Monday, September 22nd, 2014

In interview, Cornyn revisits fact-checked statements

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talked about taxes, spending and Planned Parenthood with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune on April 18.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talked about taxes, spending and Planned Parenthood with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune on April 18.

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas recently talked taxes, budgets, abortion and more with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith — and along the way, we heard the senator make a few statements that would have sounded familiar to PolitiFact readers.

Among those was one, about Planned Parenthood, that the Truth-O-Meter has found inaccurate.

Asked if Americans should be talking about whether President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen — a question that has been raised by Donald Trump as he tests the waters for a presidential run — Cornyn called the subject a distraction. "We have really very much more fundamentally important issues to talk about," he said during the April 18 interview. Among those, Cornyn said, are "the fact that 40 cents out of every dollar that we spend is borrowed money."

Our colleagues at PolitiFact National rated that 40-cent statement True after U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., uttered it during the Jan. 23 edition of the ABC-TV show This Week With Christiane Amanpour. In fiscal 2010, the federal government’s deficit represented 37 percent of its spending ($1.29 trillion out of $3.46 trillion).

Brian Riedl, a budget expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, described the situation this way: "It's like a family that earns $60,000 per year but is spending $100,000. How are they doing it? By getting a new $40,000 loan every year to cover the difference."

Smith’s conversation with Cornyn then turned to the expected face-off in Congress between the White House and the Republican-controlled House over the nation’s debt limit. (In an April 4 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the debt limit of just over $14 trillion will be reached no later than May 16.) Cornyn said he would vote against raising the limit "unless we get some systemic reform."

As an example of reform, Cornyn pointed to his proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to require that the federal budget be balanced. "We need a straitjacket around Congress when it comes to spending so that they are forced to do what 49 states are required to do and what every family business and every family is required to do, and that’s live within their means," Cornyn said.

Cornyn made a more overreaching statement in an op-ed published in The Dallas Morning News on Dec. 1, writing that "all but one of the 50 states already have some form of a balanced budget amendment in their state constitutions."

Not quite, we found, rating that statement Half True.

According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, the group "has traditionally reported that 49 states must balance their budgets, with Vermont being the exception." However, not all of the 49 states have the requirement in their constitution. The report says four have a statutory requirement. And for 43 states, the balanced-budget requirement is not a constitutional amendment, contrary to what Cornyn said in the op-ed, but has always been part of their constitutions.

We also found that in some states, it’s debatable whether the balanced-budget requirements are legally binding.

Later in the interview, Smith cited a study saying that for the past two years, a family of four earning the median income has paid less in federal income taxes than at any time since 1955 and asked Cornyn why Americans aren’t having "an honest conversation" about raising taxes. "I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t have a conversation about it," the senator said. "We ought to talk about why is it that 47 percent of wage-earners in America pay no income tax."

A similar claim jiggled the Truth-O-Meter on April 28 when PolitiFact Florida gave Republican congressional candidate Allen West a Barely True for saying that "we have some 40-45 percent of Americans who are not paying any taxes." That rating hinged on the fact that the percentage he quoted relates only to federal income taxes. By contrast, Cornyn specified "income tax" — but did not account for people who pay state but not federal income taxes. More than 40 states, not including Texas, have a state income tax.

According to the Tax Foundation, a group that analyzes federal income tax issues, no income taxes were owed on 36.3 percent of federal returns filed for 2008.

For 2009, PolitiFact Florida found a different measure: The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, estimated that 46.9 percent of Americans paid no federal income taxes that year.

Back to the Tribune interview: Shifting to a subject at the center of the recent federal budget debate, Smith asked Cornyn whether "defunding Planned Parenthood" is really an emergency that the country should be focusing on. Cornyn responded that Planned Parenthood had become part of a larger fight about the federal government spending money on things that aren’t essential to its functioning. He then said, "It’s hard to get good information in terms of what Planned Parenthood’s activities actually are."

Smith responded by asking whether Cornyn agreed with Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona that "90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion — that seems to have been thoroughly repudiated."

PolitiFact National gave Kyl a False rating for making that statement April 8. Planned Parenthood says abortions accounted for just under 3 percent of services provided at its clinics in 2009, the most recent year for which the group reported statistics. Its other services include contraception provision (35 percent), sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment (35 percent) and cancer screening (16 percent).

Kyl’s office later said that the senator’s remark "was not intended to be a factual statement but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions."

To Smith’s suggestion that Kyl’s claim has been debunked, Cornyn said: "Well, I’m not so sure. ... I mean, I’ve been told that 98 percent of the services they offer to pregnant women are abortion-related services. I’m not sure, but I think we ought to find out."

PolitiFact Ohio did just that after Republican U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio said April 14 that "for every 33 pregnant women that walk into a Planned Parenthood clinic, 32 receive an abortion" — a ratio that equals 97 percent.

Schmidt cited reports produced by several anti-abortion organizations, including Americans United for Life and Concerned Women for America, stating that about 98 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services to pregnant women are abortion procedures. That statistic was derived from a Planned Parenthood fact sheet that says in 2009 the group performed 332,278 abortions, referred 977 women to other agencies for adoptions, and provided prenatal care to 7,021 patients.

The 98 percent statistic is based on two key assumptions: that those services were the only ones sought by pregnant women at Planned Parenthood and that they were equivalent to the total number of pregnant women seen at the group’s facilities.

PolitiFact Ohio found those assumptions flawed. First, they ignore other services received by pregnant women, such as pregnancy tests (2009 total: 1.2 million). Second, only a small proportion of Planned Parenthood facilities — 63 out of more than 800 around the country — provide prenatal care, said Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The rest refer pregnant women to other health care providers for those services, and Planned Parenthood doesn’t track those referrals.

Third, the group doesn’t "ask the pregnancy status of every woman that walks into Planned Parenthood," and plenty of pregnant women use the clinics for other services, like breast exams, Sye said. Consequently, he said, it’s "impossible to calculate an accurate percentage if you don’t know the total number of pregnant women it is based on."

Schmidt received a False.