Factcheck.org: Miscounting Obama's Tax Votes

The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee both claim that Obama has voted 94 times "for higher taxes." We find that their count is padded.

After looking at every one of the 94 votes that the RNC includes in its tally, we find:

It's true that most of the votes the GOP counts would either have increased taxes for some, or set budget targets calling for such increases. But by repeating their inflated 94-vote figure, McCain and the GOP falsely imply that Obama has pushed indiscriminately to raise taxes for nearly everybody. A closer look reveals that he's voted consistently to restore higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers but not on middle- or low-income workers. That's consistent with what he's said he'd do as president, which is to raise taxes only on those making more than $250,000 a year.

In a June 9 press release, Tucker Bounds, spokesman for Sen. John McCain's campaign said that "during just three years in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama has already voted 94 times for higher taxes." The same day, the RNC, which researched Obama's votes and is the original source of the claim, issued its own release, saying "Obama Voted At Least 94 Times For Higher Taxes" and that he had voted "For A Tax Increase Approximately Once Every Five Days Congress Has Been In Session." A few days later, McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin and other campaign staffers repeated the charge, which was quoted in various news stories. We suspect we'll be hearing this figure a lot more as the campaign wears on.

If this type of claim sounds familiar, it's because George W. Bush's campaign used a similar refrain against John Kerry in 2004, charging that Kerry voted for "higher taxes" a whopping 350 times. We found that claim to be incorrect as well. This time around, Republicans are using some of the same tricky accounting to beef up the number of votes.

Higher Than My Taxes Are Now?
By our count, about a quarter of these votes for "higher taxes" – 23 to be exact – are votes Obama cast against changing tax rates from what they were at the time. Taxes would not have gone up. They would have been "higher" only compared to the cuts being proposed.

The RNC admits as much in its documentation on the 94 votes, faulting Obama for voting nine times against lowering the capital gains tax rate, seven times against implementing tax incentives for small businesses, six times against lowering the estate tax and three times against repealing a more than decade-old increase in taxes on Social Security benefits, among other votes. The RNC counts these as votes "for higher taxes" even though Obama voted to keep taxes right where they were.

Win Some, Lose Some
Seven votes on the RNC's list were votes Obama cast for measures that called for lowering certain taxes broadly and would have paid for the cuts by raising taxes on high-income individuals or corporations. The RNC didn't give Obama credit for voting for the lower taxes, of course.

Two votes were in favor of a "windfall profit tax" on oil companies and handing out the revenue in the form of rebate checks or nonrefundable tax credits to the public. Another favored giving tax benefits to areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and extending several other tax relief provisions, all of it financed by closing corporate and individual "loopholes" and extending Superfund taxes on corporations, used to pay for toxic waste cleanups. Obama also voted for a refundable tax credit for farmers, paid for by closing a loophole that gives a foreign income tax credit to oil companies. Yet another of these pieces of legislation, an amendment to the 2007 energy bill, would have extended and expanded all kinds of renewable energy tax credits and covered the cost by increasing taxes on oil companies. All of the measures were rejected.

Raising Taxes? Or Wages?
Along the same lines, two of the items the RNC calls votes "against tax incentives for small businesses" were actually votes against Republican counter-measures to Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage. While Democrats were voting for a measure to raise the minimum wage to $7.25, for example, Republicans offered a substitute that would have held the increase to $6.25 and thrown in a bundle of tax breaks for small businesses as well. Because Obama favored the higher wage package over the Republican alternative, the GOP and McCain count his vote against the GOP alternative as one for "higher taxes."

Higher Taxes for Whom? And for What?
Several of Obama's votes did indeed favor raising taxes above current levels. But in most cases these increases would have fallen on upper-income individuals or on corporations. And in many cases, the legislation in question called for increasing taxes in order to fund popular programs, a fact not mentioned by the Republican opposition researchers. One such amendment by Sen. Christopher Dodd to a 2006 bill, for example, proposed the creation of a "veterans hospital improvement fund," financed by increasing the capital gains and dividend tax rates on those earning $1 million a year or more. An amendment to a 2009 budget resolution called for restoring the income tax rate on million-dollar-a-year incomes to pre-2001 levels to fund children's education efforts, such as Head Start and school nutrition programs. Amendments to a 2007 budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 83) aimed to set aside $5 billion for emergency responders' communication equipment or funds for port security, both of which said they would be offset by "closing tax loopholes." Others called for increasing funding for a low-income home energy assistance program or restoring cuts slated for vocational education and student loan programs, paid for by closing "corporate tax loopholes."

What do you call a vote to raise taxes on couples earning more than $1 million a year in order to set up a fund to help children in poverty? We counted it, along with all of the other votes mentioned in the last paragraph, as a vote to increase taxes. But it was, of course, more than that.

Double, Triple and Quadruple Counting
The 94-vote list includes 17 votes that applied to only seven separate measures, effectively padding the GOP's list by 10. Two or three votes on the same measure are not uncommon in the Senate. The most egregious example is a series of four votes on amendment No. 4189 to a Senate budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 70) in March of this year. First, the Senate voted on the amendment (vote #45), and it was rejected. Then, it voted on a motion to table a motion to reconsider vote #45 (that's vote #46), and then voted on the actual motion to reconsider vote #45 (we're up to vote #47 now). And finally, the Senate voted on the same amendment again (vote #48). It was still rejected.

The RNC counts these as four separate votes for "higher taxes."

Non-Binding Votes
Worth noting is that most of the votes on the RNC's list could not have resulted by themselves in raising taxes. Of the total, 53 votes were on amendments to budget resolutions or the resolutions themselves. Budget resolutions merely set targets for tax-writing and appropriations committees and don't alter the tax code directly. Another four votes were on motions to instruct House-Senate conferees, which aren't binding either, and are seldom followed.

We agree that many of Obama's votes on these budget measures were clear statements of approval for increased taxes. But those 57 non-binding votes wouldn't have raised anybody's taxes.

The Final Tally
Cataloging some of these votes isn't cut-and-dried, and the exercise underscores how easily a campaign can spin the opponent's record. In the end, we listed votes on 54 measures under the "for higher taxes" category (and another seven votes in favor of lowering some taxes and increasing others); but even if the RNC used that figure in its claim, we'd have plenty to say about it. As we mentioned, most of those were measures to tax the rich or corporations; many aimed to fund government programs; and most didn't actually raise taxes in and of themselves.

The standard we use is fairly generous to the GOP. Twelve votes by Obama in the RNC's list favored extending tax cuts that were slated to expire. We counted those as votes for increasing taxes, since taxpayers would see their rates increase as a result of failing to pass the legislation. Many Democrats argue that such a vote would not raise taxes above what current law provides, and therefore should not be counted as a vote for a tax increase. However, taxpayers aren't privy to such philosophical legislative discussions and would indeed see their taxes increase if the cuts aren't extended.

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