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Less than two years after losing the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is embroiled in a tough Republican primary against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
In one recent ad, Hayworth attacked McCain for his vote on the two major tax cut bills of George W. Bush's presidency. "McCain voted against the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, wrongly claiming they helped only the rich," the ad says.
We decided to see if Hayworth's ad correctly characterizes McCain's stance.
Hayworth is correct that McCain voted against both the Economic Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. In fact, he was one of just two Republicans to oppose the 2001 bill (along with the late John Chafee of Rhode Island) and one of three Republicans opposing the 2003 bill (along with Chafee and Olympia Snowe of Maine).
Before going further, we should add that McCain has since changed his stance on the Bush tax cuts. When they came up for renewal in 2006, he voted in favor of extension, and during the 2008 campaign, he once again advocated for their extension. In fact, during the 2008 presidential campaign, PolitiFact gave McCain a Full Flop for his changed stance on the Bush tax cuts.
But that's irrelevant for checking Hayworth's claim, since the ad only challenges McCain on his views at the time the bills were passed.
So, back to the core charge of the ad. Did McCain say, as Hayworth alleges, that the bills "helped only the rich"? The answer is: pretty much.
In each case, before officially casting his vote, McCain gave a Senate floor speech to explain how he would be voting, and why. In both cases, he expressed regret that the bill would be targeting a disproportionate share of its benefits on wealthier Americans.
In his 2001 speech, McCain said that he decided to vote against the final version of the bill after failing to find "that the progress we made in the Senate bill to scale back the benefits going to the top rate taxpayers to make room for more tax relief to lower income Americans would prevail in the final tax bill. During the debate on the Senate version of the tax reconciliation bill, I had urged my colleagues that substantial tax relief to middle income Americans should be our top priority. ... I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief."
Two years later, McCain spent much of his speech discussing his disappointment about the dropping of a provision he had backed that would have effectively reduced the tax burden of members of the armed forces and the foreign service stationed overseas. However, in the speech he also restated his concern about the share of benefits in the bill flowing to richer Americans.
"Despite the recent successful war in Iraq, which highlighted the bravery and sacrifice of our military, the conferees provided nothing for them in this so-called growth bill," McCain said. "The only thing growing will be the tax breaks for the wealthiest citizens of this country."
Later in the speech, he added, "Mr. President, the case is clear. The conferees should have included the Armed Forces Tax Fairness Act of 2003 in the conference report for this tax relief bill. If they can look into the eyes of all the men and women in our military who have committed themselves to the defense of this country in Iraq and elsewhere around the world, and justify how they spent billions of federal dollars to cut taxes for our nation’s wealthiest at their expense, then the process is clearly broken. And that is a disgrace for which they are solely responsible."
So when he had the opportunity to explain his thinking to the Senate and the American public, McCain on both occasions cited the disproportionate benefits for the rich. That gets Hayworth's ad most of the way home.
But Hayworth's assertion that McCain "wrongly" claimed that the cuts "helped only the rich" does bring up two additional questions.
First, did the tax cuts actually help only the rich?
While the bills' benefits were concentrated among those with the highest incomes, taxpayers in all income levels did get some benefit. The Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the centrist-to-liberal Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, looked at all of the Bush-backed tax cuts enacted between 2001 and 2008 (which included, but was not limited to, the 2001 and 2003 bills) and found that the richest one-fifth of the population saw its after-tax income rise by 5.4 percent. The second one-fifth saw income rise by 3.5 percent, while the third one-fifth saw income rise by 2.6 percent and the fourth one-fifth saw income rise by 2.5 percent. The lowest one-fifth clearly fared the poorest, with an income boost of 0.7 percent.
So it's certainly fair for Hayworth to knock the notion that the only people to benefit from the tax cuts were the wealthy. But is that what McCain said in his speeches? The answer is mixed.
In 2001, McCain said that "so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us" -- which is not the same as saying that "all of the benefits" would go to the rich.
However, two years later, McCain did suggest something closer to what the ad charges -- that "the only thing growing" as a result of the 2003 bill "will be the tax breaks for the wealthiest citizens of this country."
So let's sum up. McCain voted against the tax cuts, as the ad indicated, and he cited the idea that the bills were tilted toward the rich as a major reason for his votes. When discussing one of the bills, McCain did suggest that only the rich would benefit, while for the other bill, he didn't. Because the ad was partly wrong on this final point, we'll mark it down a notch. But in general, the ad is quite accurate. We rate it Mostly True.
J.D. Hayworth for Senate, television ad, June 4, 2010
U.S. Senate, roll call vote on the Economic Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, May 26, 2001
U.S. Senate, roll call vote on the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, May 23, 2003
John McCain, Senate floor speech, May 26, 2001
John McCain, Senate floor speech, May 23, 2003
Fortune, "The evolution of John McCain," June 28, 2008
Slate, "The McCain Record: Taxes," July 30, 2008
Tax Policy Center, "Individual Income and Estate Tax Provisions in the 2001-08 Tax Cuts with AMT Patch Extended, Distribution of Federal Tax Change by Cash Income Percentile, 2010" (table), accessed June 15, 2010
Joint Committee on Taxation, "Distributional Effects of the Conference Agreement for H.R. 1836," May 26, 2001
PolitiFact, John McCain: Flip-o-Meter on the Bush Tax Cuts, Aug. 4, 2008
PolitiFact, "Donna Brazile says Bush spent $1.3 trillion on tax cuts, trillions each on war and drugs for seniors," Aug 5, 2009
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