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Volleys of Tax Votes: A September Blizzard in Ohio

Meaningless math by DeWine and Brown as each picks through the other's voting record

September 11, 2006

Modified: September 11, 2006

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Summary

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) accuses GOP incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine's Democratic challenger, Rep. Sherrod Brown, of voting for higher taxes – over 35 times, according to a TV ad. Brown, in a response ad, defends himself, saying he “voted to cut taxes for the middle class 33 times,” and charges DeWine with voting for “the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy,” for “taxes on Social Security,” and with wanting to put Social Security into “risky stock market investments.”

Thirty-five votes for higher taxes? Thirty-three votes for middle-class tax cuts? Whew. Pass the Advil. These ads are classic examples of cherry-picking in the voting orchard. In the back-up material for the ads – which both sides figure the average voter isn’t going to study – it becomes clear that to get to these tallies both sides had to do some fudging.

We find the NRSC did far more fudging, though. Most of the votes "for higher taxes" were really votes by Brown against Republican-sponsored tax cuts, not votes to raise taxes over existing levels. Brown's ad is somewhat closer to the mark, though several of the votes he counts were symbolic and wouldn't actually have resulted in a tax cut.

Brown's ad also says that DeWine has supported Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, which is true, though he’s voted for other tax cuts as well. And DeWine is a proponent of allowing taxpayers to open individual investment accounts, as the ad claims, which some consider a risky strategy. But to say he’s voted for taxes on Social Security is a distortion. DeWine has voted again and again against increasing the amount of Social Security income subject to the income tax.

 

Analysis

The knives are out in this extremely competitive Senate race. Attacks by DeWine and the NRSC prompted Brown to respond with his first TV ad of the election cycle.

NRSC Ad "Let Us Down"

Announcer #1: Disappointed in Washington? This congressman voted in favor of higher taxes over 35 times.
(Text on screen: CQ, 1993-2006)Sherrod Brown let us down. He's supported raising taxes on gasoline.
(Text on screen: HR 2264, 8/93; HR 3415, 5/96)
Sherrod Brown let us down. He voted to raise Social Security and Medicare taxes on senior citizens.
(Text on screen: HR 2264, 5/93, 8/93; HR 1215, 5/95)
Congressman Sherrod Brown let us down again. He's part of the problem.
Announcer #2: The National Republican Senatorial Committee is responsible for the content of this ad.
(Paid For By The National Republican Senatorial Committee And Not Authorized By Any Candidate Or Candidate's Committee; www.GOPSenators.com)  

Taxing our Patience

Just as the quintessential cat dashes after the mouse in our favorite cartoons, it seems as though no Republican worth his or her party membership fails to go after Democrats for “raising” taxes, opposing “lower” taxes, or voting for “higher” taxes. The  NRSC claims that "This congressman voted in favor of higher taxes over 35 times." But higher than what? We judge that most viewers would come away thinking the ad refers to votes to raise taxes higher than they already were, which just isn't true. Nearly all of the votes the NRSC presents as evidence are votes by Brown against Republican-sponsored tax cuts, meaning Brown voted to keep taxes as they were, not to make them "higher." So in our judgment, this NRSC ad is way off base.

Furthermore, the ad takes several opportunities to run up the numbers by counting multiple votes on the same issue. For example, the back-up materials for the ad cite five votes on the same provision to tax Social Security income for some retirees. The first vote  counted was in favor of Clinton ’s 1993 budget package, which contained (among other tax increases) a provision that increased the portion of Social Security benefits subject to taxation from 50 percent to 85 percent for better-off recipients. The other four were votes against Republican attempts to repeal that same provision.

On the "marriage penalty," a tax quirk which forced some working couples to pay more in tax than they would as two single people, the NRSC counts three votes by Brown against the same 2000 bill. Like most Democrats, Brown opposed the Republican’s costly package that would have helped not only those couples who paid the penalty, but also gave money to couples who got a bonus, paying less tax than they would if they were single, which was the case if one spouse didn’t work or there was a large disparity between their incomes. The NRSC counts Brown’s vote against the bill, his vote against adopting the Senate-House conference report on that bill, and his vote  not to override Clinton’s veto of the bill. More recently Brown has voted in  favor  of reducing or eliminating the marriage penalty, in 2001 and 2004, for example, but DeWine's ad takes no note of that.

The NRSC counts eight votes by Brown against repealing the estate tax. It’s true that lowering the estate tax – a levy that affected only 2.2 percent of estates in 2000, and now impacts less than one-half of one percent of them – isn’t high on Brown’s agenda. But again, voting not to cut taxes isn't what is ordinarily meant by voting to make them "higher."

Sherrod Brown Ad: “33 Times”

Announcer: Mike DeWine is distorting the facts again. DeWine voted for the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy.
(Text on screen: S Con Res 23, 3/21/03; S 1054, 5/15/03 #167; H Con Res 83, 4/7/01; HR 2, 5/29/03, #196; HR 1836, 5/26/01, #170; HR 1836, 5/17/01, #112; HR 1836, 5/21/01, #119; HR 1836, 5/22/01, #133)
DeWine voted for taxes on Social Security.
(Text on screen: Sen Am 556 on S1054 5/13/03)
And DeWine's called for putting Social Security into risky stock market investments.
(Text on screen: Sen Am 4016 to S Con Res 57, 5/23/96, #149; Sen Am 2209 to S Con Res 86, 4/1/98, #56; Sen Am 2222 to S Con Res 86, 4/2/98, #77)
And Sherrod Brown?
Brown voted to cut taxes for the middle class 33 times.
(Text on screen: Child Tax Credit, HR 1308, Vote #472; Tuition Tax Credit, H.Amdt. 207 to HR 2014 Vote #243; Earned Income Tax Credit, HR 6, Vote #73; End Marriage Penalty, HR 4181, Vote #138; HR 4275, Vote #169; HR 3, Vote #42; HR 2488 , Vote #331; HCR 68, Vote #76, 3/25/1999; HR 2014, Vote #350)
And the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare endorsed Brown.
Brown: I'm Sherrod Brown. I approve this message. In the Senate, I'll put the middle class first.
(Text on screen: SherrodBrown.com; Paid for by Friends of Sherrod Brown.)
 

Mugging for the Middle Class?

As for Brown’s claim that he’s voted to “cut taxes for the middle class 33 times,” Brown highlights his votes for increasing the child tax credit, expanding the earned income tax credit, eliminating the marriage tax penalty and providing alternative minimum tax relief to taxpayers who are being hit by it due to inflation. A number of the votes were on Democratic substitutes for Republican tax-cutting bills and had virtually no chance of passing, but it’s fair to include them. Brown opposed  George Bush's 2001 tax cut plan, for instance, but supported an alternative measure that was far less generous to taxpayers whose earnings were in the top 1 percent. The bill Brown supported would have lowered the bottom tax rate to 12 per cent tax, alleviated the marriage penalty and expanded the earned-income tax credit, which benefits low-income workers.

Brown pads the score a bit when he counts votes on several motions sponsored by Democrats to instruct House-Senate conferees to take one position or another in their meetings to reconcile bills that had already passed. Those were symbolic.

And Brown is downright misleading when his ad claims that “DeWine voted for taxes on Social Security.” In 2003 Democrats proposed repealing the 1993 law that increased the amount of Social Security on which recipients have to pay taxes. But the vote Brown's ad refers to was actually on a point of order the Republicans raised under Senate rules too complicated to keep our readers awake (they have to do with amendments raised during consideration of the budget). It was an almost strictly partisan vote. Just about every other time the repeal of this increase has come up for a vote, DeWine has supported it.

Lastly Brown attacks DeWine for calling "for putting Social Security into risky stock market investments.” Brown doesn't mention that only a fraction of each future retiree's payroll tax could go into the private investment accounts, and that the accounts would be voluntary. And we doubt that DeWine would call them "risky" since they would be restricted to broadly diversified stock and bond funds similar to those now available for the retirement plans of federal employees, including Brown and DeWine. But it is broadly true that DeWine has supported the concept of private investment accounts for Social Security.

Vote Weary, Vote Wary

On the whole, we find Brown's tally somewhat more  than accurate the NRSC's. Most of the votes he cites, though not all, were indeed supporting tax cuts for the middle-income taxpayers. And DeWine has consistently supported tax cuts for those farther up the income scale than Brown favors.

If there's one lesson to be drawn from these ads, it's not whether one candidate's math is better than the other's. Members of Congress cast so many votes, including a lot that involve procedural matters almost impossible for the layperson to understand, that it's possible to use voting records to paint a highly misleading portrait. Our advice: Watch any ad that purports to analyze a candidate's voting record with skepticism – and if the ad tallies dozens of votes, you might be better off just plugging your ears and shutting your eyes.

And now, we'll put away our calculators.

-by Viveca Novak

Sources

Committe on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, The Green Book. 2004.

P.L. 93-344,  Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.

Pierce, Emily, "Private Account Language Fails; But Vote Puts Senators on Record," Roll Call. 20 March 2006.