelly’

In Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District, the DCCC attacks Rep. Mike Kelly for his vote on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which Trump signed into law in December.

The ad says, “2010. Car Dealer Mike Kelly is elected to Congress. And while there, his net worth increased by millions. So, it’s no surprise he helped give special tax breaks to car dealers — like himself.”

The first claim — about Kelly’s net worth increasing while in Congress — is unsubstantiated. The second — about “tax breaks” — lacks context.

The DCCC’s research report on Kelly says, “When Kelly ran for office, his net worth was an estimated $8.05 million. In 2015, after four years in Congress, Kelly’s net worth grew to an estimated $18.61 million – a $10.56 million increase.” That’s false.

The DCCC cites the Center for Responsive Politics as its source. But that group’s website – opensecrets.org – says Kelly’s average net worth was $34.6 million in 2010 when he ran for office, and it dropped to $19.3 million in 2011, his first year in Congress. Kelly took office on Jan. 3, 2011.

As of 2015, the most recent year available, Kelly had an average net worth of $18.6 million. So his net worth is still below the level it was at when he ran for office in 2010, despite the ad’s claim.

Amanda Sherman, a DCCC spokeswoman, made the point that Kelly filed a financial disclosure report in 2010, while a candidate for office, that showed he was worth $8.05 million in 2009. But when the reports were filed is irrelevant. The fact is Kelly’s average net worth increased before he took office, not while in office, as the ad erroneously claims.

As for the ad’s reference to “tax breaks” for car dealers, the DCCC is referring to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — a $1.5 trillion law that overhauled the nation’s tax code. It cut corporate tax rates, changed the individual income tax brackets and reduced estate taxes, among other things.

While the narrator says that Kelly “helped give special tax breaks to car dealers like himself,” the ad displays a Wall Street Journal headline that says, “Car Dealers Win Carveout in Latest GOP Tax Proposal.” The Journal story was about a provision added on Nov. 9, 2017, that addressed the treatment of interest on “floor plan financing indebtedness,” which the global consulting firm KPMG explains is interest paid on loans that are “used to finance the acquisition of motor vehicles held for sale or lease.” That includes cars, boats, farm machinery or other vehicles purchased by dealers for lease or sale.

Car dealerships, for example, borrow money in order to maintain a stock of new and used cars on their lots. Under the old tax law, the interest on those loans was fully deductible. The House bill maintained 100 percent deductibility of interest. 

Rep. Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added the provision, according to the Wall Street Journal article cited by the DCCC. The story mentions that Kelly is one of three House members who “have been in the auto-dealing business.” He owns Mike Kelly Automotive Group in Butler, Pennsylvania.

Kelly is a member of the committee and voted for Brady’s amendment, but the DCCC offered no evidence that Kelly was involved in the drafting of the provision that affects his business.

Despite the House vote in November, the Senate version of the tax bill “would have reduced the current 100 percent deduction of floor plan interest to 30 percent of adjusted taxable income,” according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. However, Sen. Rand Paul sponsored an amendment to preserve full deductibility of floor plan interest, which was included in the bill approved by the Senate on Dec. 2, 2017, according to the NADA.

Kelly voted for the final bill, which passed the House largely along party lines, 227 to 203, on Dec. 19, 2017. Trump signed it on Dec. 22, 2017.

John S. Treu, an assistant professor of accounting at West Virginia University, said it “would be appropriate” to characterize the treatment of floor plan financing as a “carveout.”

“The TCJA introduced a general limitation on interest deductibility based on adjusted taxable income and so maintaining the status quo for certain types of debt would also be a special carve out,” Treu told us in an email. “So I guess it would be appropriate to characterize it as a carve-out that maintained the status quo because the deduction for other types of interest income was being limited.”

We can’t say what role, if any, Kelly had in the House provision, but we know that the carveout would not have become law without the help of Paul in the Senate. We also can say for sure that the passage of a bill in December 2017 had no impact on Kelly’s net worth while in Congress from 2011 to 2015, contrary to the DCCC’s implication.

Kelly faces Democrat Ron DiNicola in the Nov. 6 election. According to the Erie Times-News, this is the DCCC’s first ad in the race since DiNicola was added to the committee’s Red to Blue campaign to flip control of the House from Republican to Democratic.

Tax Plan’s Effect on ‘Middle Class’

A DCCC ad in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District misleadingly says Rep. Barbara Comstock voted for “the Trump tax plan that gives almost all the benefits to the richest 1 percent, while middle-class families pay higher taxes.” Actually, most middle-income families will see a tax cut in the first years of the plan. When and if many of the individual income tax changes expire after 2025, those middle-income tax cuts disappear.

The ad portrays Comstock as a rubber stamp for Trump’s agenda, saying she has voted with Trump “97.8 percent of the time.” That’s true, according to a FiveThirtyEight.com analysis last updated on Oct. 10. It’s also true, as the ad says, that that is the highest among Virginia’s congressional delegation (though tied with Republican Rep. Scott Taylor).

But the ad cherry-picks to make the point that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — which Comstock supported — “gives almost all the benefits to the richest 1 percent, while middle-class families pay higher taxes.”

According to an analysis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, taxes will decline on average across all income groups in 2018. While “middle-class families” is a subjective classification, TPC noted that in 2018 “taxpayers in the middle income quintile (those with income between about $49,000 and $86,000) would receive an average tax cut of about $900, or 1.6 percent of after-tax income.” Upper-income taxpayers, especially those in the top 1 percent, would benefit even more as a share of after-tax income.

Those middle-income taxpayers would continue to see tax cuts through 2025, TPC said, on average about $900 that year, or 1.3 percent of after-tax income. However, because most of the individual income tax provisions are scheduled to sunset after 2025, TPC found that by 2027, “taxpayers in the middle income quintile would see no material change on average.” Those in the bottom two quintiles, after seeing a small tax cut through 2025 “would face an average tax increase of 0.1 percent of after-tax income.” Some of those could be considered “middle class.”

Republicans added sunset provisions to most of the individual tax cut provisions so that the bill could pass through budget reconciliation, a process requiring only a majority vote in the Senate. In order to do that, Republican lawmakers could not add more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years. Nor could they have a bill that added to the deficit beyond that 10-year window. However, Republicans say they expect a future Congress will extend those cuts.

An image in the ad says “83 percent of benefits to the richest 1 percent.” This is a frequent Democratic criticism of the tax plan, but, as we have written, it cherry-picks to a time after most of the individual income tax changes have expired (and assumes they are not extended). So it’s true that an estimated 83 percent of the tax benefits are projected to go to the top 1 percent in 2027, but in 2025 — the last year before those tax changes expire — a quarter of the tax cuts go to the top 1 percent.

The ad cites a Washington Post blog that says “some” middle-class taxpayers would see a tax increase and that the lion’s share of the tax benefits would accrue to upper-income Americans. Still, until the individual tax changes expire, most in the middle-income range will get a tax cut.

Email ‘Scandal’

A DCCC ad in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District talks about an “email scandal” involving Republican candidate Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner, saying he “was caught using county tax dollars to help his congressional campaign.” The ad says voters ought to send a message that “we’ve got enough corrupt politicians in Washington.” But there’s less to this “scandal” than the ad suggests.

Stauber is accused of swapping 15 emails with people from the National Republican Congressional Committee. That appears to run afoul of St. Louis County policy, which states, “St. Louis County elected officials will not use St. Louis County funds, equipment, supplies, employees, or facilities in support of their own campaigns for reelection, other candidates for public office, or political organizations.”

So that’s the backdrop for the DCCC ad, which states, “Emails scandals. This time it’s Pete Stauber in the hot seat. He was caught using county tax dollars to help his congressional campaign. Now he’s refusing to answer questions and won’t release his emails. Send Pete Stauber a message, we’ve got enough corrupt politicians in Washington.”

In response to inquiries from the Star Tribune, St. Louis County confirmed there were 15 emails between Stauber’s county email address and the NRCC, which is backing Stauber as one of its “Young Guns” in a seat critical to Republicans holding onto control of the House. Stauber faces Democrat Joe Radinovich and independence party candidate Ray Sandman in the general election.

It’s true, as the ad says, that Stauber has refused to release those emails, and the county won’t either. The county administrator and assistant county attorney both say the emails are, according to state statute, private data and cannot be released without the consent of one of the emailing parties. (The Minnesota Department of Administration disagrees, and asked the county to make the emails reviewable. We take no position on that.)

But the county says it looked at the emails and determined no further action was required.

“We proactively reviewed the emails through the lens of our Code of Conduct for Elected Officials Policy and were satisfied that no investigation or further review was warranted,” said St. Louis County spokeswoman Dana Kazel, according to the Duluth News Tribune. The county commission is a nonpartisan board, meaning commissioners don’t run on any party ticket.

The ad cites a WDIO-TV news report on the story, which does state that Stauber is “in the hot seat” over the emails. In that report, Cynthia Rugeley, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, says, “It’s a legitimate question on why you did it, and why you did it 15 times.” But, she said, “It’s not a serious violation by any stretch. … I would think 9 times out of 10 a county would make the same decision [not to take any further action].”

We reached out to Rugeley as well and she again noted, “There were 15 emails. He did use county email for the communication.” As for the ad’s claim that Stauber “was caught using county tax dollars to help his congressional campaign,” that’s a stretch.

“I guess you could make the argument about time he spent on a government computer,” Rugeley said. “I don’t know where he read it and elected officials do not have 8-5 business hours, making that a dubious claim. So, I don’t think the money argument works.”

We don’t either. It appears Stauber may have violated county policy with emails to the NRCC, but saying he “was caught using county tax dollars to help his congressional campaign” and implying that the email flap makes Stauber another “corrupt politician” goes too far.

Update, Oct. 22: The ad also makes a reference, via one of the articles cited in the ad, to an ethics complaint filed against Stauber regarding an opioid crisis roundtable he hosted in August attended by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and other county commissioners. The complaint alleges the event was a misuse of his position as a county commissioner to promote his campaign. The event was publicized by the county, and the county’s communications manager tweeted about it. Stauber later released a statement saying the event was organized by his campaign, and “I should have made a clear distinction for the county when it promoted the worthwhile event. I regret the confusion.” Although the ad focuses on an “email scandal,” the Radinovich campaign told us after we posted our article that the opioid roundtable was “an illegal misuse of official staff time.”

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“50 percent” of “Iowans under 65 in David Young’s district have preexisting conditions."
TV ad
Monday, September 17, 2018
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Actually Voted Against AHCA
Rep. Mike Coffman “voted to end protections for preexisting conditions” 13 times.
TV ad
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Actually Voted Against AHCA
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick “voted against protecting people with preexisting conditions.”
TV ad
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
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“2010. Car Dealer Mike Kelly is elected to Congress. And while there, his net worth increased by millions."
TV ad
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Republican House candidate Pete Stauber, a county commissioner in Minnesota, “was caught using county tax dollars to help his congressional campaign.”
TV ad
Friday, September 28, 2018