Tag: washingtonwatch.com

PolitiFact Oregon “False” Rating of Wehby Claim … Is False

I was pleased to get an inquiry from PolitiFact Oregon recently about a controversy I knew nothing about. Alas, I must deny credit to Politifact’s use of the information I provided.

Monica Wehby, the Portland pediatric neurosurgeon challenging Senator Jeff Merkley (D), recently fired on the senator for his support of the Rebuild America Jobs Act (S. 1769 in the 112th Congress).

According to the Politfact Oregon write-up, Wehby described Merkley’s vote for the act as “typical of a Washington insider like Senator Merkley,” saying, “I would have voted no because this legislation would have cost the average American family $1,000 a year while making no significant impact to fix our infrastructure and roads.”

Is the cost figure true? My site WashingtonWatch.com was the source of the number that the Wehby camp used (actually $958.40).

I described the source of the number to the Politifact reporter in some detail:

WashingtonWatch.com does a net present value calculation on CBO scores, calculating as costs the amount that would have to be put in a bank account now to fund future taxes and spending, for example, and as savings the amount that would go into a bank account now based on expected tax reductions and spending cuts. We divide gross amounts by the number of people in the country (according to census figures) and then multiply by the size of the average U.S. family (3.14, if my memory serves). At the end of a Congress, we “freeze” the relevant figures, so the calculation for S. 1769 is based on a discount rate of 3.73%, a U.S. population of 315,085,045, and a national debt of $16,338,243,391,74.

The CBO score for S. 1769 (click “Read an analysis of the bill” on the bill’s page) shows revenues (taxes - a cost) of about $56.8 billion and outlays (spending - a cost) of $56.5 billion. That made S. 1769 a high-cost bill — it proposed increasing both taxes and spending — but it was fairly budget-neutral, increasing the average family’s share of the national debt by only about $40 per average family.

If Wehby claimed that the bill would have cost the average American family about $1,000 in new taxes, I think that is incorrect. It would have cost about $500 per family in new taxes and about $500 per family in new spending.

Wehby’s claim was not that it would cost $1,000 in new taxes, though, as the PolitiFact reporter said to me in his inquiry. It was that the bill “would have cost the average American family $1,000 a year.” That is a correct number, though the reporter did not catch or raise with me that the net present value calculation produces a one-time cost figure—not the cost per-year.

There are arguments against this methodology for calculating costs, which I noted to the reporter:

As the bulk of the revenues would have come from a surtax on people with a modified AGI above $1,000,000, I see an argument that this would not have come from “average families” in the “median” or “mode” sense. But our calculations are literal averages — the arithmetic mean — which is produced by dividing costs among all families in the U.S. That approach makes the most sense for outlays, as funds in the U.S. treasury can be thought of as “owned” by all the people, and expenses should be treated as falling on all of us. The average/arithmetic mean makes less sense when it comes to revenues because they often come from distinct sets of taxpayers, such as the relatively well off.

We use the method of calculating we do because there are upwards of 10,000 bills in every Congress and hundreds get CBO scores. We don’t know of a reliable or accurate way to calculate and report tax or spending incidence at scale — who actually pays and who actually receives tax dollars — in all these bills.

My conclusion: “The statement that the bill would have cost the average family $958.40 according to CBO figures is accurate because taxes and spending are each appropriately treated as costs and ‘average’ refers to the arithmetic mean.”

But that’s not what PolitiFact Oregon reported. To my surprise, I “faulted Wehby’s claim on two counts.”

The first involved the $958.40 figure itself. In reality, [Harper] said, only half of that would come in the form of new taxes. The remainder really doesn’t count since it’s in the form of new spending. And while it could be argued that new spending amounts to a long-term debit, the CBO’s own finding that the bill was budget-neutral negates that point.

I neither said nor implied that spending “really doesn’t count.” It counts. The methodology I use counts it. And, while I pointed out that the bill was relatively budget-neutral, candidate Wehby didn’t make any claim about the budgetary effects of the bill. A bill can cost a lot and be budget-neutral. This one did and was.

The second point that the Politifact report attributed to me “was that ‘average families’ would not have borne the burden of any new costs because language in the bill made clear that it would be financed by a 0.7 percent surtax on millionaires.”

That wasn’t my point at all. Here’s what I wrote to the reporter:

It’s important and relevant to many, though, that the incidence of the taxes would have been on relatively rich people. The $500 in taxes would not have hit the “typical” (median/mode) American or Oregonian family. It’s up to you whether you believe it’s expected in the context of Wehby’s statement to get into tax incidence. You can ding her for that omission if your judgment is that it’s something she should have included.

It’s not something I faulted Wehby for. I called the statement “accurate” and left the question of subtlety around tax incidence to the reporter (thinking to myself, “Yeah, right. A political campaign is supposed to get into ‘tax incidence’…”).

It turns out that what a bill “costs” is hard to figure out when the bill has both revenue and spending measures. I’ve given it a lot of thought over years and come up with a pretty good methodology (explained and caveated at WashingtonWatch.com’s “about” page.) It’s disappointing when this thinking, and the work you put in writing up an issue for a reporter, comes out this badly misunderstood, and your own views mischaracterized.

With regret, I rate Politifact Oregon’s rating of Wehby’s claim False.

More Cost Data and Better Debt Insight

Data-transparent government is still a ways off, but some small steps forward are underway. To wit, my project WashingtonWatch.com, which is adding new data going to the costs of bills in Congress.

As detailed in an announcement that went up this morning, many more bills on the site will have cost estimates associated with them, the product of research being done at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Some bills spend pennies or less per U.S. family. Some spend $5,000 per family and more. Wouldn’t you like to know which are which?

The site has also begun displaying national debt information on a per-family, per-person, and per-couple basis. Your individual (official) debt—just for being an American—is about $45,000 dollars, your real debt far higher.

I’ll have much more to say on government transparency in the coming months. In the meantime, people may do their part to avoid the next calamitous debt ceiling debate by following the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year in Congress using resources like WashingtonWatch.com. Shrinking our disastrously run and bloated government is a long game that starts with small steps. Channel your outrage productively, friends.

This Is Earmark Transparency

This morning, a database of FY 2011 earmark requests was released by Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and my own WashingtonWatch.com. With House Republicans generally eschewing earmarks this year, members of Congress and senators still sought over 39,000 earmarks, valued at over $130 billion dollars. Learn more on the relevant pages at Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayers Against Earmarks, and WashingtonWatch.com.

This is transparency. The production of organized, machine-readable data has allowed these differing groups—an advocacy organization, a spending analysis group, and a “Web 2.0” transparency site—to expand the discussion about earmarks. The data is available to any group, to the press, and to political scientists and researchers.

Earmarking is a questionable practice, and, anticipating public scrutiny, House and Senate Republicans have determined to eschew earmarks for the time being. But the earmark requests in this database are still very much “live.” They could be approved in whatever spending legislation Congress passes for the 2011 fiscal year. They also tell us how our representatives acted before they got careful about earmarks.

Earmarks are a small corner of the federal policy process, of course, but when all legislation, budgeting, spending, and regulation has become more transparent—truly transparent, Senator Durbin—the public’s oversight of Congress will be much, much better. As I noted at our December 2008 conference, “Just Give Us the Data,” progressives believe that it would validate government programs and root out corruption. (That’s fine—corruption and ongoing failure in federal programs are not preferable.) I believe that demand for government will drop. The average American family pays about $100 per day for the operation of the federal government currently. That’s a lot.

Again, you can see how this data is in use, and you can use it yourself, by visiting Taxpayers for Common Sense, Taxpayers Against Earmarks, and WashingtonWatch.com. On the latter site, you can see a map of earmarks in your state and lists of earmarks by member of Congress and representative, then vote and comment on individual earmarks.

At considerable expense and effort, these sites have done what President Obama asked Congress to do in January. If earmarking is to continue, Congress could produce earmark data as a matter of course itself: The appropriations committees could take earmark requests online and immediately publish them, rather than using the opaque exchange of letters, phone calls, and—who knows—homing pigeons.

Congress should modernize and make itself more transparent. We’re showing the way.

No, Senator Durbin, Earmarks Are Not Transparent

This morning the full Senate voted down a proposed rule that would have barred earmarks for the next two years. Part of the reason? Earmarks are transparent.

Here’s Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), quoted in a Hill article:

There is full disclosure in my office of every single request for an appropriation. We then ask those who have made the requests to have a full disclaimer of their involvement in the appropriation, so it’s there for the public record. This kind of transparency is virtually unprecedented.

Senator Durbin doesn’t know transparency. Take a look at Senator Durbin’s earmark disclosures. Yes, you can read through them, one by one. But can you make a list of recipients? Can you add up the totals? Can you search for common words in the brief explanations for each earmark? Can you make a map showing where recipients of Senator Durbin’s requests are?

No, no, no, and no.

That’s because Senator Durbin puts his request disclosures out as scanned PDFs. Someone on his staff takes a letter and puts it on a scanner, making a PDF document of the image. Then the staffer posts that image on the senator’s web site. It’s totally useless if you want to use the data for anything. Notably, Senator Durbin doesn’t even include the addresses of his earmark recipients.

Last year, visitors to my transparency project, WashingtonWatch.com, laboriously took earmark disclosures like Senator Durbin’s and gathered the data from them. Now—because of their work—you can see a map of Illinois earmarks and the list of Senator Durbin’s requests for FY 2010.

Early this year, President Obama called for “a comprehensive, bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark before a vote is taken.” He wasn’t talking about WashingtonWatch.com or the public doing this work—he was talking about Congress putting a database together with earmark data in useful formats.

Later in the early part of the year, I worked with a small group of transparency activists to show Congress how to do earmark transparency. Earmarkdata.org has our earmark data schema—the guide to producing earmark information in a way the public can use. (You can sign a petition there to support earmark transparency.)

No, Senator Durbin, your earmarks are not transparent. We’re producing the state-of-the-art database. We’re setting the precedent for transparency. Your PDF-image disclosures are a day late and a dollar short.

Here are the votes on the earmark moratorium taken in the Senate this morning. A “No” vote supports continuation of earmarking. A “Yes” vote is opposed to earmarking.

A Lame Duck, a National/Voter ID, and the Pun That Makes it All Worthwhile

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this morning, John Fund speculates about a post-election, lame-duck strategy in which Democrats move a variety of controversial proposals before giving up power to November’s presumed victors. Among these proposals is “a federally mandated universal voter registration system to override state laws.”

The answer to that idea is No.

Part of the reason is because this proposal hasn’t seen any discussion or debate. Its benefits, costs, and consequences have had no public vetting.

Likely, a national voter ID system would also be a national ID system. Its utility in addressing whatever voter fraud there is would be matched or outstripped by its utility for controlling our access to health care, travel, guns, financial services, and every other thing that the federal government might like to regulate more thoroughly. That’s also part of why the answer is No.

I’m not too worried. Fund is interested in voter and election fraud, so he may be overweighting the likelihood of legislation to address it. And, as I said this morning in a broader WashingtonWatch.com blog post worth reading only for the pun, “Chances are that Fund is using the lame-duck speculation to goose (yuk yuk) his generally conservative readership, and that the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate aren’t thinking that far ahead yet.”

A Look at the Contract From America

The Contract From America is a very interesting political document, seeking to rally people around a set of policies that—unlike the Contract With America from years ago—was generated from the bottom up.

On the WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve been assessing the ten items in the Contract From America. The Tea Party movement stands for a lot of ideas in a lot of people’s minds. Here’s a chance to see what substantive policies are important to a large cross-section of this political movement.

Congress to Produce Earmark Data?

A bill introduced in the Senate yesterday would require Congress to bring earmarks out of the shadows, producing earmark data in a format that the public can easily use.

S. 3335 calls for a “unified and searchable database on a public website for congressional earmarks.” This is something President Obama called for in his 2010 State of the Union speech, though we haven’t heard much more from him about it since then.

Importantly the bill is not just about a web site. The bill would enable the public to “programmatically search and access all data in a serialized machine readable format via a web-services application programming interface.” That gobbledegook means that people could access the data for themselves, slicing and dicing it to learn whatever they want or to display it however they want.

I’ve noted here before the efforts of my government transparency web site WashingtonWatch.com to capture earmark data and the related effort to get earmark data directly from Congress at Earmarkdata.org.

The bill was introduced by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), and is currently cosponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO). Its House counterpart is H.R. 5258 (Cassidy R-LA), which also has bipartisan support.

Support for these bills across parties and ideologies suggests good things may be in store for earmark transparency.