By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Here’s a riddle for you: When is a tax hike not an increase? Answer: When Politifact, the self-proclaimed political fact-checking enterprise, decides to take the question for a spin.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel version of the national Politifact brand did so when it rated half-true Gov. Scott Walker’s Jan. 4 tweet: “Thanks to Washington, nearly everyone will pay more in taxes in 2013. Somehow people think it’s just the wealthy. It’s not.”
The extra cash coming out of your paycheck every couple weeks since the New Year tells you Walker’s got it all right.
So how could the Journal Sentinel rate Walker’s tweet half true? Let’s explore.
Before getting to the crux of Walker’s claim, Politifact reminds readers that Congress, pressed by President Obama, hiked taxes on the rich while extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for most Americans.
Walker, it turns out, wasn’t referencing the taxes “Washington” kept the same, but the taxes that increased at the start of 2013 — namely the Social Security payroll tax holiday.
Here’s what Politifact found:
“Three experts told us a large share of Americans will see their taxes rise in 2013 compared to 2012 because of the disappearance of the Social Security payroll tax holiday.”
“Some 77 percent of all U.S. households will be paying more in taxes overall in 2013 than in 2012, almost completely because the payroll tax is returning to its old level, said Roberton Williams, a fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a project of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.”
Walker tweeted that nearly everyone will pay more in taxes. The experts said nearly all working people will pay more in taxes. The claim seems cut and dry.
But Politifact takes issue with the “temporary” nature of the payroll tax holiday.
“Is it actually a tax increase, or are we just not giving you a break anymore?’” pondered a Politifact source, the way a congressman explaining the tax increase back in his district might.
Williams told Politifact the payroll tax cut, which Congress chose not to extend, was meant to be temporary. The Bush tax cuts, on the other hand, which Congress did extend for most income taxpayers, well, Republicans have long clamored for those to be made permanent.
But those tax cuts were set to expire in 2010 — no matter how badly Republicans wished to make them permanent — and were extended twice by Congress. By definition, something already permanent cannot be extended.
Congress could have extended the payroll tax holiday as part of the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal. Obama could have vetoed any bill that killed it. They decided to let the tax holiday go to its great reward, and that decision resulted in a tax hike for nearly all working Americans.
The whole truth is in the payroll stub.
Another fact-checking organization, FactCheck.org took up the same issue from another angle after Obama released a video telling Americans that he saved them thousands of dollars in tax hikes — by extending a temporary tax cut.
“All the president’s talk about preserving middle-class tax cuts in the just-passed bill to avert the so-called fiscal cliff may give one the impression that, except for the wealthy, people will be paying the same amount in taxes this year as last. But that’s not correct. Left out of Obama’s analysis is that a temporary two-year reduction in Social Security payroll taxes was allowed to expire. As a result, most people will actually pay more in taxes this year,” FactCheck.org reports.
The explanation is essentially what Walker tweeted.
Politifact will have none of it — or at least will have only half of it.
“But (Walker) makes a glass-half-empty claim about a broad deal by viewing the result in a narrow context of one tax decision, while leaving out important information about the tax effect of another major decision that was part of the deal. It would also have the ring of truth to say that ‘thanks to Washington’ a massive tax increase was averted in the same deal.”
Yes, that statement might also have had a “ring of truth” to it. But it’s not what Walker said.
Let’s first disabuse Politifact of the absurd assertion that Twitter, which limits human expression to 140 characters, is a forum for context and perspective.
Beyond that, Politifact’s conclusion is about as frail as rating half true the statement that penguins waddle — because we all know penguins swim, too.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at email@example.com