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President Barack Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act is front and center on the political stage -- and those on both sides are using big numbers to bolster their arguments.
So it was little surprise that the topic stirred emotion last month when Ed Schultz, a liberal who hosts a nightly cable talk show on MSNBC, brought "The Ed Show" to Columbus.
Schultz, who has made it clear he favors Obama’s plan, had a friendly panel that included Ohio’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Niles.
Asked during the live broadcast if the GOP could be expected to offer any help in the House, Ryan expressed pessimism, then pivoted to a talking point dear to Democrats.
"We have a $2 trillion to $3 trillion infrastructure deficit," Ryan said. "We’ve got work that needs to get done. We’ve got people that want to go to work. And they’re Ohioans."
The American Jobs Act does call for more infrastructure investment, which would mean more jobs for construction workers and suppliers. Given the high-charged political debate and occasional theater surrounding the plan, PolitiFact Ohio wanted to check Ryan’s numbers.
But first things first. What, exactly, is an infrastructure deficit?
Generally speaking, it’s a phrase used often by politicians and policy wonks to amplify how much money needs to be spent to bring the nation’s roads, bridges and waterways up to date. Think of it as the difference between how modern and sturdy the infrastructure should be and how modern and sturdy it actually is. "Need" and "should be," of course, can be matters of opinion.
With that background in mind, we contacted Ryan’s office, where a spokesman pointed us to a 2009 study from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Reston, Va., trade group graded U.S. infrastructure as poor and estimated it would cost $2.2. trillion over five years to modernize.
Ryan was hardly the first politician to notice or embrace the report. Our research found people on both sides of the aisle cite the ASCE study as evidence of the nation’s crumbling foundation. And we found no other estimate so detailed or so widely accepted and repeated as ASCE’s.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, tackled the issue at a July hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee: "We certainly need a new approach," she said. "The American Society of Civil Engineers' most recent estimate says that the U.S. needs to invest $2.2 trillion in order to keep pace with the national infrastructure needs."
A few weeks later, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts used the $2.2 trillion figure, though he did not note the original source, in an appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
The conservative Hoover Institution has cited the ASCE estimate while noting, without attribution, other estimates that "range from $1.6 trillion to $3.5 trillion." In September, the White House Press Office sent out a statement from Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who cited the ASCE figure in his enthusiastic endorsement of the American Jobs Act. And on a web site promoting Obama’s plan, the Democratic National Committee cites the group’s study.
But Washington can be an echo chamber, where erroneous numbers take on a life of their own while being repeated as fact. So PolitiFact Ohio checked in with ASCE to get a better handle on the group’s mission and method -- and to find out if pols were using the findings correctly.
ASCE, according to its web site, represents more than 140,000 civil engineers and, though it is nonpartisan, lobbies for policy that might create more design and construction jobs. To complete the 2009 report card, researchers reviewed about 20 independent studies to calculate a deficit estimate. Sources ranged from the Congressional Budget Office and other federal agencies to other trade organizations. Brian Pallasch, ASCE’s managing director for government relations, told PolitiFact Ohio that his group tried to use as much government data as possible.
Pallasch believes the group’s $2.2 trillion figure was conservative. But slapping the word "deficit" after it might not be the most accurate depiction of what the number means. ASCE was careful to describe the $2.2 trillion as a "need" over five years to plug the infrastructure gap. The study also estimated that about $1 trillion would be spent over that time to fulfill the need. That forecast included nearly $72 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus package, from 2009.
Ryan and other politicians tend not to subtract the $1 trillion when talking of the infrastructure deficit. Then again, Pallasch said, the numbers don’t account for flooding and other calamities that have weakened or destroyed infrastructure since the 2009 study was released. And ASCE has not yet tracked how much of that $1 trillion has been spent in the last two years.
The $2.2 trillion need "probably isn’t going down," Pallasch said.
Ryan spoke of an infrastructure "deficit." Like others before him, he did not cover all the nuance and did not account for likely changes since the year the ASCE study was released. Those who watched him on "The Ed Show" might have had a more complete picture of the problem had they known that nearly half of that $2.2 trillion need was expected to be met over five years.
Those pieces of information provide clarification. But given the fluidity of those numbers, and given the fact that he correctly pegged ASCE’s key number between $2 trillion and $3 trillion, Ryan wasn’t cherry-picking.
This precision gap is much narrower than the infrastructure gap.
As a result, we rate Ryan’s statement Mostly True.
MSNBC, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan on "The Ed Show," Sept. 15, 2011
The White House, The American Jobs Act, posted Sept. 12, 2011
American Society of Civil Engineers, 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure (PDF), released Jan. 28, 2009
U.S. Senate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s opening remarks to the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, delivered and posted online July 21, 2011
NBC, Transcript of Sen. John Kerry’s appearance on "Meet the Press," Aug. 7, 2011
The Hoover Institution Press at Stanford University, "Reacting to the Spending Spree: Policy Changes We Can Afford" (Chapter 8: "A Mad Scramble for Infrastructure Dollars" by James L. Huffman), published 2009
The White House Press Office, News Release: "Sen. Tom Harkin Backs American Jobs Act," posted Sept. 9, 2011
Democratic National Committee/American Jobs Act website, "Putting Workers Back on the Job," posted September 2011
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