PolitiFact, WaPo Give Ocasio-Cortez False Rating for Attempt to Justify Medicare for All Spending

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez / Getty Images
December 4, 2018

Fact checkers at PolitiFact and the Washington Post deemed a claim from newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about Pentagon accounting errors worthy of a "False" rating and of "Four Pinocchios" respectively.

Ocasio-Cortez, in a tweet on Sunday, compared waste in Pentagon spending to the projected cost of Medicare for All in an attempt to explain how the United States could pay for single-payer health care. The Mercatus Center found Medicare for All as envisioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) could cost $32 trillion over 10 years.

"$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions ‘could not be traced, documented, or explained.’ $21T in Pentagon accounting errors. Medicare for All costs ~$32T. That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon. And that’s before our premiums," she tweeted.

Ocasio-Cortez appeared to base her claim on an article about Pentagon accounting problems in The Nation. PolitiFact determined she misread the piece:

The Nov. 27 Nation article addressed a historical pattern of accounting discrepancies at the Pentagon.

The portion that Ocasio-Cortez highlighted in her tweet referenced research by Mark Skidmore, a professor of economics at Michigan State University. Citing Skidmore’s research, the story said "in all, at least a mind-boggling $21 trillion of Pentagon financial transactions between 1998 and 2015 could not be traced, documented, or explained."

The problem with what Ocasio-Cortez said: The $21 trillion figure refers to a cumulative amount of individual transactions — including some double- and triple-counting — not a single pot of money that was misspent.

PolitiFact noted that Pentagon spending between 1998 and 2015 was $8.5 trillion, well below the $21 trillion number that Ocasio-Cortez includes in her tweet. In fact, it is likely the United States has not spent $21 trillion on national security spending through the country's entire history.

Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood responded to Ocasio-Cortez's claim, saying, "DoD hasn’t received $21 trillion in (nominal) appropriated funding across the entirety of American history," the Post reported in its fact check.

"Money Congress appropriates for DoD stays at the Department of the Treasury until they make a payment on behalf of DoD," he said. "Any funds that remain unspent at the end of the period of availability will remain at the Department of the Treasury and are no longer available to DoD at that point."

PolitiFact noted how Ocasio-Cortez obtained the $21 trillion figure and why it's grossly off-base.

"The $21 trillion figure tallies up internal financial transfers that would not pass muster in an audit; the same dollar can be included in multiple transactions, which is why Ocasio-Cortez’s figure exceeds all Pentagon spending," the fact checker wrote.

"She's wrong," said David Lindorff, author of the article in The Nation, when asked about Ocasio-Cortez's claim.

"We rate the statement False," PolitiFact concluded.

Ocasio-Cortez attempted to clarify her intent after fact checkers began questioning her original tweet, which has now been retweeted more the 25,000 times.

"The point, I think, was more about how we care so little about the ‘how do you pay for it’ when we are talking about war and military spending," her spokesman wrote in an email. "It’s only when we are talking about investing in the physical and economic well-being of our citizenry that we become concerned with the price tags."

"That’s not the argument coming through in her original tweet," the Post noted.

Ocasio-Cortez is not the first Twitter user to mangle information from a news report. But it’s unconvincing to try to pass this off as a rhetorical point being misread. She cited the $21 trillion figure and said "66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon."

That’s a direct comparison. It’s badly flawed. The same article she referenced on Twitter would have set her straight. The tweet is still up, probably causing confusion. So we will award Four Pinocchios to Ocasio-Cortez.

"Swing and a miss," the Post determined.