Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
|(clipped from PolitiFact.com)|
The fact checkers:
Angie Drobnic Holan: writer, researcher
Martha M. Hamilton: editor
PolitiFact, we are told, pays close attention to the specific wording of political claims.
We'll see. Already in the clipped image above one can note semantic drifts between "refuse" and "won't" along with "willing to close" and "want to repeal."
To be sure, the paraphrases can work if one keeps context carefully in mind. Let's fix the context carefully in mind:
Now, the proponents of this budget will tell us we have to make all these draconian cuts because our deficit is so large; this is an existential crisis, we have to think about future generations, so on and so on. And that argument might have a shred of credibility were it not for their proposal to also spend $4.6 trillion over the next decade on lower tax rates.President Obama is saying that the Ryan budget "spends" $4.6 trillion on lower tax rates, and the way the lower tax rates will "supposedly be paid for" is via closing tax loopholes and eliminating deductions to the tune of $4.6 trillion.
We’re told that these tax cuts will supposedly be paid for by closing loopholes and eliminating wasteful deductions. But the Republicans in Congress refuse to list a single tax loophole they are willing to close. Not one. And by the way, there is no way to get even close to $4.6 trillion in savings without dramatically reducing all kinds of tax breaks that go to middle-class families -- tax breaks for health care, tax breaks for retirement, tax breaks for homeownership.
Obama is engaging in doublespeak. If the budget pays for the $4.6 trillion by increasing taxes by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions then it isn't "spending" $4.6 trillion on lower tax rates. There are honest and forthright ways to express skepticism that the Ryan proposal remains neutral on income tax revenue. Obama did not use one of them.
PolitiFact for its part glosses over the doublespeak to focus on the claim that "Republicans in Congress refuse to list a single tax loophole they are willing to close."
PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
In principle, it’s certainly possible to eliminate exemptions and lower tax rates while keeping tax revenues the same. It’s usually called "broadening the base", and it was part of the 2010 Simpson Bowles budget commission that Obama has praised, though he’s stopped short of endorsing the bipartisan commission’s recommendations.Note the portion receiving bold emphasis. Once again, PolitiFact has applied semantic distortion. Obama did not simply say that House Republicans haven't said which exemptions they would end. He said they refused to name so much as one exemption they were even willing to cut.
The point Obama made, though, was that the House Republicans haven’t said which exemptions they would end. Some of the largest exemptions are the most popular, such as tax exemptions on employer-provided health insurance, home mortgage interest and charitable donations, as well as special lower tax rates for income from investments, such as capital gains and dividends.
We're supposed to believe that PolitiFact pays close attention to the wording of a claim.
PolitiFact's semantic presto chango in this case potentially makes the difference between "True" and "False."
The new Ryan budget does not list any single example of a tax loophole it would close ("True"). On the other hand, the budget's plan to close tax loopholes logically implies that it would close no less than one tax loophole. Amplifying that point, one could say of the Ryan budget that it does not name a single loophole it would leave intact.
Committee staff pointed us to this statement on the House Budget Committee website:If it lets Republicans off the hook at all in any way then why does PolitiFact give Obama a "True" rating?
"This budget calls for lowering tax rates and broadening the tax base. All corners of the tax code should be on the table. The House Ways and Means Committee, led by Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, has held dozens of hearings over the past year examining how best to simplify the tax code while maximizing economic growth."
That doesn't entirely let House Republicans off the hook, though.
Alternatively, do Republicans refuse to name a single tax loophole they're willing to cut?
PolitiFact quoted part of a Fox News Sunday interview of Ryan. Interviewer Chris Wallace asked Ryan for specifics. Ryan deferred to the Ways and Means Committee, but Wallace pressed further:
PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
Wallace: "All right. I understand, this is not your committee, it's the Ways and Means Committee. Can you tell me any (tax exemptions) that you're willing to say, do away with it?"Ryan affirmed that the plan targets specific items like the deduction for health insurance and pensions along with the home mortgage deduction.
Ryan: "What I would say on doing away with it, is who would we do away with it for. And what we're saying is the people who disproportionately use those, it's the top two tax rate payers use almost of those tax expenditures. We would limit these things to those higher income earners."
Wallace: "Even things like the deduction for health insurance and pensions and home mortgage?"
Ryan: "Yes, right. Instead of giving these write-offs to the people in the top tax bracket, take those tax shelters away. For every dollar that's parked in the tax shelter is taxed at zero. Take away the tax shelter, subject all of their income to taxation, you get more revenue, and we can lower everybody's tax rate in return. So, we're saying let's limit these kinds of deductions to the higher-income earners so that everybody can enjoy lower, flatter tax rates in return.
PolitiFact apparently doesn't interpret Ryan as effectively naming three separate loopholes or tax shelters. The fact check offers no additional comment on Ryan's response and moves straight to its conclusion:
Obama said, "Republicans in Congress refuse to list a single tax loophole they are willing to close." House Republicans have said they want to handle tax changes through the Ways and Means Committee, and the plan’s top proponent, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said he would limit deductions and exemptions for people who report higher incomes.
But without more details on eliminating exemptions, it’s impossible to know if the tax plan will substantially reduce tax revenues or not. It’s also not possible to know what all the implications are for taxpayers. We rate Obama’s statement True.
PolitiFact's conclusion ignores the facts and focuses on an irrelevancy.
The fact is that the Ryan plan intentionally allows the House Ways and Means Committee to exercise its discretion in achieving the budgetary goals. PolitiFact says it doesn't get Republicans off the hook entirely, apparently meaning it doesn't get them off the hook at all. Ryan affirms three specific loopholes and deductions he's willing to see eliminated. But those don't count and PolitiFact does not explain why. Then we're supposed to believe it is relevant to Obama's claim that the lack of detail makes it hard to tell whether the plan would substantially reduce revenues or not. PolitiFact should have noticed the ease with which Obama scored the loss of revenue: $4.6 trillion using the assumption that Republicans would cut no loopholes or deductions at all.
Obama claimed Republicans refused to name any tax deductions or loopholes they are willing to make. PolitiFact quoted Ryan offering three exceptions but somehow failed to notice.
PolitiFact twisted Obama's claim into something like "Republicans haven't made a concrete proposal about what deductions and loopholes they would eliminate." That's true, but it isn't what Obama said. And what Obama said leaves out gobs of critical context even aside from its literal falsehood,.
Angie Drobnic Holan: F
Martha M. Hamilton: F
I'm amazed that a team effort can produce results this horrifyingly awful. Obama's literal claim was simply false if Ryan is counted as naming three specific examples by answering the interview question. PolitiFact offered no reason for dismissing the legitimacy of the examples.
Obama's underlying argument is effectively irrelevant if PolitiFact identified it correctly via the creative paraphrase.
The fact check consists mainly of semantic games and incoherent reasoning.
These are journalists reporting badly.
Correction/Clarification 4/10/2012: "Fact checkers" section had only Angie Drobnic Holan listed with her "F" grade. Altered that section to its customary appearance with all contributors listed along with their roles. Also on 4/10 eliminated one of two uses of the word "discretion" in the same sentence.
Clarification 4/11/2012: Changed "Republicans" to "lower tax rates" to make sense of a sentence in the paragraph following the quotation of Obama's remarks.