Editorial writers at PolitiFact Wisconsin, a self-styled fact-checking opinion feature, are attempting to rewrite Sen. Russ Feingold’s record on tax hikes. The former 3-term U.S. senator who has spent his life as a career politician cast over 250 votes in favor of tax hikes while serving in the U.S. Senate. That’s a claim made by several organizations and backed up with ample evidence.
Not so, claims PolitiFact.
“Americans for Prosperity says Feingold voted more than 250 times to raise taxes as a U.S. senator, contending any vote in support of a higher tax should be part of that tally,” the feature chirped in a late October rating of an Americans for Prosperity issue advertisement. “But that number is built on assumptions and simplifications.”
AFP isn’t the only organization to make the claim that Feingold voted in favor of higher taxes 250 times. Matt Kittle, writing at Watchdog.org, wrote an extensive piece in April about Feingold’s hundreds of votes in favor of tax hikes or spending policies premised on tax hikes. “In his first year alone, Feingold voted at least 25 times in support of higher taxes,” Kittle explained, citing voting records compiled by the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly.
Feingold cast votes in favor of higher taxes, against cutting existing taxes, in favor of budget resolutions premised on revenue hikes from more taxes, and against amendments that would have eliminated proposed tax hikes. In this legislative soup of procedural, budget resolution and legislative votes, PolitiFact finds justification for declaring AFP’s claim “false.”
In order to absolve Feingold of more than 250 pro-tax hike votes, PolitiFact dismisses many of the votes as procedural, or “nuanced” because they were on “multi-part amendments that are not easily categorized.” Additionally, because some of Feingold’s votes were on budget resolutions, PolitiFact dismissed them because while budget resolutions establish spending and revenue levels, they often require follow-on actions to make those levels a reality.
“More than half the votes cited in the ad – 150 – came on budget resolutions, which set non-binding parameters for considering tax and spending legislation. They are used as blueprints for the budget or in some cases to make a political statement,” PolitiFact argued.
By PolitiFact’s reasoning, budget votes are irrelevant, procedural votes (like on reconciliation) are irrelevant, and votes on legislation that contained tax hikes in addition to other items are off-limits to anyone looking to review an elected official’s record. That’s a lot of legislative action that’s been deemed essentially meaningless by PolitiFact.
Congress itself doesn’t see those votes as unimportant.
In a paper published earlier this year, the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan government think-tank, explained that budget resolutions, the instructions they contain, and the budget reconciliation process, are powerful fiscal tools. “[R]econciliation instructions are included in the budget resolution directing the appropriate committees to develop legislation achieving the desired budgetary outcomes,” the CRS document explains. “The instructed committees submit their legislative recommendations to their respective Budget Committees by the deadline prescribed in the budget resolution. The Budget Committees then incorporate them into an omnibus budget reconciliation bill without making any substantive revisions.” [Emphasis added]
So while PolitiFact would like to claim budget resolutions and the instructions they contain for reconciliation are unimportant, the fact of the matter is they are important and how a lawmaker votes on them can be a valid indication of their priorities.
Additionally, under budget reconciliation rules established in the budget, Congress may consider subsequent tax-and-spending legislation in an expedited fashion. For example, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to cut off debate and move to a final vote can be waived if budget reconciliation takes place under previously agreed upon rules (outlined in a budget resolution) that eliminate the requirement.
The CRS authoritatively explains:
“In some years, budget resolutions included reconciliation instructions that afforded the House and Senate the option of considering two or more different reconciliation bills. Once the reconciliation legislation called for in the budget resolution has been approved or vetoed by the President, the process is concluded. Congress cannot develop another reconciliation bill in the wake of a veto without first adopting another budget resolution containing reconciliation instructions.”
If budget resolutions, reconciliation instructions and amendments don’t matter, and the votes on them don’t mean anything, then the entire legislative process is suspect and only a fraction of total legislative decisions can be considered legitimate points of debate and discussion. PolitiFact’s decision to wholesale discount a sizable portion of Feingold’s voting record may be a creative way to reach their preferred outcome, but it is at best an uninformed – and at worst dishonest – way to hold elected officials accountable.