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Fact-checking night one of the 2020 Democratic debates in Detroit

By PolitiFact Staff July 31, 2019

Sen. Bernie Sanders contrasted himself with President Donald Trump at Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate, saying Trump lies while he tells the truth.

We won't fact-check that claim, but there was much for us to scrutinize from the 10 candidates on stage at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Here's our rundown of questionable statements.

Follow our fact-checking of night two of the Democratic debates

Beto O’Rourke, former Texas congressman: "The Centers for Disease Control (is) prevented from actually studying the issue (gun violence) in the first place."

This is an outdated Democratic talking point. For two decades, spending bills included something called the Dickey Amendment that said, "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control."

That language remains, but in 2018, lawmakers added, in a separate report, the words "the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence."

Even the original Dickey rule did not totally forbid research. For a short while at least, the CDC continued to fund studies into the links between firearms and injuries, proof to some people that the Dickey amendment and research could co-exist.

But after 1999, gun research plummeted. David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center, told PolitiFact last year that the politics, not the law, drove the CDC’s agenda.

— Jon Greenberg

John Delaney, former Maryland congressman: "It's been well documented that if all the bills were paid at Medicare rate, which is specifically — I think it’s in section 1,200 of their bill — then many hospitals in this country would close. I’ve been going around rural America and I ask rural hospital administrators one question: ‘If all your bills were paid at the Medicare rate last year, what would happen?’ And they all look at me and say, ‘We would close.’"

Delaney made this argument to attack Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, which he referred to as "bad" policy in his opening statement. He made this claim about rural hospitals during last month’s debates, too. We rated it False.

It is undeniable that Medicare pays hospitals a fraction of what private, employer-based insurance pays them. A RAND Health study released earlier this year found private insurers in 2017 paid hospitals 241 percent of the prices Medicare paid, on average.

But the experts we spoke with after the last debate said the effects on hospitals would be more nuanced: While some may take a hit under a Medicare for All system, other hospitals may do better. And it is unclear how much hospitals would be paid under Sanders’ plan; that section — it’s actually Section 611 — says the federal government would decide later how to pay providers, not that they would be paid at the Medicare rate.

— Emmarie Huetteman, Kaiser Health News

Where 2020 Democrats stand on carbon tax, other climate change policies

Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator: "So, the problem is that right now the criminalization statute is what gives Donald Trump the ability to take children away from their parents."

The statute that Warren is referring to doesn’t explicitly say immigrant children can be separated from their parents, but she’s right that it can have that consequence.

Her campaign told PolitiFact she was referring to Section 1325 in U.S. Code. That section of federal law allows the prosecution of individuals who improperly enter the country. If a parent and a child arrive at the border together and the parent is referred for prosecution, the child is taken away from the parent and transferred over to the custody of the Health and Human Services Department.

In April 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero-tolerance" policy directing U.S. Attorney’s Offices along the southwest border "to adopt a policy to prosecute all Department of Homeland Security referrals of section 1325(a) violations, to the extent practicable." More than 2,000 children were separated from the adults they were traveling with in summer of 2018. 

Section 1325 has been around for decades and prosecutions under it have ebbed and flowed over different administrations, a legal expert told us.

— Miriam Valverde

Marianne Williamson, author, on the cost of slavery reparations: "What makes me qualified to say $200 (billion) to $500 billion? I'll tell you what makes you qualified, if you did the math of 40 acres and a mule, given there was 4 to 5 million slaves at the end of the Civil War, and there were probably 40 acres and a mule for every family of four, if you did the math today it would be trillions of dollars."

Williamson’s price tag of between $200 billion and $500 billion for a reparations program is well below some other widely cited estimates, which put the figure in the trillions.

Her calculation reached back to the first — and last — time there was a federal call for reparations in the United States, which came during the waning months of the Civil War. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered 400,000 acres of Southern land along the Atlantic coast to be confiscated and subdivided into "plot(s) of not more than forty acres of tillable ground," to be given to formerly enslaved families, along with mules on loan from the army. (Hence the historical reference "40 acres and a mule.")

One of the foremost scholars on reparations, Duke University’s William Darity, estimated the United States would need to spend several trillion dollars to redress its historical wrongs, according to Vox, which noted that other estimates put the cost from $6.4 trillion to $14 trillion.

— John Kruzel

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.: "Science tells us we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate."

While there is overwhelming consensus among scientists that something needs to change to curb global warming, scientists don’t agree that Earth faces a hard 12-year deadline to do so.

Here’s what scientists do say: A 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicted that, if warming continues at its current rate, global temperatures are likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels between 2030 (12 years from the release of that report) and 2052.

The UN Paris Agreement, which was signed by nearly 200 countries, set the goal to keep temperatures from rising over 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change, including minimizing extreme weather events.

Kristie L. Ebi, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the Associated Press that, while adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will result in a continued rise in temperatures, "the earth does not reach a cliff at 2030 or 2052."

— Sophie Austin

PolitiFact's coverage of the 2020 election

Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator: "Right now, we have a dysfunctional health-care system. Eighty-seven million uninsured or under-insured, 500,000 Americans every year going bankrupt because of medical bills, 30,000 people dying while the health-care industry makes tens of billions of dollars in profit."

That’s a lot of numbers for a Tuesday night, and as confidently as Sanders stated them, they rely on complicated data and, arguably, fuzzy math.

In claiming there are 87 million Americans who are uninsured or underinsured, he appears to be citing 2018 data released by the Commonwealth Fund. Compared to the 27.4 million uninsured in 2017 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, this includes those with insurance who nonetheless experienced high medical costs compared to their household income. 

It is not clear how Sanders calculated the number of medical bankruptcies every year. He may be referring to a study released in February that found an estimated 530,000 families file for bankruptcy each year due to medical bills. However, typically there are many factors that play into filing for bankruptcy, making it difficult to pin on medical costs alone. 

And though he did not complete the thought, this is not the first time that Sanders has claimed that 30,000 people die every year because of the high cost of health care. When he tweeted that claim last month, we rated it Half True.

— Emmarie Huetteman, Kaiser Health News

Tim Ryan, Ohio congressman: "We've got to talk about the working-class issues — the people that take a shower after work who haven't had a raise in 30 years."

This is wrong. Over the past 30 years, wages for the lower half of the income spectrum haven’t risen dramatically, but they have risen — and beyond the rate of inflation.

We looked at the inflation-adjusted wage trends for the 10th, 20th, 30th, 40th and 50th percentiles, going back to 1988. Wages rose beyond the rate of inflation for workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution. 

For the 10th percentile, wages rose by almost 25% when taking inflation into account over that three-decade span, while for the median worker, they rose for about 13%,

However, most of this wage growth has come from rising wages among women in the lower half of the wage distribution. If you look at male workers only, the rise over the same period is negligible. (View chart here.)

— Louis Jacobson

Steve Bullock, Montana governor: "Washington, D.C., is captured by dark money, the Koch brothers and others. That’s been the fight of my career — kicking the Koch brothers out of Montana." 

Bullock’s claim is long on hyperbole. His statement could give the impression that Bullock booted the Koch Brothers from the state writ large. But the Koch Brothers, a longtime bête noire of the left, still have a presence in Montana: Koch Industries operates a sizable cattle ranch in Beaverhead, Mont., for instance.

Here’s what Bullock, a longtime crusader for more transparency in political spending, is talking about: He signed a bill for dark money groups to disclose spending in state elections and an executive order to require state contractors to release dark money contributions. He also mounted a failed challenge against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. 

Bullock’s claim to have shown the Koch Brothers the door has emerged as something of a go-to talking point of late. But elsewhere, Bullock has more narrowly tailored his statement by describing efforts to flush the Koch Brothers only from spending in Montana political races. In a recent op-ed, he claimed credit for having "kicked the Koch Brothers out of Montana's elections." 

— John Kruzel

Elizabeth Warren: Says her wealth tax will provide "universal child care," "universal pre-K," "raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher in the country," "universal tuition free college," support historically black colleges and universities, and "cancel student loan debt for 95% of the people who have it."

That’s a lot of mileage from a tax that collects two cents on every dollar of net worth over $50 million, and three cents on net worth over $1 billion. But reasonable people doubt the revenues would be as large as Warren expects. 

According to economists who study wealth, Warren’s ultra-millionaire levy would raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years. The cost of everything she listed comes in at about $1.95 trillion over the same period.

Former Obama administration economic advisor Lawrence Summers and law professor Natasha Sarin warned that a wealth tax might bring in only 40% of the trillions predicted.

Many European nations have adopted, ditched and tweaked their wealth taxes. Wealthy people have ways to avoid paying taxes. The net worth is there, but getting a slice of it is another matter.

— Jon Greenberg

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Fact-checking night one of the 2020 Democratic debates in Detroit