Sen. Tim Scott’s misleading words about Obamacare and working

What’s in a word? In this case, the word is “comply.” Also “restore.”

The “PBS NewsHour” did a four-night series of interviews last week on growing economic inequality and the ideas of policymakers for ameliorating it. (The ratio of CEO compensation to that of  average workers, currently in the range of 273-to-1, has grown more than 1,000 percent since the middle 1960s.)

I am a big fan of the “NewsHour,” going back many decades, but this series was pretty slow except as one more indication that the two major parties have almost nothing in common on these issues and some conservatives will go to remarkable lengths to avoid discussing their differences honestly. One example of such don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry dishonesty occurred during the segment in which “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff  interviewed Sen. Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.

Woodruff asked Sen. Scott where he stood on President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. His answer came from the other side of the looking glass. It went something (no, exactly) like this:

Sen. Scott: Yes, I would tell the president and my friends on the left that we can have a robust conversation about actually helping those folks at the entry level of the income ladder by having a conversation about restoring the 40-hour workweek that is in Obamacare.

The fact is that, today, employers are making the decision to move their employees from 40 hours a week to 30 hours to week to comply with the ACA. If we were to restore the 40-hour workweek, we would have a — at least the same impact on the same number of people as we would have having a conversation about increasing the minimum wage, without the job losses, without the reduction of hours that comes with a 40 or 50 percent increase in the minimum wage.

Can you follow that? He didn’t say this terribly clearly but Scott’s answer to whether to raise the minimum wage is to, instead, repeal the provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires large employers to provide health insurance as a benefit to all employees who work 30 hours a week or more. Sen. Scott has introduced a bill to repeal that provision, and he believes it would do more to help struggling workers than would raising the minimum wage.

We live in an age of spin, which is a polite word for B.S. The days when a politician could be expected to be rewarded for straight talk  — or even to survive an occasional attack of candor — seem to be over. And it’s getting harder to know how far a politician can torture factual accuracy without getting called on it. But let’s put Scott’s words under the microscope for a second.

It’s complicated

The ACA is very complicated — too complicated for my taste. But the simpler alternatives were deemed politically unacceptable. Its architects divided uninsured Americans into many categories and devised a separate approach to getting each category insured.

One category is employees of large companies (those with 50 or more full-time employees) that do not provide health insurance as a benefit. The mandate that those employers offer insurance to their workers was a fairly straightforward effort to bring health insurance within the reach of that category of uninsured Americans.

The threshold that separates full-time from part-time employees for this purpose was set at 30 hours a week. You don’t have to be too diabolically clever to figure out how some employers might try to work around this requirement. Cut your workers (or some of them) down to less than 30 hours a week and presto, you don’t have to provide them with any help toward acquiring health insurance.

How many employers will do this to how many of their workers? Apparently quite a few, according to Sen. Scott, whose press release quotes him as saying: ““Obamacare will destroy the 40-hour work week as we know it.”

In it’s most recent comment, the least-biased expert source on such matters, the Congressional Budget Office, wrote:

In CBO’s judgment, there is no compelling evidence that part-time employment has increased as a result of the ACA. On the one hand, there have been anecdotal reports of firms responding to the employer penalty by limiting workers’ hours, and the share of workers in part-time jobs has declined relatively slowly since the end of the recent recession. On the other hand, the share of workers in part-time jobs generally declines slowly after recessions, so whether that share would have declined more quickly during the past few years in the absence of the ACA is difficult to determine. In any event, because the employer penalty will not take effect until 2015, the current lack of direct evidence may not be very informative about the ultimate effects of the ACA.

In the interview, Scott estimated that 2.3 million to 2.5 million workers would be saved, by his bill, from having their hours cut from 40 to 30. I have asked his office where he got that number and they have declined to reply.

Truth is, nobody knows. Scott’s reason for bringing up his 40-hour week amendment was to argue that his bill would do more to reduce inequality than an increase in the minimum wage because, thanks to his bill, 2 million-plus workers will get back the 10-hours pay, per week, that they are about to lose because of Obamacare and, presumably, they need hours more than they need health insurance.

I asked Sen. Scott’s office whether, under his proposal to “restore the 40-hour work week,” employers could withhold health care from even more workers by simply cutting every 40-hour employee to 39 hours? They have not replied. 

But as one who is fairly obsessed with political word choices — especially misleading word choices that are chosen for their potential to mislead — I just wanted to call attention to how Scott described the employers who will cut their workers hours.

Employers are making the decision to move their employees from 40 hours a week to 30 hours to week to comply with the ACA.

Really? Is that what they are doing? I would say employers who do this are going to great lengths to subvert the clear intent of the ACA, which, in this matter, is to induce large employers to offer a health insurance benefit to their full-time employees.

I also note Sen. Scott’s fondness for the word “restore” to describe what his proposal would do to the 40-hour work week, which, to me at least, implies that the Obamacare law has abolished the 40-hour work week. I’m pretty sure it didn’t do that.

I’m probably making too big a deal about Sen. Scott’s bill and his word choices. But to be as fair as I could to him, without ignoring his questionable word choices, after I had established contact with his press person, I also wrote to her:

Lastly: Sen. Scott said that employers who reduce workers’ hours from 40 to less than 30 hours would be doing so to “comply” with the Obamacare law. And that his proposal would “restore” the 40-hour workweek. He gives the impression that the ACA eliminates the 40-hour workweek and that this is one of its purposes. Anyone who took that inference would be misled. Employers who wanted to “comply” with the law, would offer a health insurance benefit to full-time workers. Employers who cut an employee’s hours below 30 to avoid the mandate would not be so much “complying” with the law as evading its purpose.

In the piece I have in mind, I would call Sen. Scott’s word choices (particularly “comply” and “restore”) intentionally misleading. I don’t have a specific question about it, but I wanted to give him a chance to respond to the idea that he is consciously and intentionally creating a false impression.”

I’ve waited all week, and sent a couple of follow-ups. Not that Sen. Scott is under any obligation to respond to the impertinent enquiries of an ink-stained wretch in distant Minnesota, but I think it would have been really interesting if he had decided to engage. So far, still no reply

Both video of the Scott interview and a transcript are here.

P.S.: Judy Woodruff, whose work I generally admire and who conducted the interview, failed to press Scott any of these matters.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Jon Lord on 02/21/2014 - 08:31 am.

    Avoidance

    is what drives the GOP these days. Confuse the voter and they just might get some votes. I’ve listened to far too many media personalities avoid asking tough questions of the thin ice plans of the right. There’s a dishonesty there when avoidance is the answer. There is, as Eric points out, a slippery usage of wording used by Scott to describe what in essence isn’t true in the first place.

    The GOP have put up websites that appear to be for Democrats running for office when in actuality they are meant to trick liberals into donating to the conservatives. This sort of thing really describes what the conservative mind thinks is fair. That childish but dangerous “all’s fair in love and war” type thinking that should have been put away during their high school days. Tricking and misleading people is just what it is, unfair and dishonest.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/21/2014 - 10:39 am.

    Word choice

    “…In the piece I have in mind, I would call Sen. Scott’s word choices (particularly “comply” and “restore”) intentionally misleading.”

    Or, if you wanted to be straightforward, you could call them what they are: lies.

    Senator Scott presents us with three choices: One, he is too stupid to understand the ACA; Two, he is capable of understanding it, but has not bothered to actually become informed about the law; or Three, he is, in fact, informed about the law, and does, indeed, understand it. He’s simpy lying about the law and its effects.

    The Senator provides us with one more illustration of the perils of electing to government office people who are so dedicated to ideology or partisanship that they are immune to logic and fact. A citizen of that same makeup, though a different gender, recently purported to represent a Minnesota district in the House of Representatives. Fortunately, she has retired. Unfortunately, Senator Scott has not.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/21/2014 - 12:05 pm.

    Confusing at Best…..

    I agree that Sen. Scott’s words were confusing at best! Probably misleading…

    However, if the voters of S.C. like their Senator, they can keep their Senator.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/21/2014 - 01:33 pm.

      At least if

      we rewrote the Constitution so that Scott’s votes did not affect anyone who was not a resident of South Carolina.
      As it is, WE have to live with what he does.

  4. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 02/21/2014 - 03:17 pm.

    Thank you Eric!

    I too watched this very News Hour segment last week and was livid with the well-delivered but patently false implications of Scott’s comments.

    Thanks to Eric for pointing them out and for alerting Scott’s office that at least somebody out there is paying attention.

    Eric: One further step might be to bring Scott’s comments to the attention of the writers at The Colbert (Stephen has solid South Carolina ties) report or The Daily Show, as both shows seem to be the only mass media sources now for the analysis and deconstruction of B.S.

    Finally, remember folks, Scott was NOT ELECTED. He was appointed by S.C. Governor Nicki Haley to fill the unexpired term of that other S.C. bright light, former Senator Jim Demint.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/21/2014 - 08:11 pm.

    Compare

    I am just wondering how is this worse than “If you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance – period” thing…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/22/2014 - 09:36 am.

      It’s the difference between an oversimplification and a lie.

      Insurance companies have NEVER committed themselves to allowing people to keep their policies; they’ve always maintained the right to withdraw them at their convenience and financial advantage. So Obama was simply saying that the ACA would not make things worse.

      Scott, on the other hand (as Eric has documented), was making what can only be regarded as deliberate misstatements, including numbers pulled from tin air.

  6. Submitted by Jon Lord on 02/22/2014 - 07:36 am.

    That’s easy

    One admitted they were wrong, the other won’t.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/22/2014 - 08:42 am.

    Comply

    Eric, I think you have this exactly backwards. The ACA was written in part with the idea of pushing more businesses to provide insurance for their employees. If a business is unable to afford to do so, then to remain in compliance, they have to maneuver in some legal way to do so. The most obvious points to do so are with the hourly mark and the number of employees.
    Yes, this violates the intent of the law, but that’s because the law is trying to force something that it cannot do. It wants to force businesses to stand still and fork over more money. Some can, but for others it will break them. The ones that are most in danger will be the most aggressive in following the legal rules to avoid providing that insurance. I get that you don’t like it, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
    And frankly, the CBO response is much more misleading than anything Sen Scott said. We don’t know how much the overall number of part time jobs has changed in response to Obamacare, but we do know in specific cases that it has. We know that there are companies (and cities and colleges) that have cut hours so they can keep costs under control. They’ve told us this. The companies (and cities and colleges) have specifically told us this. Those hours and wages have been lost because of Obamacare.
    It’s not misleading to point that out, merely embarrassing for the laws supporters.

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