Media myths and falsehoods to look out for as Dems launch "100 Hours" plan
Research ››› ››› JOSH KALVEN
In July 2006, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) began discussing a legislative agenda to be implemented in the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress, assuming her party gained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. Specifically, she proposed that House Democrats push legislation to: raise the federal minimum wage; "break the link" between lobbyists and Congress; reinstitute "pay-as-you-go" budget rules; enact all of the 9-11 Commission's recommendations; allow Medicare to bargain directly with drug companies; and expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Following the Democratic victories in the House and Senate on November 7, 2006, Pelosi stated her intent to follow through with this plan. In anticipation of the media frenzy that is sure to surround the Democrats' first week in power on Capitol Hill, Media Matters for America has compiled a list of falsehoods and baseless statements -- pushed by conservatives and often echoed by reporters and other media figures -- relating to those issues addressed by the "100 Hours" agenda.
House Democrats intend to introduce legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25.
- Minimum wage hike will result in job losses and discourage job creation. Conservatives commonly argue that increasing the minimum wage will negatively affect the economy, resulting in stagnating job growth and higher unemployment. However, numerous studies have examined recent increases in the minimum wage at both the federal and state level and found that higher wages do not result in job loss. One recent example is Oregon, which increased its minimum wage to $7.50 in 2002. Four years later, "Oregon's experience suggests the most strident doomsayers were wrong," according to a November 3, 2006, Wall Street Journal article. Indeed, private, nonfarm payrolls have increased there at twice the national rate, industries that employ many minimum-wage workers have experienced considerable job growth, and unemployment has dropped to 5.4 percent from 7.6 percent in 2002.
- Only teenagers and part-time workers would benefit from wage increase. Conservative commentators have claimed that most employees who would benefit from the Democratic proposal to raise the federal minimum wage are "students and other part-time workers." In fact, while most workers earning the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour are part-time workers, the majority of workers who would see their wages rise under the Democratic proposal are not. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that a majority -- 54 percent -- of those who would be affected by the Democratic minimum-wage proposal are full-time workers (at least 35 hours a week). Similarly, an EPI study released October 25 found that "[i]f the federal minimum wage were increased to $7.25 per hour by 2008, 14.9 million workers would see their wages rise," and those affected by a minimum-wage increase would be "mainly adults who typically work full time and provide significant income to their families."
- Minimum wage increase will hurt small businesses. Another common argument against raising the minimum wage is that it will put an undue burden on small U.S. businesses. But an April 2004 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that, between 1998 and 2001, the number of small businesses (defined as those with less than 50 employees) grew twice as quickly in states with higher minimum wages. EPI has attempted to explain this phenomenon by pointing to "[n]ew economic models," which recognize that employers in low-wage labor markets "may be able to absorb some of the costs of a wage increase through higher productivity, lower recruiting and training costs, decreased absenteeism, and increased worker morale." This may also help explain why most small business owners (three out of four, according to a March 2006 Gallup poll) believe a higher minimum wage would have no effect on them.
House Democrats intend to introduce legislation restricting lobbyist-paid meals, gifts, and travel, and establishing an independent ethics panel to oversee lawmakers' activities.
- Lobbyist-paid travel a wholly bipartisan problem. In reporting on the recent ethics reform efforts in Congress, some in the media have gone out of their way to depict both the Democrats and Republicans as equally corrupt. For instance, when the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released an analysis of privately funded congressional travel in June, numerous news outlets obscured the fact that CPI had found far greater participation by Republican lawmakers and staff than by Democrats. Indeed, Republicans significantly outnumbered Democrats in all three of the indices used by CPI to determine Congress' "top travelers." These included: congressional offices that have accepted more than $350,000 in privately funded travel; congressional offices that have accepted more than 200 privately funded trips; and the 10 most expensive privately funded trips taken by members of congress or their staff. Of the 19 lawmakers or congressional staffers listed in at least one of these categories, only four were Democrats.
- Sen. Reid opposes creation of independent ethics office. On the November 12, 2006, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert suggested that incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposes the creation of an independent Senate Office of Public Integrity and does not support "lobbying reform" in general. But as Media Matters noted, Reid introduced the "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006" on January 20, 2006, which called for the creation of the Senate Office of Public Integrity and sought to "provide more rigorous requirements with respect to disclosure and enforcement of ethics and lobbying laws and regulations."
House Democrats intend to introduce legislation fully reinstating "pay-as-you-go" (PAYGO) budget rules, which require that all tax cuts and spending increases be offset by equivalent tax increases or spending cuts.
- PAYGO did not contribute to elimination of budget deficit in '90s. When Democrats announced their intention in early 2006 to reinstate "pay-as-you-go" (PAYGO) budgeting if they gained control of Congress, conservative media such as The Wall Street Journal editorial page derided the spending policy as a "ruse" (subscription required) and claimed that it had no effect on the elimination of the budget deficits during the 1990s. But in a December 2005 speech, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan pointed to the "rules laid out in the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990" -- which included PAYGO -- as instrumental in establishing "a better fiscal policy" that ultimately led to "the brief emergence of surpluses in the late 1990s." Greenspan noted, however, that those surpluses led lawmakers to violate and ultimately abandon "the rules that helped constrain budgetary decisionmaking earlier in the 1990s -- in particular, the limits on discretionary spending and PAYGO requirements." He added that the reinstatement of such rules "would signal a renewed commitment to fiscal restraint and help restore fiscal discipline to the annual budgeting process."
- Democrats don't care about fiscal responsibility and curbing deficits. One narrative often pushed by the GOP and echoed by the media is that Democrats are big spenders with no interest in fiscal restraint, while Republicans are committed to small government and fiscal responsibility. But such claims overlook the relative economic records of the two most recent presidents. Indeed, budget deficits steadily shrank under President Bill Clinton, eventually resulting in large budget surpluses, while deficits have ballooned to record levels under President Bush.
- Deficits under Bush are smaller -- as a percentage of the economy -- than under Clinton. Some conservatives, when faced with Democratic criticism of the Bush economic record, have claimed that the deficits under Bush -- when measured as a percentage of the gross domestic product -- are half the size of those experienced under Clinton. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the average federal budget deficit during Clinton's two terms (FY 1994 to FY 2001) was 0.1 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, during Bush's first term (FY 2002 to FY 2005), the average was 2.75 percent of GDP.
- On spending and taxes, Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats. During the 2006 elections, as numerous Democratic lawmakers and candidates decried the Republicans' economic policies, media figures regularly asserted that Americans trusted the Republicans more than the Democrats to handle taxes and federal spending. But as Media Matters noted, recent polling shows that more Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle the issue of taxes. For example, the most recent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll on the subject, from October 22, 2006, showed a 40-percent-to-32 percent Democratic advantage on the issue. And according to an October 26-27, 2006, Newsweek poll, Americans also trust Democrats over Republicans to handle "federal spending and the deficit" by a 16-point margin, 47 percent to 31 percent.
House Democrats intend to introduce legislation enacting those 9-11 Commission recommendations that Congress has yet to address.
- 9-11 Commission recommendations are either accomplished or un-accomplishable. Some conservatives have dismissed Pelosi's pledge to enact all of the commission's recommendations as unrealistic, claiming that the proposals yet to be addressed are unfeasible. But as Media Matters noted, members of the commission have noted that several of the 41 original recommendations could easily be implemented by a willing Congress. For instance, the Transportation Security Administration has yet to develop and distribute the "explosive detection trace portals" and cargo screening devices the commission recommended be installed at airports nationwide. Further, the commission's proposals to streamline and otherwise improve congressional oversight of the intelligence community have faced resistance from Republican leaders.
Pelosi broke her 9-11 Commission recommendation pledge. In December, Pelosi unveiled (subscription required) a proposal to create a new House intelligence panel made up of members of the intelligence and appropriations committees. At a December 14 press conference, Pelosi said that the proposed Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, which would "be within the House Appropriations Committee," would "have the responsibility to hold hearings, to consider the budget for the intelligence." Pelosi said the proposal "removes the barriers between the House appropriators and authorizers, makes the oversight stronger and makes the American people safer." Additionally, The Wall Street Journal reported December 14:
The membership of the new panel, Ms. Pelosi said in an interview, would be a "hybrid" drawn from the House Intelligence and Appropriations committees, and serve as a bridge of sorts between the two. Additional investigative staff will be hired for oversight, and the new panel would prepare the classified section to the annual Defense Department appropriations bill that covers much of the annual intelligence budget.
Numerous Republican lawmakers subsequently accused Pelosi of breaking her pledge to enact all of the 9-11 Commission's recommendations. Specifically, they argued that Pelosi had declined to choose from the two options recommended by the commission on the matter of intelligence oversight: "either a joint committee on the old model of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy or a single committee in each house combining authorizing and appropriating committees."
But in arguing that Pelosi violated her pledge, critics apparently overlook the reactions of several former commissioners to her proposal. For instance, former Rep. Timothy Roemer (D-IN) described it as "a major step forward in terms of correcting some of the dysfunction on Capitol Hill." Moreover, Congressional Quarterly reported on December 15 that Pelosi's plan was "greeted as an improvement by several members of the Sept. 11 commission, Republican and Democrat":
While several top Republicans in Congress have raised questions about the new panel or criticized it, it has been greeted as an improvement by several members of the Sept. 11 commission, Republican and Democrat.
"I view it as being a positive change," said Slade Gorton, a former commissioner and Republican senator from Washington (1981-1987, 1989-2001). "It's certainly not all that the 9/11 commission recommended. Even we have to recognize the difficulty of treading on toes and invading the turf of numerous committee and subcommittee chairmen."
The new panel would devote more time to intelligence spending than appropriators for the Defense spending bill might otherwise, Gorton said, addressing one complaint of the commission.
"When you have to deal with the entire Defense appropriations bill, intelligence is likely to get short shrift," Gorton said.
The former chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, Thomas H. Kean, said the committee "sounds like a step in the right direction," but cautioned that he would have to see how it worked in practice.
He said the idea of commissioners was to strengthen the Intelligence Committee, something that might not happen if its members on the new panel were outnumbered by members of the Appropriations Committee by a count of six to three, as he has heard they would be.
House Democrats intend to introduce legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry.
- Allowing Medicare to bargain with drug companies would not bring down prices. Bush administration officials have challenged Democrats' proposals to allow Medicare to directly negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies by claiming that the 2005 Medicare prescription drug program (known as Part D) -- which allows private insurers to set drug prices -- has already saved seniors money and that "prices wouldn't come down" further under the Democratic plan. Media figures such as Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel have seconded this opinion by asserting that Democrats will be hard-pressed "to make the benefit more generous" (subscription required). But recent studies have undermined these claims.
First, according to a June 2006 Families USA study, in the first six months after seniors began joining the new Medicare plan, "virtually all Part D plans raised their prices for most of the top 20 drugs prescribed to seniors." Second, Families USA found that, during the same period, "there were large differences in the prices charged by Part D plans compared to the prices secured by the" Veterans Administration, which bargains directly with drug companies. According to the study, "for half of the 20 drugs, the lowest price charged by any Part D plan was at least 46 percent higher than the lowest price secured by the VA." Third, The New York Times reported that drug makers are receiving "as much as 20 percent more" from Part D participants "for the same drugs that they had already been providing to recipients under the Medicaid program," who receive a legally-mandated discount of at least 15 percent.
Stem cell research
House Democrats intend to re-introduce legislation -- vetoed by Bush in 2006 -- to expand federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
- Bush is the first president to federally fund stem cell research. Bush has repeatedly claimed -- and news outlets have often uncritically reported -- that he is "the first president ever to allow funding" for human embryonic stem cell research. In fact, while Bush is the first president to preside over the flow of federal funds to such research, President Clinton was the first to approve federal funding for these purposes. Indeed, in August 2000, the Clinton administration released new guidelines through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that allowed federally funded research on embryonic stem cells extracted in the private sector and established strict oversight of this research. These rules, however, had yet to be implemented when Clinton left office and were quickly suspended by the incoming Bush administration in favor of its own, stricter set of rules.
- Bush authorized federal funding on 78 stem cell lines. Some news outlets have credited Bush with authorizing federal research on 78 stem cell lines that were created prior to August 9, 2001. But while the NIH does list 78 stem cell lines as being eligible for federal funding under Bush's 2001 policy, the NIH lists only 22 of them as currently "available" for federally funded research -- meaning of sufficient research "quality" and legally obtainable by U.S. researchers.