Thursday, March 13, 2008

PolitiFact=PolitiFlack? Another McCain-related flub

The St. Petersburg Times PolitiFact effort came back under my radar this week. I don't search them out. I just run across their work during the normal course of researching various topics.

The entry that caught my eye was another McCain item, specifically McCain's claim that he has never asked for nor received earmarks or pork barrel projects during his Senate career.

What is an earmark?
First, it may refer to an expenditure, paid from the general fund, that has been specified to apply to a particular local project, usually within the congressional district of the provision’s author. Earmarked appropriations include many projects that are typically referred to as “pork.” Second, an earmark may refer to the dedication of a discrete revenue stream to a particular program within the federal budget, regardless of whether that program is local or national in scope.
(Harvard Law School Budget Policy Seminar--.pdf)
So far, so good. McCain, as a senator, has the entire state of Arizona in his district.

But there's more from the seminar:
According to Congressional Quarterly’s American Congressional Dictionary, because all appropriations set aside funds for some “purpose, use, or recipient,” under the broadest definition “virtually every appropriation is earmarked.” More specific definitions of the term tend to differ in the extent to which they emphasize four factors commonly attributed to earmarks: specificity of the entity receiving funding, congressional origin, exemption from normal competitive requirements for agency funding, and presence in statutory text.
Slate did its part to clarify the nuances of the term in a 2006 story:
You can draw another line by looking at whether a given spending item even shows up in the text of an appropriations bill. The appropriations and conference committees can slide earmarks into the reports that accompany the final bill. Since the other lawmakers don't get the chance to amend these reports, they can't vote on these earmarks individually.
There are thus a number of different definitions that might come into play. And how does PolitiFact acknowledge that reality?
Whether these projects constitute earmarked pork depends on how you look at the issue. In its simplest form, pork barrel spending is a project designed to benefit a particular constituency, and an earmark is the designation of funds for a specific purpose.
PolitiFact goes on from there to present quotations from Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union and McCain campaign spokesperson Brian Rogers which seemed to support McCain's claim, but to no avail:
“To the average person on the outside world, there might not be much of a difference with these things,” Sepp said.

Indeed, we agree with Sepp that the narrow Washington definition of "earmark" is less important than the impression McCain has left. It appears he was seeking pork barrel projects for Arizona, which puts a few blemishes on an otherwise pure record against pork. And so while we find there is no question that McCain has been a leading congressional voice against pork, these three examples conflict with his bold claim. So we find that claim False.

Sepp said that the Washington definition was less important than the impression left by McCain's remarks? Maybe the good folks at PolitiFact should have included Sepp's statement to that effect, because "To the average person on the outside world there might not be much of a difference with these things" contains no judgment regarding the comparative importance. Maybe it was in the tone of Sepp's voice or the twinkle in his eye?

Rather, Sepp appears to have simply noted that the common understanding of "earmark" and "pork barrel" may not be as specific in the understanding of relatively uninformed voters.

Thank goodness the uninformed voter can just stop by PolitiFact to discover that McCain was simply not telling the truth rather than using a more refined definition when he made his statement. And pardon my sarcasm. If PolitiFact were serious about what they're doing, they would assess McCain's statement according to the accepted definition McCain was using rather than committing a fallacy of equivocation. That is exactly what they do when they fail to read McCain charitably, assuming an unsophisticated definition instead of what McCain intended.

And then they grade his truthfulness with the needle buried at "False." The reasoning in the article is preposterous, and quite surprising given the association of PolitiFact with the well -reputed Congressional Quarterly.

PolitiFact should consider changing the name to PolitiFlack.

Changed the title from "McCain" to "McCain-related." The earlier version was a tad misleading, in retrospect. Apologies to any who were misled.

Correction: Replaced an "as" with an "in" to achieve clarity


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