Acton Institute Powerblog

Fact check: 5 facts about the 2020 vice presidential debate

(Photo credit: AP Photo / Julio Cortez.)

Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris held the first and only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election last night inside the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City. While the two held a largely substantive and respectful debate – a low bar to cross after the combination food fight and WWE battle royal that passed for the first presidential debate – many of their statements demand additional scrutiny. Here are five of the top examples.

Did the Obama-Biden administration have the slowest recovery since the Great Depression?

Pence: When President Trump and I took office, America had gone through the slowest recovery since the Great Depression. When Joe Biden was the vice president, they tried to tax and spend and regulate and bail our way back to a growing economy.

This is true. Barack Obama accomplished another historical first as the only president of the modern era never to have a single year of 3% GDP growth. “That’s far below the typical growth in rosy times of over 4% a year that the U.S. has experienced since World War II,” reported CNN at the time.

Furthermore, the sluggish economic recovery went beyond annual economic growth rates. As I wrote at The Steam in 2016:

“Average productivity growth for the past five years has been lower than any other five-year period on record, which extends back to 1947,” wrote Just Facts President James Agresti. “In fact, it has been 82 percent below the average of the 50 years prior to the Great Recession.”

The picture is the same even factoring out the economic downturn, which officially ended in June 2009. “Real GDP growth beyond population growth from 2010 to 2015 has been 39% below the average of the 25 years prior to the Great Recession,” Agresti, who relied on the Bureau of Labor Statistics for his assessment, concluded.

“In terms of economic output, this was the slowest economic recovery since World War II,” said Michael D. Tanner of the Cato Institute.

This had a concrete impact on Americans’ lives. Peter Ferrara of the Heartland Institute found that if the current recovery were as strong as the average of prior recoveries, by late 2016 the average U.S. family would have earned an additional $17,000 a year, and there would have been six million more jobs. Conservative analysts blame this on overregulation and higher tax rates, while progressives say the economy needed a larger federal stimulus than the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Did the Paycheck Protection Program save 50 million jobs?

Pence: Right after a time where we’re going through a pandemic that lost 22 million jobs at the height, we’ve already … saved 50 million jobs through the Paycheck Protection Program. We literally have spared no expense to help the American people and the American worker through this.

It is unclear how many jobs have been saved by the half-trillion-dollar-plus PPP intervention, but 50 million is almost certainly an exaggeration – and not the largest embellishment made by the administration. In a July 23 press release, the Small Business Administration credited the PPP with “saving more than 51 million jobs.” However, a study released one day earlier by researchers at the Federal Reserve and MIT said that PPP boosted employment by only 2.3 million jobs. S&P Global U.S. chief economist Beth Ann Bovino placed the number of jobs saved as high as 13.6 million. As of August 8, the SBA had made 5,212,128 loans totaling more than $525 billion. That would mean the federal government paid between $38,603 and $228,261 for every job “saved.” Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation noted that many of these jobs may have existed without the bailout – a taxpayer-funded version of the broken window fallacy – and that “everyone involved has an incentive to use inflated estimates.”

Where did the 50 million number come from? White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Reuters, “You had to put on the [PPP] form how many employees you have when you’re applying for the loan. My guess is they added them up.” Thus, the SBA  claims the PPP “saved” every job at every business that received the loan.

Will Joe Biden raise taxes on people making less than $400,000?

Harris: I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth and the truth and the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear: He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year.

Joe Biden has repeatedly said his proposed tax increases will fall only on the top 1.8% of income earners making $400,000 a year or more. Biden’s tax plan would repeal portions of President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, raising the top income bracket for those making $400,000 a year from 37% to 39.6%, impose a 12.4% payroll tax on starting at $400,000; raises the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%; and taxes capital gains the same as income. It also limits certain tax deductions, while expanding tax credits aimed at lower income earners.

Yet some of Biden’s tax pain would trickle down to average Americans. Joe Biden has promised to reinstate the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which would find those who fail to purchase qualified plans a total of $695 for a single person or up to $2,085 for a family of four. Of the 4.6 million households that paid the penalty (which Chief Justice John Roberts defined as a tax), 74% had an adjusted gross income of $50,000 or less, according to Americans for Tax Reform.

Analysts also ignore the fact that taxes on one part of the economy affect everyone. Workers will shoulder 25% of the corporate tax hike, according to the Penn Wharton Budget Model analysis of Biden’s tax plan. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

All Americans would also pay, because higher taxes and more burdensome regulations will vitiate economic growth and prosperity. In all, the Tax Foundation concludes Joe Biden’s tax plan “would reduce after-tax incomes by about 2.5 percent across all income groups over the long run. The lower four income quintiles would see a decrease in after-tax incomes of at least 1.1 percent.” By reducing overall economic activity, Biden’s plan would cost the equivalent of 517,800 jobs – not all of which would have paid $400,000 or more.

Not all of Biden’s proposed tax policies would punish the 1%. For instance, the Trump administration capped federal deductions for state and local taxes (the SALT deduction) at $10,000; Biden would lift the cap, effectively causing U.S. taxpayers to subsidize confiscatory tax policies in progressive cities and states.

Finally, Kamala Harris supported fully repealing the Trump tax cuts, which would raise taxes on all taxpayers significantly.

Would Joe Biden end fracking?

Pence: You yourself said on multiple occasions when you were running for president, that you would ban fracking. Joe Biden looked at a supporter in the eye and pointed and said, “I guarantee, I guarantee that we will abolish fossil fuels.”

Harris: I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact. That is a fact.

Both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris has been inconsistent about whether they would ban fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” allows energy companies to extract oil and natural gas by injecting water or chemicals into shale deposits. By 2015, fracking provided 67% of all U.S. natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Under the Trump administration, fracking has made up a progressively larger share of the nation’s record-breaking natural gas production, which stood at 34 trillion cubic feet in 2019. “The shale revolution saves U.S. consumers $203 billion annually, or $2,500 for a family of four,” according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Fracking also added 725,000 jobs to the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2012; a ban would cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of jobs, concentrated in swings states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Natural gas use reduces the nation’s carbon footprint and allowed the U.S. to become a net exporter of energy, challenging Russia’s geostrategic dominance over Europe.

Biden’s position on fracking over the last year has been as clear as unrefined crude oil. When asked last July if there would be “any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration,” he replied, “No. We would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated.” In a March debate against Bernie Sanders, Biden promised his administration would mean “no more – no new fracking.” He added, “I’m talking about stopping fracking as soon as we possibly can.” When asked if he would be willing to end fracking, “even knowing it could displace thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of blue collar workers,” Biden said, “The answer is yes.” Yet while campaigning in Pennsylvania this summer, Biden said, “I am not banning fracking. Let me say that again. I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” Biden’s campaign said the candidate misspoke in March and points to his website, which highlights his support for “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.”

Once again, an important caveat must be made: As a candidate last September, Kamala Harris told CNN, “There is no question I’m in favor of banning of fracking.” She proposed “starting with what we can do on day one around public lands, and then there has to be legislation” for a national ban, “but yes, this is something I’ve taken on in California. I have a history of working on this issue.” Should Joe Biden, who would be 78 years old on inauguration day, not finish out his full term, a Harris administration may usher in a more draconian crackdown on the nation’s energy resources.

Did Kamala Harris attack a judge for his Catholic faith?

Harris: Joe Biden and I are both people of faith, and it’s insulting to suggest that we would knock anyone for their faith.

Vice President Mike Pence said he hoped that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett would receive a respectful hearing, devoid of the attacks on her Catholic faith that marked her bruising 2017 confirmation hearings. However, Barrett was not alone.

In December 2018, Kamala Harris caricatured the positions of the Knights of Columbus while questioning a judicial nominee.  Harris presented federal judicial nominee Brian C. Buescher’s membership in the Catholic fraternal organization as though it were controversial. “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” she asked. “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when you joined the organization?” Harris worked in tandem with Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who asked Buescher, “If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?”

The media have taken a similar approach to Judge Barrett’s membership in the ecumenical charismatic community People of Praise. However, the two organizations’ positions on the issues derive not from their own policy but from the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Sen. Marco Rubio warned in 2015 that “we are at the water’s edge” of declaring “the Catechism of the Catholic Church is hate speech.”

At a minimum, Sen. Harris has not been reticent to attack those who accept the teachings of the Christian faith as potentially unfit for office.

Honorable mention: Will Joe Biden and Kamala Harris pack the Supreme Court?

Pence: The people deserve a straight answer, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, the straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election. … Maybe in the next debate Joe Biden will answer the question, but I think the American people know the answer.

Mike Pence demanded Kamala Harris answer whether she and Joe Biden would pack the Supreme Court if they are elected. Democrats, piqued over a conservative replacing judicial activists’ hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have proposed adding up to six new seats to the Supreme Court, as well as abolishing the Senate filibuster and adding two new states – and four new U.S. senators – for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. At the first presidential debate, Joe Biden said flatly, “I’m not going to answer the question,” because he did not want his position to “become the issue” of the campaign. In the primaries, Harris said she was “open” to the idea of court-packing. A new Washington Examiner/YouGov poll finds that, while Americans oppose changing the number of Supreme Court justices by double digits, 60% of Democrats favor the idea.

Would either half of the Biden-Harris ticket twist a co-equal branch of the government into a rubber-stamp for its own policies? There is no way to know – because the candidates refuse to answer. That in itself may be an answer.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.