The first head-to-head debate of the Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders focused on the government’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. We sorted through competing claims the two front-runners made about the pandemic, as well as other topics including Social Security, super PACs and bailouts.
- Biden denied Sanders’ claim that he ever talked on the Senate floor “about the necessity” of “cutting Social Security.” In 1984, Biden called for a one-year spending freeze that would have included Social Security, and he boasted about that position from the Senate floor in 1995. But Sanders went too far in claiming Biden has a history of “advocat[ing]” for such cuts.
- Biden misleadingly claimed that he “did not” help write a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it easier for credit card companies to collect debt, but decided it was better to work with Republicans to improve the bill because a Republican president was expected to sign it.
- Biden said Sanders has “nine super PACs” and Sanders said, “I don’t have any.” Sanders may not have nine super PACs supporting his campaign, but he has some.
- Biden said Sanders “voted against the bailout to the automobile industry,” when in fact Sanders supported a $15 billion aid package for automakers in 2008.
- Sanders alternatively said that “at least 30,000” and “up to 60,000” people die in a year due to lacking health insurance. There’s insufficient evidence to pin down an exact figure, though several studies have estimated that thousands of deaths annually are related to lacking coverage.
- Biden said he had a “100% rating” from the abortion-rights group NARAL. That’s true of some of his years as a senator, but not all, as a line of questioning by Sanders pointed out.
- Sanders correctly noted that average inflation-adjusted wages are close to what they were 45 years ago. But that masks the fact that wages haven’t been flat over that time: They dropped from their peak in the early 1970s and have been on a general upward trend since hitting bottom in 1996.
- In speaking about climate change, Biden incorrectly stated that his home state of Delaware “is 3 feet above sea level.” While parts of Delaware are that low-lying, most of the state is not, and the average elevation is 60 feet above sea level.
The two candidates also repeated claims we have checked before on health care, climate change, defense spending and gun control.
The March 15 debate was hosted by CNN and Univision.
Sanders Attacks Biden on Social Security
In a fiery back-and-forth over Sanders’ claim that Biden has a long history of support for cuts to Social Security, both candidates massaged the facts.
Biden denied Sanders’ claim that he ever talked on the Senate floor “about the necessity” of “cutting Social Security.” In 1984, Biden called for a one-year spending freeze that would have included Social Security, and he boasted about that position in 1995 during debate about a balanced budget amendment. But Sanders also went too far with his claim that Biden has “advocated” such cuts.
Sanders: Have you been on the floor of the Senate … time and time again, talking about the necessity, with pride, about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans programs.
Sanders: You never said that?
Sanders implored viewers to go to YouTube to check. He’s reaching deep into Biden’s legislative past to make his point.
As we wrote in our Jan. 24 story, “Biden vs. Sanders on Social Security and Medicare,” back in 1984 when Ronald Reagan was president, then-Sen. Biden co-sponsored a measure (along with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and others) seeking a one-year, across-the-board freeze on defense and domestic spending as a way to reduce budget deficits. The proposal, which failed, would have eliminated cost-of-living increases for one year for Social Security and Medicare.
For example, on Jan. 31, 1995, Biden said from the floor of the Senate, “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice. I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time. Somebody has to tell me in here how we are going to do this hard work without dealing with any of those sacred cows, some deserving more protection than others. I am not quite sure how you get from here to there. I am sure that we should tell the American people straight up that such an amendment is going to require some big changes.”
So Biden has spoken on the Senate floor about his one-time support for a one-year freeze to Social Security.
But there’s more to Biden’s record, and both Sanders and Biden picked from it selectively.
Sanders noted that Biden was a “fan” of the Balanced Budget Amendment, which Sanders said “called for cuts in Social Security.” But the issue is more nuanced than Sanders suggests.
Back in 1996, Biden was among the Democrats who voted for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The resolution fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, 64-35.
Biden supported an amendment that sought to protect the Social Security system from any cuts enacted as part of the balanced budget plan. Even though that amendment failed and Biden voted for the balanced budget resolution anyway, it’s not accurate for Sanders to say the balanced budget proposal “called for cuts in Social Security.” The balanced budget amendment resolution did not mention Social Security, only that “[t]otal outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year” unless three-fifths of both the House and Senate agreed to exceptions.
Sanders also accused Biden of taking the position that “everything was on the table” in budget negotiations with Republicans, “including in your judgment, cuts to Social Security.”
This likely refers to Biden’s comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 29, 2007, when then-presidential candidate Biden told host Tim Russert that he would “absolutely” put “age of eligibility” and “cost of living” for Social Security and Medicare on the table during discussions on reducing the deficit.
And Biden was also involved in so-called “Grand Bargain” negotiations between then-President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would have reduced the deficit through a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts — and even changes to Social Security. The New York Times reported that the Grand Bargain would have raised the retirement age and changed the formula for calculating benefits. But, as the Times reported, the deal fell through as members of Boehner’s caucus objected to raising taxes.
During the debate, Biden said that none of those instances resulted in cuts to Social Security, and that he never voted to cut Social Security.
“I know, because people like me helped me stop that,” Sanders said. “All that I’m saying is you were prepared to cut and advocate for the cuts.”
Saying that Biden was prepared to “advocate” cuts to Social Security is misleading. As we wrote in our story about Biden’s history on Social Security, we don’t know what Biden might have been willing to compromise on since those deals never happened. Agreeing to leave an issue “on the table” prior to a negotiation isn’t the same thing as agreeing to do it.
During the debate, Biden asked Sanders to “acknowledge” that his campaign had taken “out of context” Biden’s comments about a tax plan championed by former House Speaker Paul Ryan. We agreed those comments were used misleadingly in a Sanders campaign newsletter to suggest Biden supported the Ryan plan.
But as we wrote at the time, Biden’s comments over time make clear that he has at least been willing to keep cuts to Social Security and Medicare as negotiating chips, while other Democrats have taken a harder line that any cuts cannot be part of budget negotiations.
Biden’s Bankruptcy Law Spin
Two days before the debate, Biden said he would support Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to change a bankruptcy law that he had backed as a senator in 2005. Warren’s plan would make it easier for people to obtain debt relief — allowing student loan debt, for example, to be discharged in bankruptcy.
Univision’s Ilia Calderón, one of the debate moderators, asked Biden why he had changed his position and now supported Warren’s plan.
As Biden told it, he made the decision to improve a bill that he knew a Republican-controlled Congress would pass and Republican President George W. Bush would sign into law.
Biden: I had a choice, it was going to pass, Republican president, Republican Congress, and I offered two amendments to make sure that people under $50,000 would not be affected and women and children would go to the front of the line on alimony and support payments. That’s what I did. It passed overwhelmingly. I did not like the rest of the bill, but I improved it, number one.
Later, Sanders noted that Biden had “helped write” the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which Warren called “terrible for families in need” when she announced her plan to undo parts of the law.
Sanders: Joe, if my memory is correct, you helped write that bankruptcy bill.
Biden: I did not.
The fact is, Biden had a long history with the legislation and his support for it predated Bush. In fact, Biden helped draft a version of the bankruptcy bill that Congress sent to President Bill Clinton in 2000, only to have the Democrat president pocket veto the bill before leaving office.
Let’s take a look at Biden’s involvement in the bankruptcy bill.
On March 15, 1999, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley announced that he had introduced the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1999 with the support of Democratic Sens. Robert Torricelli and Biden.
“Sen. Chuck Grassley today introduced a bipartisan plan to improve the nation’s bankruptcy system,” the Republican senator announced in a press release. “Sens. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Joe Biden of Delaware joined Grassley as co-sponsors of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1999.”
In 2000, Biden was a member of the House-Senate conference committee that resolved the differences between the chambers’ bankruptcy bills before sending a final version to Clinton.
On the Senate floor the day the bill passed on Dec. 7, 2000, Sen. Orrin Hatch singled out Biden, among others, for his work on the bill — crediting its passage to Biden’s “unwavering dedication to accomplishing the important reforms in this bill.”
For his part, Biden urged Clinton to reconsider his veto threat and touted provisions of the bill “to protect families below the median income” and make it easier for women and children to receive alimony and child support from husbands and fathers who file for bankruptcy. These were the very things that Biden claimed during the debate that he pushed for in 2005 in order to win his support.
“[A] feature of this legislation that I think deserves much more emphasis is its historic improvement in the treatment of family support payments — child support and alimony,” Biden said on Dec. 7, 2000.
After Clinton vetoed the bill, Grassley reintroduced the Bankruptcy Reform Act in July 2001 and Biden co-sponsored it. Biden was a member of an informal conference committee to work on the bankruptcy bill, and the committee was scheduled to have its first meeting on Sept. 12, 2001 — which, as it turned out, was the day after the 9/11 terrorist attack. At the time, Congressional Quarterly described Biden as “one of the measure’s most vocal supporters.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that the bankruptcy bill became law.
As he did in 2000, Hatch praised Biden for his help on the bill on the day that the Senate passed the legislation. Hatch said Biden had worked “tirelessly for years on this legislation, and they have taken some tough votes to get it done.”
And, as he did in 2000, Biden spoke in support of the bill’s provisions that made it easier for women and children to collect alimony and child support. “I am here again today to show that, contrary to a lot of the rhetoric that has been tossed around, this bill actually improves the situation of women and children who depend on child support,” Biden said.
Contrary to his claims during the debate, Biden helped write the bankruptcy law, and it wasn’t just because he knew the bill was going to become law under a Republican president and Republican Congress. He was involved over the years in many attempts to enact the legislation.
Super PAC Support
During an exchange about campaign contributions and potential federal funding of elections, Biden and Sanders disagreed over the number of super PACs supporting Sanders for president.
“Why don’t you get rid of the super PAC that you have right now?” Sanders said to Biden. “You’ll get rid of the nine super PACs you have,” Biden then said to Sanders, who responded: “I don’t have nine super PACs. I don’t have any super PACs.”
But Sanders also has super PACs supporting his campaign, although not nine of them — at least not according to the documentation provided by Biden’s campaign.
The campaign emailed us a list of eight progressive organizations, and several of their affiliates, that are backing Sanders for president. The eight main groups are: Center for Popular Democracy Action, Democratic Socialists of America, Dream Defenders, Make the Road, Our Revolution, People’s Action, Progressive Democrats of America and Sunrise Movement. Those groups, and another, Student Action, are all part of a coalition called “People Power for Bernie,” which launched at the end of January.
But according to the Biden campaign’s own documentation, only four of their affiliates are technically super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals and can spend that money on ads that advocate for or against the election of political candidates. (And half of them have not been active during the 2020 cycle.)
The rest of the groups on the list are mostly 501(c)4 social welfare organizations. As 501(c) nonprofits, the groups also may raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals, but their political activity is supposed to be more limited. On Twitter, Sunrise Movement, one of the groups in the pro-Sanders coalition, called Biden’s claim a “smear” against “grassroots organizations like us.”
Unlike super PACs, 501(c)4 groups — sometimes called “dark money” groups — are not required to disclose the names of their donors, although some of them do. Also, super PACs report to the Federal Election Commission, while 501(c) groups report to the Internal Revenue Service.
It’s unclear how much money all of the groups cited by the Biden campaign have spent supporting Sanders during the 2020 cycle.
In addition to the groups cited by Biden’s campaign, Sanders also has the support of Vote Nurses Value PAC, a super PAC affiliated with the largest union of registered nurses, National Nurses United. That super PAC has spent more than $733,000 in support of Sanders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The center also lists three other super PACs backing Sanders in 2020, but none of them have spent any money.
Biden’s Auto Bailout Stretch
Biden stretched the facts when he said “Bernie voted against the bailout to the automobile industry” in addition to opposing the 2008 Economic Stabilization Act.
In fact, Sanders supported a $15 billion measure specifically aimed at aiding the troubled auto industry in December 2008, in the midst of the worst economic slump since the 1930s. That bill failed to pass the Senate.
It’s true that earlier, Sanders opposed a Wall Street bailout bill providing $350 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. President George W. Bush announced later that he would use TARP funds to aid the auto industry, too. Sanders could not have known that when he voted against the funds.
Biden is referring to Sanders’ vote in January 2009 to block release of a second $350 billion in TARP funds, again mainly to aid financial institutions. This time it was clear that some of that would aid automakers — but it amounted to only $4 billion of the total.
This isn’t the first time Sanders has been unfairly accused of opposing the auto bailout. Hillary Clinton made the same charge in her 2016 campaign, and we wrote about it in greater detail then.
Sanders on Deaths Among the Uninsured
While talking about health care in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Sanders pushed for his Medicare for All proposal by citing two specific — and different — figures for the number of annual deaths linked to lacking insurance coverage.
“And bottom line here is, in terms of Medicare for all, despite what the vice president is saying, what the experts tell us is that one of the reasons that we are unprepared and have been unprepared is we don’t have a system. We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans,” Sanders said. “That is not a system that is prepared to provide health care to all people. In a good year, without the epidemic, we’re losing up to 60,000 people who die every year because they don’t get to a doctor on time. It’s clearly this crisis is only making a bad situation worse.”
Later, the Vermont senator offered a different figure: “You know what, last year at least 30,000 people died in America because they didn’t get health care when they should because we don’t have universal coverage. I think that’s a crisis.”
But, as we’ve written several times, it’s hard to pin down the precise number of deaths in the U.S. attributable to lacking insurance — although multiple studies have estimated thousands of excess deaths from absent insurance coverage.
PolitiFact looked last year specifically at Sanders’ claim that “30,000 Americans a year die waiting for health care because of the cost” and found it “lacks meaningful support either way. It could be true. But it also could easily not be.”
Our fact-checking colleagues traced the figure to Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a single-payer health care system. PNHP cited the findings of the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, a study in which some people in the state were given Medicaid by lottery and others remained uninsured.
But while that study “yielded important findings,” the death rate differential was not statistically significant, PolitiFact noted, citing Benjamin Sommers, an associate professor of health policy and economics at Harvard. Therefore, it didn’t “generate sufficient evidence spelling out the link between insurance coverage and mortality” — so it couldn’t be confidently applied to the country.
We wrote in 2009 about another study by researchers with the Harvard Medical School — two of whom had strong connections to PNHP — that claimed 45,000 deaths a year could be attributed to the lack of health insurance. We found that was at the high end of estimates, but earlier studies also put the figure in the thousands.
The higher figure cited by Sanders — “60,000” — may refer to a recent study from Yale researchers that examined Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal. That study looked at uninsured populations and the notion that “uninsured people experience a 40% elevation in age-specific mortality risk,” and concluded that “universal coverage would save 68,531 lives” annually.
Biden’s NARAL Voting Record
Discussing women’s reproductive rights, Biden touted a “100% rating” from the group NARAL Pro-Choice America. While it’s true that the former vice president received that voting record rating from the advocacy group during some of his years in the Senate, that was not always the case — a point made by Sanders.
Biden: I think it is a woman’s right to choose. I think it’s a woman’s opportunity to be able to make that decision. And in fact, I’ve gotten a 100% rating from NARAL as well.
Sanders: Excuse me, you have a lifetime 100% voting record from NARAL?
Biden: I know my record of late from NARAL has been 100%. I don’t know whether it was 25 years ago.
The rating highlighted by Biden was selective, though he didn’t technically claim to have a lifelong 100% voting record rating with the group. It was Sanders who added the “lifetime” qualifier.
Still, the exchange called for further context — and NARAL’s president chimed in on Twitter to provide it. Ilyse Hogue said that while Biden has “been evolving over time,” his record was not always perfect in the group’s eyes.
.@JoeBiden has been evolving over time but his lifetime rating from @naral is not 100%. His last year in Congress he had a 100%. Annual ratings are entirely dependent on what votes come up in any given session. Not what a candidate feels about any given issue. #DemDebate2020 /2
— ilyse hogue (@ilyseh) March 16, 2020
As Hogue points out, the group gives ratings to members of Congress based on their legislative activity in a given year. And Biden’s ratings reflected a mixed record.
In the years 1996 and 1997, for example, Biden’s voting record score from the group was 43% and 34%, respectively, according to VoteSmart.org. He got a 90% rating in 2000 — and had mostly high marks in the years to follow, save for a 36% rating in 2003. After three straight years of 100% ratings, he was given a 75% rating in 2007.
In his last year as a senator, based on three key votes in the Senate, Biden again received a 100% voting record rating, according to an archived version of the group’s 2008 Congressional Record on Choice report. Sanders, meanwhile, has maintained a 100% rating since 1996.
Sanders’ Wage Claim
Sanders was correct in saying that average inflation-adjusted wages are nearly the same today as they were 45 years ago, but that leaves the misleading impression that wages haven’t budged over those decades. Real wages dropped from their peak in the early 1970s but began to rise back up again beginning in the mid-1990s.
Sanders: Why is it that over the last 45 years, despite the huge increase in productivity and technology, the average worker today is not making a nickel more in real dollars?
Average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees in inflation-adjusted (1982-84) dollars were $319.90 for February, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures available. In February 1975 — 45 years ago — the average weekly earnings were $314.90. The peak was actually a few years earlier, in 1973 at $345.95.
Average weekly wages hit the low point 24 years ago — at $263.73 in January 1996. They have fluctuated, but generally have been on an upward trend since. Despite Sanders’ claim, real average wages are up 21.3% since hitting that bottom of the curve. For more on how there are different ways to look at wage data, see our June 2019 story, “Are Wages Rising or Flat?”
Biden Overstates Delaware’s Low Elevation
When the two candidates tussled over their plans to tackle climate change, Biden went too far in describing the low elevation of his home state of Delaware.
Biden: My, my state is 3 feet above sea level. I don’t need a lecture on what’s going to happen about rising seas. I know what happens; I watched the whole Delmarva Peninsula, just like it is in South Carolina and the rest.
Delaware is the lowest-lying state in the U.S. and is highly susceptible to sea level rise from climate change. But, as we explained back in November when Biden made a similar claim, while there are some areas that dip as low as 3 feet above sea level, for the most part, the state sits higher. The average elevation across the state is 60 feet above sea level.
A Delaware Geological Survey map shows that a relatively small portion of the state, mostly along the coast, is 5 feet or less above sea level.
This time, Biden also referenced the Delmarva Peninsula, which is the piece of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean south of New Jersey. The name comes from the three states that make up the peninsula: Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
Health Care Spending. Sanders repeated his well-worn, and exaggerated, talking point that the U.S. spends “twice as much as any other country” on health care. Normally, he adds “per capita.” The U.S. spends twice as much as most countries, but not all. As we’ve said before, U.S. per capita spending on health care totaled $10,586 in 2018, according to the most recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data. That’s twice as much as the OECD average and every country except for six: Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Denmark.
Not a ‘Game Changer.’ Biden repeated one of his go-to lines for touting his record on climate change. “I wrote the first climate change bill that was in the Congress,” he said, adding that “PolitiFact said [it] was a game changer.” As we’ve written on multiple occasions, the fact-checking site called Biden a “climate change pioneer” in response to his more modest claim of being “one of the first guys” to introduce a climate change bill, but did not use the word “game changer.”
In fact, the article explains that the bill, which set up a presidential task force, was a “plan to make a plan” — not a piece of comprehensive legislation that addressed lowering carbon emissions or climate change adaptation.
Trade Agreements and Jobs. Sanders again blamed two trade agreements – the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normal trade relations with China – for the loss of “over 4 million good-paying jobs.” But, as we wrote after he made the same claim during the January Democratic Debate and during the 2016 primary, it’s unclear how many jobs have been affected by those deals.
Sanders’ claim is supported by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute. The EPI estimated that by 2017 the U.S. has lost 3.4 million jobs since the U.S. granted permanent normal trade relations with China in 2001. The institute also estimated that NAFTA cost the U.S. 682,900 jobs, as of 2013. But other researchers disagree.
The Congressional Research Service determined that NAFTA did not have a significant impact on jobs, saying in a 2017 report that the “net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest, primarily because trade with Canada and Mexico accounts for a small percentage of U.S. GDP.” A 2017 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the job losses in manufacturing since China joined the Word Trade Organization in 2001 have been partly offset by job gains in other parts of the economy.
Underinsured. Sanders repeated his claim that there are 87 million “uninsured or underinsured” Americans. As we’ve written in our coverage of past debates, this figure comes from a study by The Commonwealth Fund. The study found that “[o]f the 194 million U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 in 2018, an estimated 87 million, or 45 percent, were inadequately insured.” The 87 million is composed of three categories: 24 million people uninsured, 43.8 million “underinsured,” and 19.3 million people who had insurance but had been uninsured at some point in the past year.
Defense Spending. Sanders misleadingly used a military spending figure when discussing the issue of climate change. “Instead of spending $1.8 trillion on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we should pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change,” he said. As we have explained before, that figure is not solely for weapons. It’s the 2018 total world military expenditure, as calculated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank that researches conflict, armaments and more. The group says it “discourages the use of terms such as ‘arms spending’ when referring to military expenditure, as spending on armaments is usually only a minority of the total.”
Gun Manufacturer Lawsuits. Biden again accused Sanders of voting to allow gun manufacturers to be exempt from lawsuits. “This man is the only — one of the few Democrats I know who voted to exempt the gun industry from being able to be sued,” Biden said. “We cannot sue the gun manufacturers because he voted for that years ago.”
It is true that Sanders, as a member of the House then, voted in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act — which protects licensed manufacturers, dealers, sellers of ammunition and firearms, as well as trade associations from civil lawsuits over the misuse of guns or ammunition — in 2003 and 2005. However, as we have explained, the bill includes six exceptions where civil suits may be granted, such as cases in which a firearm seller acted with negligence.
Biden did acknowledge that Sanders has since expressed regret over his vote on the bill, and Sanders has indeed called his vote “a bad vote.”
As for Biden’s claim that Sanders is “one of the few Democrats I know” who voted to enact the bill, the majority of House Democrats voted against it. But in 2003, 63 Democrats voted “yea” and 59 did so in 2005. Sanders is not included in those counts, because he was (and still is) an independent.
Correction, March 16: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly quoted Biden when the former vice president was discussing how he would respond to the novel coronavirus as president. Biden said, “We just pass a law saying that you do not have to pay for any of this, period.” Sanders replied, “As a matter of fact, that’s not true. That law has enormous loopholes. I understand that Nancy Pelosi did her best, Republicans prevented it.” We misheard it, and apparently so did Sanders. Biden said “pass” – not “passed” – and he was referring to his plan, not to the House bill.
— by Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, Rem Rieder, D’Angelo Gore, Jessica McDonald, Angelo Fichera, Katherine Hartzell, Isabella Fertel and Mitchell Aronoff
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