PolitiFact Rigs Tax Debate in Favor Of Conservatives

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

PolitiFact gets recent history wrong:

[W]e should note that Obama has not raised income taxes. Thanks to a compromise he brokered with Republicans at the end of 2010, income tax rates are staying the same for people of all incomes. Obama had favored raising taxes on high earners, but he gave up on that as part of the tax deal.

Nonsense. Obama would not have "raised income tax rates" even had the compromise not occurred: The rates would have gone up in accordance with the tax law President Bush signed. Here, let's let PolitiFact explain, via a December 1, 2010 fact-check headlined "'Obama tax hikes'? Just as easily call them the Bush tax hikes":

The tax rates are expiring on Jan. 1, 2011, because of the way they were created in the first place. Back in 2001 and again in 2003, Republicans used a process known as reconciliation that only requires 50 votes to pass the Bush tax cuts. ...

But there are a number of rules that govern reconciliation, and one of those rules says that you can't include things that affect the budget for more than 10 years. That's why the tax cuts are expiring. Republicans didn't have the 60 votes they needed in the Senate to make the tax cuts permanent.

We should point out that the 2001 reconciliation bill passed in the Senate with some Democratic support, 58-33. In 2003, the vote was closer, 50-50, with then vice president Dick Cheney breaking the tie.

"Republicans very deliberately engineered this set of tax cuts to expire after 10 years," said Norman Ornstein, a long-time observer of Congress and politics and a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "They did it for utterly political reasons."

And on January 1, PolitiFact explained: "The tax rates, passed during President George W. Bush's administration, had an end-of-the-year expiration date and were set to go up in 2011 unless they were extended."

So when PolitiFact now says that absent the Obama-GOP compromise last December, Obama would have "raised income taxes," that's nonsense. He wouldn't have "raised income taxes," he would have done nothing. The tax rates would have changed as scheduled, in accordance with the provisions of the law Bush signed. PolitiFact knows that.

And the lack of precision matters -- a lot. It fundamentally skews the debate in favor of lower taxes and, therefore (take your pick) higher deficits or deep cuts in government services, as I've previously explained:

If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much -- by making them "temporary" -- but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase. The GOP gets to have it both ways, describing tax cuts as temporary when it helps them, and pretending they were intended to be permanent when it helps them. It's no great surprise Republicans want to have it both ways -- but that doesn't mean the media should go along.

In addition to extending the Bush tax cuts, last December's tax deal reduced payroll taxes for a year. By the "logic" used by PolitiFact and other media to claim that allowing the scheduled expiration of tax cuts constitutes raising taxes, if the President and Congress do not agree to extend that payroll tax cut, they will be actively raising taxes. But that's obviously nonsense: The payroll tax reduction was always discussed as a temporary, year-long measure. Labeling everyone who allows it to expire as planned a tax-raiser would be false and badly distort public policy debates. The same is true of the Bush tax cuts.

Note, by the way, that PolitiFact seems to be laying the groundwork for just such a distorted debate over the payroll tax. Here's the full paragraph I excerpted at the beginning of this post:

Before we rule on this item, though, we should note that Obama has not raised income taxes. Thanks to a compromise he brokered with Republicans at the end of 2010, income tax rates are staying the same for people of all incomes. Obama had favored raising taxes on high earners, but he gave up on that as part of the tax deal. In exchange, he gained a a 2 percent reduction in payroll taxes for all workers. When you combine that with small tax cuts that were part of the economic stimulus, most taxpayers have seen reduced rates under Obama's administration.

No. Obama gained a temporary reduction in payroll taxes for all workers. PolitiFact left out the word temporary -- an omission that will come in handy when people start accusing people who want to allow them to expire of wanting to raise taxes.

Posted In
Economy, Taxes
Show/Publication
Politifact.com
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.