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To err once is human. To err repeatedly is just not good.
Thus, the tale of Bill O’Neill, a Democratic congressional candidate who wants to unseat longtime incumbent Steve LaTourette in Ohio’s 14th Congressional District.
O’Neill, a former state appeals judge, is unlikely to win a majority of the conservative vote in this race. He acknowledged to the Portage County Tea Party that he shares few of its political positions. But he doesn’t want LaTourette, a Republican, to get the Tea Party’s support either.
So O’Neill wrote to the Portage County Tea Party on July 30 (and released the letter to the press), saying that LaTourette misled the organization. LaTourette had told the group July 6 that his legislative agenda paralleled the Tea Party’s, but that’s demonstrably untrue, O’Neill wrote. O’Neill cited some examples in the letter, the most damning being this:
"In recent years, Rep. LaTourette has sponsored legislation that would increase spending by 551.6 percent."
That’s an enormous increase, especially if you consider that the government spends trillions of dollars a year.
But O’Neill’s letter stated it as a fact, without saying where that figure came from.
So we asked O’Neill’s communications director, Eric Rosso, about it – and the
problems began cascading from there.
Rosso pointed us to a New York Times article and chart published Feb. 13, 2005. The article was about the Republican revolution of 1994, when the GOP won control of the House of Representative and promised a smaller government. But the GOP cost-cutters had lost their way, according to the Times, which cited an analysis showing that the Republicans had become big spenders.
The analysis was done by the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit group that favors smaller government and lower taxes, and according to the Times, it showed congressional proposals for new spending during the 2003-2004 term. According to the chart in the Times, LaTourette had sponsored or co-sponsored bills during that term that would add $551.6 billion in new annual spending.
Notice the dollar sign?
We did, although you’d have to look at the top of the Times’ chart to be sure. But O’Neill missed it, calling the purported increase a hike of 551.6 percent.
This was just the start of his error, although it was a doozy, because the difference between $551.6 billion and 551.6 percent is enormous.
"That would be the equivalent of a $10 trillion a year spending increase," explained Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.
Still, even $551.6 billion in new annual spending sounded like a lot of money. Was LaTourette really proposing hikes of that magnitude?
No, it turns out. Which brings us to error No. 2.
As we researched this, we asked Rosso if he was sure about the Times chart and whether it was really measuring dollars, not percentages. He looked, saw that error, and soon contacted the Portage County Tea Party, he says, to tell it that O'Neill’s letter should have said that LaTourette added $551.6 billion in new spending, not 551.6 percent.
But O’Neill’s letter actually should have said neither.
To understand, it helps to know where these figures come from.
The National Taxpayers Union estimates how much each piece of legislation will drive up or bring down annual federal spending using data from the Congressional Budget Office, from bill sponsors, from outside studies and other sources it deems credible. The taxpayers group then creates a cost-and-savings list for each member of Congress, based on the member's sponsorship or co-sponsorship of bills.
But there were two problems with the $551.6 billion figure that appeared in the Times. First, it was based on an interim study, covering only the first 18 months of the 2003-2004 term. It was the best available data when the Taxpayers Union put it out and the Times used it, says Sepp. But later that year, a more detailed analysis was completed and the figures changed.
LaTourette's total for 2003 and 2004 went down to a comparatively small $150.2 billion. We spotted that quickly when looking at the taxpayer group's online database.
How could the estimate have gone down so dramatically, from $551 billion to $150 billion?
We spent a day going over the numbers and, thanks to the National Taxpayers Union staff, it finally made sense. The group revised its cost estimate downward after being convinced that a single, particularly expensive bill -- one that LaTourette co-sponsored -- would not cost nearly as much as originally thought.
The bill, the MediKids Health Insurance Act, would have provided health care coverage for children ineligible for other programs. It was sponsored by California Democrat Pete Stark, but he had 84 co-sponsors. The bill never got far.
The National Taxpayers Union initially estimated the bill would cost $477.8 billion a year, based on information from the bill’s sponsor and Census data. But it later revised the cost dramatically, reducing it to $74.7 billion a year, after it was presented with new information and a study from Emory University.
This revision, which dropped LaTourette's total considerably, occurred in 2005. That’s a full five years ago, for those of you who are counting.
This change in arithmetic would have jumped out at O'Neill or his staff had they looked at the data underlying their claim.
So as a percentage, how much higher would LaTourette's proposals have pushed federal spending?
Using government spending data for 2004, we calculate 6.5 percent. That’s 6.5 percent, not 551.6 percent. And it could be even smaller because of some projected budget offsets that the taxpayers group does not consider in its calculations, saying they're not reliable.
If you go to the taxpayers group’s website, you’ll still find some extremely high figures that make LaTourette look like a profligate spender: $536.8 billion that he purportedly proposed in 2003 alone, and $784.7 billion in new spending during the 2001-2002 congressional session. Yet those figures are incorrect. The National Taxpayers Union agrees with us on that.
Both figures included the enormously high -- and ultimately abandoned -- projections for the proposed MediKids program. During that 2001-2002 cycle, in fact, the taxpayers group initially estimated MediKids -- which LaTourette supported -- would add a whopping $700 billion a year in new spending. Although the Taxpayers Union never went back to take out that figure, Sepp acknowledges that it should be scaled way, way back.
So O’Neill’s claim of 551.6 percent is way off. He’s guilty of not just sloppy math, but shallow and incomplete research. It’s not 551.6 percent, it’s more like 6.5 percent.
That’s so far off that we need to set the meter ablaze. Pants on Fire!
Letter from Bill O’Neill to Portage County Tea party, July 30, 2010
National Taxpayers Union Foundation, "BillTally" database
The New York Times, "The Nation: Cut short; the revolution that wasn’t", Feb. 13, 2005
Telephone and e-mail conversations with Pete Sepp, executive vice president of National Taxpayers Foundation, Aug. 3 and 4, 2010
Telephone and e-mail conversations with O’Neill spokesman Eric Rosso, Aug. 2, 3 and 4, 2010
"Historical Tables, Budget of the U.S. Government," Office of Management and Budget
Library of Congress, database of congressional legislation
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