HELENA — This 30-second TV ad criticizing Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is produced and financed by the campaign of his main challenger, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. It features a man and woman who say Tester is peddling “baloney,” and then has a narrator making accusations. It began airing within the past two weeks.
Script: Woman: “Jon Tester takes Montana beef with him to Washington in his suitcase.”
Man: “Then he brings Washington baloney back to Montana.”
Tester: “I opposed all those Wall Street bailouts.”
Woman: “Baloney, Jon Tester.”
Narrator: “Tester voted for the bailout of the mortgage giants who caused the housing crisis, voted to raise his own pay, but voted 57 times for higher taxes on you. Jon Tester: Higher taxes for you, pay raises for him, bailouts for them.”
Analysis: While some of the claims in this aid may be true in a technical sense, its three basic accusations are, at best, debatable, and, at worst, fundamentally misleading.
For example, about 30 of the “57 (votes) for higher taxes on you” are votes by Tester to either end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, or oppose Republican efforts to extend the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest taxpayers. Both moves would affect, for the most part, 1 percent to 3 percent of Montana households. Tester supported extending the Bush tax cuts for 97 percent of taxpayers — and, a good portion, but not all, of the cuts for the wealthiest sliver of taxpaying households.
Of the 57 Tester votes cited by the Rehberg campaign, the vast majority are “no” votes on Republican efforts to cut taxes or extend expiring tax cuts. In many of those cases, Tester ended up voting for the prevailing Democratic proposal, which often included other tax cuts or tax cut extensions. For example, Republicans tried several times to amend the 2009 economic-stimulus bill, adding additional tax cuts. The final bill, supported by Tester, included more than $200 million in tax cuts, targeted mostly at the middle class.
The 57 votes include only five instances where Tester voted directly for a tax increase: Three times to raise taxes or eliminate tax breaks for the oil-and-gas industry, a $400 million-a-year increase in jet fuel taxes to pay for reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Authority (a bill that passed 87-8), and his vote for the 2010 federal health care overhaul (“Obamacare”), which includes some substantial tax increases that fall primarily on business and the wealthy. Opponents of the bill argue that its tax penalties for not buying health insurance, starting in 2014, are taxes that fall mostly on the middle class. However, those “taxes” occur only for those who don’t have health insurance.
Tester’s “vote for the bailout of the mortgage giants who caused the housing crisis” was his July 2008 vote for the bill authorizing the federal takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the financially troubled, government-sponsored entities that buy mortgages from banks and then repackage them as “securities,” sold and traded on the open market. The two companies certainly played a role in the 2008 housing-market meltdown, but it’s a stretch to say they “caused” it. Overzealous private banks, prior congressional policy and irresponsible consumers also contributed to the crisis. Rehberg voted “no” on the Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae takeover, and Tester and Rehberg both voted against the major Wall Street bailout bill in late 2008.
One of the alleged pay raise votes cited by the Rehberg campaign is Tester’s vote earlier this year against a Republican amendment of a highway-funding bill that expanded drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, approved the Keystone XL pipeline — and froze federal employee pay through 2013. However, Tester says he’ll be voting this week for a bill, slated to become law, that will freeze pay for federal employees, including himself — and Rehberg voted against it.
The other two pay raise votes cited by the Rehberg campaign are votes Tester took in 2001 as a state senator. One was for the bill funding the 2001 Legislature, including higher pay for legislators; the second was a state-employee pay bill that raised per-diem payments for legislators in the 2003 Legislature. Tester was up for re-election in 2002, so, in the latter case, he wasn’t assured of getting the increase in 2003. In the other vote, any 2001 pay increase for legislators had to have been approved by an earlier Legislature, because the state constitution forbids lawmakers from changing their pay in the current session.