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Politicians love numbers, and the Nebraska candidates for U.S. Senate are no exception. Both Republican Deb Fischer and Democrat Bob Kerrey tossed around several statistics and facts during their second debate in Omaha.
Fischer claimed a higher income tax on millionaires would generate enough revenue to run the federal government for only 17 hours. Kerrey alleged that Fischer's balanced-budget proposal would double Nebraska's unemployment rate.
Where did they get their numbers? Were they right, wrong or somewhere in between?
The World-Herald selected a few key assertions and researched them in an effort to shine a brighter spotlight on the candidates' math skills.
The fact check comes as the debate, held Friday at the Omaha Community Playhouse, will be broadcast at 6 p.m. tonight on Omaha television station KETV-Channel 7.
A third and final debate between Fischer and Kerrey will be at 7 p.m. Monday in Lincoln. It will be broadcast live on NET Television and NET Radio, the sponsors of the debate.
Fischer and Kerrey are battling to succeed retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson. A World-Herald poll conducted in mid-September showed Fischer was the frontrunner, with a 16 percentage point advantage among likely voters.
Kerrey has said the race is tightening as more voters tune in.
The fact check:
Fischer wants to cut how much from the budget?
A dispute erupted after the debate over how much Fischer wants to cut the federal budget. Kerrey has repeatedly accused Fischer of wanting to trim back federal spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — a charge he made several times in the debate.
Kerrey said such a cut would have a “drastic” impact on popular federal programs that Fischer says she supports and would require wholesale cuts to veterans and agricultural programs.
Kerrey based his assertion on Fischer's support of a Republican bill in Congress known as Cut, Cap and Balance, a measure that stalled in the U.S. Senate.
Fischer says the bill would reduce spending to 19.9 percent of GDP — a substantial cut, but somewhat less than Kerrey's claim. (Currently, federal spending is 25.3 percent of GDP.)
We think Kerrey has the better argument on two fronts.
Fischer bases her assertion on the spending-limit portion of the bill. It would have ratcheted down federal spending to 21.7 percent of GDP for fiscal year 2013, then drop it to 19.9 percent of GDP by 2019.
However, Fischer ignored a second key component of the bill that would require Congress to submit to the states a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That portion of the bill offered up several possible scenarios, including a possible spending cap of 18 percent of GDP.
Fischer previously never raised an objection to Kerrey's argument that she wants to slash federal spending to 18 percent of GDP.
In fact, in an August debate in Grand Island, Fischer appeared to embrace the idea, arguing: “We can reach 18 percent of GDP. We were at that in 2001. We do it by cutting spending.”
Kerrey repeatedly argued in the debate that Fischer's support of the balanced-budget amendment would double Nebraska's unemployment rate.
Where did he get that number?
He got it from a national report issued by Macro Economic Advisors, a firm founded by economist Laurence Meyer.
Here's what we could find out about Meyer: He is a respected economist who was appointed a governor of the U.S. Federal Reserve System by then-President Bill Clinton.
Meyer also is a distinguished scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan and nonprofit group whose board of trustees includes Democrats and Republicans, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.
Here's what we know about the report: While it was a national report, it did not include a state-by-state analysis. Nowhere in the report — that we could find — does it mention Nebraska.
The report predicted that if the balanced-budget amendment had been in effect for 2012, it would have had a “catastrophic” effect on the economy. The basic premise of the report is that such a drastic and quick cut in federal spending would send the nation into another fiscal crisis and put an additional 15 million Americans out of work.
Kerrey came up with the Nebraska number on his own.
His math went like this: Nebraska's workforce of 1.02 million represents 0.66 percent of the nation's total workforce. Calculate 0.66 percent of 15 million thrown out of work, and you get an additional 99,000 unemployed Nebraskans — tripling the current 41,000 Nebraskans who are out of work.
But there are a lot of “ifs” in this equation.
One is that the report is not tailored to Nebraska, where the state's 4 percent unemployment rate is dramatically lower the national rate of 8.1 percent.
And second, it is only one report.
Millionaires and tax rates
Fischer accused Kerrey of using “scare tactics” when he criticized her for opposing higher tax rates on millionaires.
She said the proposal would do little to solve the nation's budget woes, arguing it would “run the government for 17 hours.”
Fischer is right when she says a higher tax on millionaires would do little to address the deficit. But Kerrey did not argue that a higher tax on millionaires would solve the nation's fiscal problems. Instead, he and others say it is a matter of fairness: Middle-income people should not pay a higher tax rate than wealthier Americans.
The debate revolves around the so-called Buffett Rule, which calls for a minimum 30 percent federal income tax for people who make $1 million or more. It was a concept backed by President Barack Obama and championed by investor Warren Buffett.
As for Fischer's math, we found it credible.
It was based on a report by the Joint Committee on Taxation, which found that the Buffett rule would generate an additional $47 billion in tax revenue over 10 years. That would pay for about seven days of federal spending over 10 years.
The Fischer camp broke the seven days down on a per-year basis, coming up with 17 hours a year.
World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.
Click on the tabs below to see what each candidate said.
Balanced budget amendment
Kerrey: We would not be better if Senator Fischer's plan gets enacted. It would take spending to 18 percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and I ask Nebraskans: Examine the facts. That would at least double and maybe even triple unemployment as a consequence of the cuts that would be required by that amendment.
We don't need a constitutional amendment. We balanced the budget in the 1990s by making difficult decisions, many of which Senator Fischer now objects to. ... But it got the job done. We balanced the budget; we were paying off debt. But to impose a constitutional amendment would be devastating to the state of Nebraska.
At the Omaha Republican debate, the tea party debate, Mister Flynn pointed out that Nebraska balanced its budget in 2009 and 2010 as a consequence of federal stimulus -- the second-highest use of stimulus money to balance the budget of any state in the nation. The federal government would not have had flexibility under the Fischer plan, under the balanced budget amendment. Again, it will destroy jobs, it will close rural hospitals, make it difficult to keep our commitment to veterans, make it difficult to fund the crop insurance bill she supports. It has real consequences and they're all negative.
Fischer: I've heard a lot about the balanced budget amendment, so maybe I should address that. I support a balanced budget amendment. Here in Nebraska we balance the budget every year. It's required by the (state) constitution. We need to do that at the federal level as well. Any time that you don't have controls on Congress, on spending, on politicians, they will spend every dime that they can get their hands on. We need to make the tough decisions, we need to control spending, that's how we can move this country forward.
Kerrey: I trust women to make that decision. It's a difficult decision. There (are) a lot better ways to reduce the number of abortions than to regulate women. I think the government should stay out of it.
Fischer: I am pro-life and I believe in the sanctity of life. I do believe there should be an exception for the life of the mother.
Military action against Iran
Kerrey: We can't allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and we have the capacity (to prevent it).
But remember the veterans numbers that I gave you earlier: 26 billion dollars worth of pension and disability payments in 2001, 76 billion today, going to 130 billion. Don't you think that there's not any price.
I was actually concerned when I saw that two-thirds of Nebraskans want to get out of Afghanistan and two-thirds want to go to war in Iran. We all get worked up and wave the flag and get patriotic. I was in a war where that was the case. And after three or four years we ran out of gas. You've got to answer the question: What happens afterwards?
I think we have to be very, very careful. Simultaneously, we're making clear to Iran that we have a tremendous amount of military capability and we'll use that military capability if necessary to prevent you from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Fischer: Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.
But we have an administration that has sent mixed signals. We have a strong, strong ally in Israel, the only democracy in the region. This is not just their problem. We're looking at the country of Iran, where it's estimated that in three years they will have ICBMs that can reach the United States. This is a concern for the world. It's a concern for our country.
We have an administration that hasn't been clear on foreign policy, and there's been a lack of leadership. We need to have a strong administration who's going to make it clear that a line needs to be drawn. ... If the United States of America is going to be a leader in foreign policy and keep stability in this world, as has been our mission in the past, then we need to make it clear.
Kerrey: It's not as simple as saying we're just going to go in there. I believe we've got to draw a line, but I think we've got to be very conscious of what it means when we do.
Fischer: I would just reiterate that we need to have leadership here in this country when it comes to foreign policy. We haven't seen that in the last four years. And we're witnessing now the turmoil which I believe is due in part to that. This world is not a safe place. ... It's become less safe. And if we don't have strong messages sent from Washington, it makes it even less safe.
Reforming Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs
Fischer: Let me be clear once again. I believe that we cannot change the benefits for people over the age of 40. We need to be honest with our younger citizens in this country. They all know, you all know, that the programs you have aren't sustainable. But if the government is honest with you, saying that things need to change – that maybe those under 40 need to look at means testing, maybe we need to look at changing the age of eligibility – then our younger citizens can make plans. But we need to have a government that's honest.
Kerrey: What she's saying, basically, is that if you're over 40, you're not going to have to participate in the solution. The question is not: Are we going to keep our commitments? But the question is: Are we going to do the right thing for our future?
The most moving moment of my political career was in Lincoln, Nebraska, on 6 June 1994, with men who had landed on the beaches of Normandy 50 years earlier. And we celebrated them as heroes, not because they avoided risk but because they took risks.
And the question is: Are we going to be remembered in the same fashion? And if we do it the way Senator Fischer is talking about, I promise you, we won't.
Fischer: Well, I wasn't in government when those commitments were made. But I can tell you, as a state senator for eight years, I took my job very seriously. And when I made a commitment that meant I was going to keep it.
That meant that I was hoping the people that came after me and served in the Legislature would keep that commitment also. I can tell you what I won't do, though. I will not cut benefits, I will not raise taxes, and I won't steal 700 billion dollars from Medicare.
Kerrey: We've got a commitment we can't fund. And it's simple math. It's a 60 trillion dollar unfunded liability with 400 thousand worth of debt for every single person in the workforce. We made a commitment that we can't keep.
And the question is, what are we going to do about it? And if we don't do something about it, we'll end up like Greece relatively soon.