What in the world have they done with Glenn Kessler!


Fact-checker morphs into hit-man: What in the world has the Washington Post done with fact-checker Glenn Kessler?

To us, it seems that Kessler has become a weirdly reliable anti-Democratic hit man. Consider the way he fact-checked an exchange from Sunday morning’s This Week. (To watch the exchange, click here, move ahead to roughly nine minutes.)

The exchange was initiated by Ron Johnson, Wisconsin’s Republican senator. Johnson isn’t the sharpest crayon in the Senate’s Box of 100, but still.

The exchange in question began like this, with a giant misstatement by Johnson:
STEPHANOPOULOS (3/10/13): If the president went along with either means testing of Medicare beneficiaries—more far reaching, he's done a little bit already—and, also, adjusting the consumer price index for Social Security recipients, would you as a senator be open to more revenues?

JOHNSON: Listen, if you're taking a look at, in an entitlement reform package, actually bringing in revenue for those entitlement reforms, I might look at that. But the fact of the matter is, the fact of the matter is, we already have a trillion dollars in middle-income tax increases hitting us in Obamacare. They're hidden, but it's middle-class. It's–

KRUGMAN: Not true

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: That's not true.

JOHNSON: It's certainly true. As well as another 600 billion, so you've already got $1.6 trillion worth of tax increases hitting us in the next 10 years.
That’s how the exchange in question began. Johnson made a factual statement—there are $1 trillion in middle-class tax increases in Obamacare.

Instantly, two other panelists said, “That’s not true.” You’d almost think that’s where you’d start if you decided to fact-check this exchange.

In fact, Kessler did fact-check Johnson’s claim in his Fact-Checker piece. It’s fair to say that he found Johnson’s claim to be wildly and crazily false. The closest Kessler really can come is $377 billion in middle-class tax increases, though it seems he has to stretch a bit to push the number that high:
KESSLER (3/12/13): Meantime, Johnson can’t come up with $1 trillion in “middle-income tax increases.”


As it happens, the Joint Committee on Taxation, in response to a question from a Republican senator, last year identified the middle-class taxes in the health care law. In this 10-year period, it identified about $130 billion in taxes with direct impact on the middle class, and another $247 billion in taxes with possible indirect effects.

That gets us to $377 billion. (The Republican staff House Ways & Means report lists taxes totaling nearly $500 billion as targeting people making less than $250,000.)
Even that GOP report can’t get over $500 billion—and that counts taxes on people earning up to $250,000. For unknown reasons, Kessler goes on to mention some additional, fanciful suggestions from a Johnson staffer, trying to push the number higher. But the highest semi-reliable figure he can reach is $377 billion, and that even sounds like a stretch.

Johnson initiated the discussion. His claim was off by a giant amount. If you were fact-checking this exchange, isn’t that where you would start?

Well, that isn’t where Kessler started! Kessler started with Wasserman Schultz’s rebuttal, in which she failed to repeat the word “middle-class” as she rejected this claim.

Here’s the way the discussion continued after Johnson’s howler. By omitting the word “middle-class,” Wasserman Schultz makes an error:
JOHNSON (continuing directly from above): That's going to harm economic growth. And, George, the best way of getting out of this situation is economic growth.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: No. Let’s— First of all, that is completely untrue.

JOHNSON: It's completely true.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: There are not a trillion dollars in taxes in Obamacare and what is true, what is true is that the president, in his grand bargain, which is still on the table, which Republicans could take him up on right now, has $360 billion more in savings, that ensures that we can add solvency to Medicare. Let's look at what entitlement reform is necessary to reduce the deficit...
According to Kessler, Wasserman Schultz’s highlighted statement is false. In the new ten-year window (2013-2022), there are almost exactly $1 trillion in new taxes, Kessler says, citing several sources.

According to Kessler, the DNC says that Wasserman Schultz simply forgot to say “middle-class” when she contradicted Johnson’s howler. Even if that’s true, her actual statement does seem to be false, according to Kessler’s source.


Johnson started the exchange. As he did, he made a gigantic misstatement. Krugman and Wasserman Schultz objected instantly to the statement about “middle-income tax increases.” When Wasserman Schultz got her chance to speak, she too misspoke, although Johnson’s error was much larger.

If we were fact-checking that conversation, we would start at the beginning, with Johnson’s enormous misstatement. But here’s the way Kessler began his fact-check. In our view, something has gone a little bit wrong with this man:
KESSLER: The Facts

When the health care law became law in 2010, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation provided estimates of the revenues in the law. But those estimates did not give a full picture because some big taxes did not begin until 2013—and some are delayed even further. That means the tax number is bound to grow each year we move into a different budget window.

Taxes on so-called “Cadillac” high-cost health plans, for instance, do not begin in 2018, so the initial estimate only captured two years of taxes, raising $32 billion. But the estimate for 2013 to 2022 captures five years of that tax, and so the revenue number grows to $111 billion.

While there might have been a debate previously about whether the employer mandate is a tax, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law on that basis, so it also seems appropriate to consider that to be revenue.

Thus, within the 2013 to 2022 budget period, there seems little debate that the health-care law has about $1 trillion in taxes. The House Ways & Means Committee released a calculation earlier this month and there are few questions about its math. Alternatively, the Congressional Budget Office last year released an analysis showing that repeal of the law would cut revenues by exactly $1 trillion. (See Table 2.)

“I think the $1 trillion figure is fair,” said Paul Van de Water of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Game, set and match to Johnson? Not so fast.
You have to read and read, then read some more, before you reach Johnson’s gigantic mistake—the flagrant, ginormous misstatement with which this exchange began. Along the way, Kessler almost makes it sound like Johnson bested Wasserman Schultz in a single-punch knock-out.

We don’t know why you’d write a fact-check of that exchange that way. Kessler has been at this job for a very long time. It seems to us that it’s time for him to move on to a new field.

More to come tomorrow: There were a few other horror-shows in This Week’s budget roundtable, including a refusal by Wasserman Schultz to answer a simple question. We’ll likely hit a few of these horror-shows tomorrow. But what ever happened to Kessler?


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  2. I thought Kessler was fair.

    First of all, I don't think either Johnson or Wasserman Schultz has any real appreciation of what the numbers are and what they mean. Both were merely parroting talking points. A separate issue is that the viewers got no real appreciation for the cost of Obamacare and what it means.

    Johnson and Wasserman Schultz aren't the sharpest. Both of them got their talking points wrong, as Kessler pointed out. Johnson wrongly left out the term "middle class". Wasserman Schultz wrongly added the term "middle class."

    These two errors were equal in magnitude. Giving them each two Pinocchios looks reasonably fair to me.

    1. "I thought Kessler was fair."

      Predictably, David, predictably!

      "These two errors [(1) outright falsely saying that the middle-class will see more than a trillion dollars in tax increases and (2) denying that outright false claim but failing to repeat "middle class"] were equal in magnitude."

      "Equal in magnitude!"

      You are a shameless piece of work, David in Cal, shameless.

  3. Just seeing this. This was a complicated exchange to write about, and it seemed easier to focus on the $1 trillion and work out from there, in part because I was trying to clarify for readers the level of taxes in the health care law. And in doing so I thought it made more sense to end with Johnson. The bottom line wouldn't have been any different--both were factually wrong--but I can see why it might have confused readers