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Senator Santorum was right on per-capita caps

Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post performs a valuable service with his Fact Checker column. He plays the referee, holding policymakers to account for the accuracy of what they say, and working hard to research, understand, and educate his readers on the veracity of a range of important policy questions. His body of work elevates the quality of policy debate.

Even good referees sometimes make a bad call, and I think Mr. Kessler did so yesterday in his column, “Is the GOP plan for Medicaid caps really Bill Clinton’s idea?” I disagree with his conclusion and score of former Senator Rick Santorum’s quote (two Pinocchios). I have expressed my views directly to Mr. Kessler, who graciously included some of my input in an updated version of his column. I’d like to share here a fuller explanation of why I think Santorum was right, Kessler wrong, and the two Pinocchio score is undeserved and unfair. My disagreement with Mr. Kessler stems in part, from a different view about the role of someone labeled a fact-checker who scores policymakers with Pinocchios. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but the underlying policy issue is important, and Mr. Kessler has a big role on an influential platform. His columns carry weight and his scores have influence, especially because the Pinocchio label implicitly tags policymakers as liars.

The quote Mr. Kessler analyzes comes from former Republican Senator Rick Santorum:

As everyone knows, the Medicaid per capita cap was proposed by President Clinton. Now it is seen as this draconian measure.

In 1996 I worked for Senator Pete Domenici as the health and retirement economist on the Senate Budget Committee majority (Republican) staff. I was in the middle of these debates. I interacted with Senator Santorum, as well as the three staff experts cited by Mr. Kessler: Doug Badger (a former Senate Republican policy advisor and colleague), and Gene Sperling and Chris Jennings (former White House policy advisors to President Bill Clinton). Doug’s boss and mine were on the block grant side of this debate, while Gene’s and Chris’ boss President Clinton led the per-capita cap side.
Mr. Kessler writes:

In the mid-1990s, Clinton did propose a per capita cap for Medicaid …

“Under the budget, a per capita cap limits Federal spending growth per person while retaining current eligibility and benefit guidelines,” Clinton’s 1997 budget proposal said.

It seems indisputable that Senator Santorum was correct when he said: “the Medicaid per capita cap was proposed by President Clinton.”
The only other elements of Santorum’s quote are that “everyone knows” this fact, and that a per-capita cap “now is seen as this draconian measure.” I see nothing in Mr. Kessler’s column to challenge either of these claims. I happen to believe these claims are true. I don’t know of anyone who disputes that “everyone knows” Clinton proposed it or that, at least among today’s Democrats, the per-capita cap is now seen as a draconian measure.
How and why is Santorum’s quote in any way incorrect? The Senator did not comment on why President Clinton proposed a per-capita cap, only that he did. Kessler proves that.
Kessler later writes:
As far as we can tell, Democrats never embraced the idea after Clinton abandoned it once he had struck a deal with Republicans on the budget. Thus it remains a tactical gambit, not a serious proposal. That’s demonstrated also by the fact that Clinton’s caps were so high that they were virtually meaningless in terms of saving money.
In making his rhetorical point, Santorum ignores this history. He earns two Pinocchios.
But:
  • Kessler penalizes Santorum based on something Santorum did not say and Kessler thinks is important (“ignores this history.”) That’s not fact-checking, it’s Kessler deciding (after the fact) what else, beyond what Santorum said, is important. That is a subjective standard impossible for anyone to meet.
  •  In this case, it’s also irrelevant.
  • It may not even be true. Kessler may be correct that “Democrats never embraced [a per-capita cap] after Clinton abandoned it once he had struck a deal with Republicans.” Before this, however, they did. This November 1995 New York Times article focuses on a “middle-ground budget” proposal from moderate House Democrats who called themselves The Coalition: “Mr. Clinton, by contrast, would limit the growth in the average Federal payment for each Medicaid recipient, and the Coalition also favors a ‘per capita cap.'”
  • To make this judgment, Kessler appears to rely on an unproven claim by two advocates (Sperling and Jennings) that President Clinton did not actually want to enact a policy that he proposed. They assert this, offer no evidence other than their own claims, and yet Kessler treats it as “history” and punishes Senator Santorum for ignoring it. Even if President Clinton was insincerely proposing a major structural reform to a pillar of the Great Society as a cynical tactical feint, Senator Santorum could not have known this. I did not know this and saw no evidence of it, and I was enmeshed in the debate. It is irrelevant what the president’s motive was–he proposed it. And Messrs. Sperling and Jennings have both professional and policy incentives to rewrite this element of history now, given the tremendous change in sentiment among their Democratic party peers for their past policy work. Kessler implicitly acknowledges this last point when he writes “Former Clinton administration officials now say …”
  • Whether the proposal was honestly or cynically offered is irrelevant. Kessler presumes Senator Santorum knew or should have known what someone else, his policy opponent President Clinton in this case, was privately thinking when he proposed a policy. It is unfair to judge a policymaker for “ignoring” (not speaking to) a particular self-interested claim about the history of a proposal that the policymaker could not possibly have known.

Mr. Kessler is, of course, free to evaluate policymakers’ statements on any basis he chooses. If he thinks context is important to readers, that’s his call to make in his column. At the same time, he has created a niche for his column, which is labeled Fact Checker, and tags policymakers with Pinocchios. Checking honesty and accuracy is one task; adding context you think important is closely related, yet also different and far more subjective. Fact Checker and Historical Context Provider is different from Fact Checker.

Pinocchio’s nose did not grow because he ignored history or omitted context deemed important by someone else. Pinocchio lied. When you tag a policymaker with Pinocchios, you are accusing them of lying. That did not happen here.

This Fact Checker column was titled “Is the GOP plan for Medicaid caps really Bill Clinton’s idea?” How can the answer be anything other than “Yes,” and why shouldn’t Senator Santorum get credit for a quote proved to be accurate?

 

By | 2017-09-29T15:33:28+00:00 Friday, 29 September 2017|