FactChecking Sen. Kamala Harris

By FactCheck.org

Posted on August 11, 2020

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As a former 2020 presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris — now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate — was on our fact-checking radar this election cycle. Here’s a rundown of the claims we addressed.

No ‘Middle-Class Tax Hike’

This claim made our list of the 2019 whoppers of the year: In a tweet, Harris cited preliminary IRS tax refund data to criticize the Republican tax law as “a middle-class tax hike.” But that’s not what the data showed.

A day after the Washington Post reported in February 2019 that the average tax refund check was down $170 for 2019 compared with 2018, based on preliminary IRS data, Harris used that figure, and added: “Let’s call the President’s tax cut what it is: a middle-class tax hike to line the pockets of already wealthy corporations and the 1%.”

But, as Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, told us: “Refunds are not the same as taxes that you owe. Refunds tell you nothing about whether a person’s tax liability has changed.” In fact, the vast majority of “middle-class” taxpayers were expected to get a tax cut in 2018 under the new law, he said.

Special Prosecutor Law Unnecessary

In a CNN town hall on Jan. 28, 2019, host Jake Tapper asked Harris about “criticism we’re hearing of you from the left” during her time as the state attorney general. He asked why as attorney general she opposed state “legislation that would have required your office to investigate fatal shootings involving police officers.” 

Harris misleadingly claimed she “did not oppose” the 2015 bill. “I had a process when I was attorney general of not weighing in on bills and initiatives, because as attorney general, I had a responsibility for writing the title and summary,” she told Tapper. In fact, she said such a law would not be “good public policy.”

As we wrote, Harris at the time did not take an official position on the bill. But she made clear that “she does not support the idea of taking prosecutorial discretion away from locally elected district attorneys,” the Capitol Weekly wrote in a May 18, 2015, story, citing an interview she had with the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2014.

Capitol Weekly, May 18, 2015: [Harris] has said the current process of investigating civilian deaths by local law enforcement is effective enough. She also has said that the local district attorneys should have the authority to investigate officer-involved shootings, in part because they are elected by — and held accountable to — local constituents.

“I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict,” Harris said in an interview with The Chronicle back in December. “Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them.”

During that interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris said, “I don’t think it would be good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys.”

Spinning Statewide Truancy Law

In a May 12, 2019, interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Harris acknowledged that a 2010 state truancy law she sponsored resulted in some parents being jailed. But she misleadingly claimed that jailing parents was an “unintended consequence” of the state law.

In fact, the law added Section 270.1 to the California Penal Code to allow prosecutors to fine and/or jail a parent “who has failed to reasonably supervise and encourage the pupil’s school attendance.” Under the law, which took effect in 2011, a parent could face up to a year in jail and $2,000 fine. 

As the San Francisco District Attorney, Harris sponsored a state Senate bill — SB 1317 — that was introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno, who is also from San Francisco. The state bill was modeled on her truancy initiative in San Francisco. She was San Francisco District Attorney from 2004 to 2011.

When Tapper asked about parents being jailed under the law, Harris said: “What ended up happening is, by changing the education code, it also changed — it, by reference then, was in the penal code. And then that was an unintended consequence.”

The possibility of jailing parents was not an “unintended consequence,” and the bill did not just change the education code. It also created a new section to the California Penal Code, as we have already noted.

Harris must have been aware of the new penalties, because she referenced them after taking the oath of office as the California attorney general in January 2011. In her inaugural address, Harris said that she was “putting parents on notice” that they could face “the full force and consequences of the law” if their kids miss too many days of school.

Paychecks

In launching her presidential campaign in California in January 2019, Harris said that “paychecks aren’t keeping up” with the cost of living. But as we reported, Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed inflation-adjusted weekly earnings had gone up in the previous year and since President Donald Trump took office.

According to BLS, real (meaning, inflation-adjusted) average weekly earnings for rank-and-file production and nonsupervisory workers, at the time, had gone up 2.5% since Trump took office. Those earnings rose 4.7% during Barack Obama’s last four years as president.

The average real weekly earnings of all private-sector workers had increased by 2.4% during Trump’s tenure; they went up 3.9% in Obama’s last four years.

So, paychecks, on average, had been keeping up with rising inflation.

Military Pay

Back in March 2019, Harris was one of several Democrats who claimed Trump was “raiding money from [military] pensions” to fund construction of his promised border wall. But as we wrote, the basis for their claims — a news story — said the Pentagon could use “leftover” funds in those accounts due to lower-than-expected recruits and fewer early retirements.

An Associated Press story said the Army missed a recruiting goal by 6,500 enlistees, and there were fewer take-ups of an early retirement incentive. The Pentagon wanted to move $1 billion from those funds to provide some of the money for the wall under Trump’s national emergency declaration.

Todd Harrison, director for defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told us it was not true that what the Pentagon had proposed would cut military pay or pensions. “It’s leftover money,” Harrison said. “The Army is going to have leftover money in its personnel account because it didn’t meet its recruiting goals.”

As for the pension money, Harrison said the Defense Department sets aside money every year to contribute to pension accounts. But when there are fewer service members than expected, because the Army didn’t meet its goal, the department doesn’t need to contribute as much to pension funds. “It absolutely would not affect anyone’s current pension,” he said. “When money gets paid out of the pension fund, it’s set by a formula in law.” That money has to be paid.

Biden vs. Harris on Release of ‘Prisoners’

Biden and Harris butted heads several times during early Democratic primary debates. One such confrontation occurred during the second of two Democratic debates in July 2019 in Detroit when Biden attacked Harris’ past record in California, describing police department abuse that occurred under her watch that led to the release of 1,000 “prisoners.” Biden’s account — which Harris said was “simply not true” — was broadly accurate, though he got a few important details wrong.

Here’s how Biden related things during the debate:

Biden, July 31, 2019: Secondly, she also was in a situation where she had a police department when she was there that in fact was abusing people’s rights. And the fact was that she in fact was told by her own people that her own staff that she should do something about and disclose to defense attorneys like me that you in fact have been — the police officer did something that did not give you information [that would exculpate] your — your client. She didn’t do that. She never did it. And so what happened.

Along came a federal judge and said enough, enough. And he freed 1,000 of these people. If you doubt me, Google 1,000 prisoners freed, Kamala Harris.

As we wrote in our coverage of the debate, Biden was referring to events when Harris was district attorney of San Francisco. In June 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2005, against the advice of her staff, Harris did not institute a so-called “Brady policy” that would have required prosecutors to inform defendants of any past misconduct by law enforcement. In 2010, a crime lab tech was found to be stealing drug evidence from the lab, which led to a scandal in which 1,000 drug cases were dismissed.

A Superior Court judge reprimanded Harris, saying in a court order that the “District Attorney failed to disclose information that clearly should have been disclosed.” After the scandal, Harris did institute a Brady policy.

Biden’s version of events mostly hewed to what happened. But he erred in saying Harris never implemented a Brady policy and when referencing 1,000 “prisoners” being freed, when that was the number of cases that were dropped.

Workers with Multiple Jobs

In a June 2019 Democratic debate, Harris, pushing back against Trump’s claims that the economy was doing great, said, “Well yeah, people in America are working — they’re working two and three jobs.” 

But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of American workers who held multiple jobs at the time (5%) was virtually unchanged from the percentage (4.9%) when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.

As of February 2020 — prior to the declaration of the coronavirus pandemic in March — 5.1% of employed individuals held multiple jobs.

Wrong on Autoworker Jobs

In an August 2019 CNN interview, Harris wrongly claimed that “as many as 300,000 autoworkers may be out of a job before the end of the year.” That was a high-end estimate for total job losses — not solely among autoworkers — due to the potential impact of the Trump administration’s trade policies, including actions not yet taken.

Harris was referring to a study by the Center for Automotive Research on the potential impact of Trump’s automotive trade policies. But the CAR study said as many as 366,900 total jobs “economy-wide” would be lost in its “worst-case scenario.”

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor & economics at CAR, told us in an email: “300,000 auto workers out of a job before the end of the year is NOT what CAR is projecting,” confirming that the figure was an estimate for “job loss across the economy” from the impact of several proposed and implemented trade policies on the auto industry.

Pay Gap

In both the November and July 2019 debates, Harris wrongly suggested that figures representing the pay gap between full-time, year-round male and female workers were for men and women doing “equal work.”

Since 1963, when we passed the Equal Pay Act, we have been talking about the fact women are not paid equally for equal work. Fast forward to the year of our lord 2019, and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, black women 61 cents, Native American woman 58 cents, Latinas 53 cents,” Harris said in round two of the July debates. 

Harris appeared to be citing figures the National Partnership for Women & Families published in May 2019. But the statistics are not representative of men and women doing the same work.

“Nationally, the median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is $45,097 while the median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $55,291,” the NPWF fact sheet says.

And for women of color, the comparison wasn’t to all men, but to non-Hispanic white males working full-time, year-round.

An April 2019 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research analyzed the gap in median weekly earnings for male and female full-time workers doing the same job. It concluded that “[w]omen’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations,” but the gaps varied widely depending on the occupation.

False Amazon/Oxygen Claim

After news of a significant increase in the number of wildfires in the Amazon rainforest over the previous year, Harris repeated a popular, but false, factoid. “The Amazon creates over 20% of the world’s oxygen,” she said in an August 2019 tweet.

Scientists estimate the percentage is closer to 6 to 9%, and the Amazon ultimately consumes nearly all of that oxygen itself.

Harris was hardly alone in using this talking point, which we found had been spread by journalists, politicians and others.

Gordon Bonan, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, told us he’s been hearing the 20% factoid for at least a decade. It’s so pervasive, he’s even overheard it being said to schoolkids on tours at his workplace.

“People want to talk about the impact of deforestation,” he said. “Somehow they’ve latched on to this idea that forests create oxygen. That’s not what deforestation is doing.”

The Amazon isn’t critical because it makes oxygen for humans to breathe — that was largely done by phytoplankton in the sea over millions of years. Instead, it’s because of the area’s rich biodiversity, its vast stores of carbon and the way the forest influences the local and global climate.

Corporate Tax Cut Exaggeration

In her campaign announcement in Oakland last year, Harris exaggerated when she claimed that the Trump administration had given “a trillion dollars to the biggest corporations in this country,” a reference to the 10-year impact of the corporate tax rate reduction in the 2017 tax law. She didn’t account for tax increases that were part of that law.

According to a 2017 analysis by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act provided a tax reduction over 10 years of a net $653.8 billion for businesses.

As we wrote at the time, Harris’ campaign confirmed to us that she was referring only to the law’s reduction of the top corporate tax rate, from 35% to 21%, which JCT estimates will reduce corporate taxes by $1.35 trillion over a decade. But other provisions in the law that raised business taxes, such as changes in allowable deductions for net operating losses and interest, caused the net benefit for corporations to be hundreds of billions lower than that.

Military Operations in South Korea

In the November Democratic presidential primary debate, Harris accused President Trump of “shutting down the [military] operations with South Korea for the last year and a half.” In fact, those operations were scaled back significantly, but not eliminated.

It’s true that on June 12, 2018, Trump said he would stop “provocative” military exercises with South Korea. But in November 2018, about 500 U.S. and South Korean Marines took part in a joint drill. And in July 2019, the two countries said regular springtime drills would continue.

The new drills are reported to be mainly “computer simulated” training, but Harris was wrong to say that operations had shut down entirely.

Michael Brown’s Death

On Aug. 9, 2019, the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Harris tweeted: “Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America. His tragic death sparked a desperately needed conversation and a nationwide movement.” 

But the Department of Justice under then-President Obama found that Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in “self-defense,” not murdered.

The shots officer Darren Wilson fired “were in self-defense and thus were not objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable seizures and use of force, the 86-page Justice Department report said. It concluded that Wilson’s “actions do not constitute prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242, which prohibits uses of deadly force that are ‘objectively unreasonable,’ as defined by the United States Supreme Court.”

— by Lori Robertson, Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore and Rem Rieder

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