On July 18, the Congressional Budget Office announced that the
big, fat federal budget surplus would become bigger and fatter over
the next decade ó bigger even than the $1.9 trillion predicted by
the White House Office of Management and Budget just last month. The
CBO now projects an accumulated $2.17 trillion in budget surpluses
(read: excess tax payments) over the next ten years.
three different tax cutting measures advanced through the Congress
in July: one to phase in an elimination of estate taxes; another to
ensure that couples arenít penalized by the tax code when they
marry; and a third measure to increase allowable tax-deductible IRA
contributions. All three measures garnered network news coverage,
but while correspondents frequently claimed that tax cut proponents
were motivated by a desire for political advantage, only one story
even hinted that tax cut opponents also harbor a political agenda.
From July 14 to July 21, the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC evening
newscasts ran a total of 14 stories on congressional tax cut
proposals ó four anchor-read "briefs" plus ten full-length reports.
Eight stories (57%) portrayed the tax bills as an election-year
effort by Republicans to squander the surplus in order to boost
their partyís popularity, while only one story (on CBS) cast doubt
on the "fiscal responsibility" stance adopted by President Clinton
and other tax cut foes.
On July 14, the Senate voted 59-39 to end the estate tax. CNNís
The World Today offered typical coverage, as correspondent
Bob Franken relayed the floor debate to viewers by showing
politiciansí dueling soundbites: "The good news is that Congress has
repealed the death tax," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX). "The bad news
is the President says heís going to veto it. But the good news is
Bill Clinton is not going to be President next year."
Countering Gramm, CNNís report also featured Sen. Edward Kennedy
(D-MA) asking supporters of the measure, "Have you done anything for
our school children? Have you done anything for our parents? Have
you done anything about prescription drugs? Have you done anything
to make our health care system safer? Have you done anything to make
our schools safer? The answer to all of those are no, we have not."
Had it ended there, Frankenís report would have been essentially
balanced. Instead, the CNN reporter chose to add a political
analysis that undermined both tax cut advocates and their argument
that the proposal was good public policy: "Republicans feel they
have political winners in these tax packages. The votes come just
two weeks before the GOP convention." Franken then quoted the
American Enterprise Instituteís Norman Ornstein, who observed
cynically, "If Bill Clinton vetoes the bills that they pass, what
could be better?"
"So, even if the legislation is doomed, the Republicans have a
campaign issue," Franken summarized for viewers, ending his story
without ever hinting that those Democrats who resist tax cuts are
seeking an advantage for their own party.
Frankenís spin was echoed on the other networks. "Nine Democrats
voted with Republicans to repeal the [estate] tax," ABCís Linda
Douglass reported the same evening for World News Tonight.
"One reason: the GOP has gotten better at selling its tax cuts to
the public, using catchy phrases like Ďdeath tax,í" ó a zinger that
neatly undercut arguments that the estate tax should be repealed for
public policy reasons. (See
June 16, 2000.) Of course, Douglas failed to similarly reveal
the political tactics of the pro-estate tax forces.
Three nights later, on July 17, as the Senate debated ending the
marriage penalty, NBC Nightly Newsís Lisa Myers called it "an
election-year tax cut for 21 million married couples." After
interviewing a working couple who pay the IRS an additional $1,200
each year because theyíre married, Myers added that "since this is
an election, thereís also a tax cut for couples who do not pay the
marriage penalty because only one spouse works." In fact, the
provision Myers was referring to was designed to ensure equal
treatment of working mothers and those that choose to stay at home
to raise a family.
After letting senators from both parties make their points, Myers
asserted (again) that tax cut advocates were motivated by politics.
"Even though the president has promised to veto this bill,
Republicans think cutting taxes for millions of couples is a winning
campaign issue," she told viewers, adding that "polls show
increasing support for a tax cut, especially among independent
voters who may tip the balance in November."
CBSís Bill Plante, on the July 18 edition of the Evening News,
was the sole correspondent to hint that tax cut opponents had a
political agenda, too. After repeating claims that tax-cutters
harbored a political strategy ("the promised presidential veto will
come just in time to be chewed over at the Republican convention two
weeks from now"), Plante got Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to
admit that "well, it is a political season."
"Well, yes," Plante added in closing. "If there were any doubt
about that, the President, despite the fact that he trashed the bill
that was passed today [ending the marriage penalty], offered to sign
it ó if the Republicans will give him prescription drug coverage
Not as hard-hitting as it could have been; Plante would have been
correct if heíd observed that while the President ostensibly opposed
the tax cut as too expensive, he promised to sign the same bill if
Congress would only make it even more expensive. But letís give
credit where itís due: Plante was the only correspondent to indicate
that both sides might have been pursuing a political agenda.
Plante, however, failed to stick with his balanced approach. On
July 19, the House voted to increase the limits on tax-deductible
IRA contributions, which hadnít been changed since 1981. (See
April 7, 2000.) Standing in front of the White House, Plante
reported that night there is "a concern here bordering on panic that
the Republican spending of the surplus is hitting a chord with the
voters." (Just for the record, tax cuts arenít "spending.")
"For years," Plante wrapped up, "it was the Republicans who
preached fiscal responsibility. Now the Democrats are finding it
just as hard to sell." Thatís an odd conclusion, since Planteís own
story noted (correctly) that nearly all House Democrats voted in
favor of the supposedly irresponsible IRA measure.
The real problem is that network reporters have for years
portrayed tax cuts as a cynical form of electioneering, while tax
cut opponents are often painted as "fiscally responsible" even if
theyíre longtime promoters of more government spending. Such spin
tilts news stories to the left even when both sides are given equal
time to state their case.
In 1999, congressional tax-cutters packaged several of the same
proposals that passed this year ó including the end of the marriage
penalty and the repeal of the estate tax ó into a single piece of
legislation that President Clinton eventually vetoed. Introducing a
CBS Evening News story on last yearís congressional action,
Dan Rather told viewers that "an election-year tax-cut battle kicked
into higher gear today."
When the issue is tax cuts, the networks seem to think that every
year is an election year.