Washington Post political reporter John Wagner (6/19/16) reported on Bernie Sanders’ continuing Secret Service detail, throwing in a too-clever-by-half talking point that has since gone viral. In “An Expensive Reminder That Sanders Still Hasn’t Dropped Out: His Secret Service Detail,” Wagner used an eight-year-old stat to provide urgency to his general thesis that Sanders’ quixotic campaign is draining us, the good American “taxpayer,” of resources:
Such round-the-clock protection can cost taxpayers more than $38,000 a day.
Over the next 48 hours, this tidbit quickly spread across several outlets, providing a good clickbait-friendly fable of Sanders’ egoism run expensively amok:
- Taxpayers Are Still Paying for Bernie Sanders’ Secret Service Detail – (CBS News, 6/20/16)
- Sanders’ Secret Service Detail Costs Taxpayers $38,000 Every Day He Continues His Campaign (Jezebel, 6/20/16)
- Report: Sanders’ Secret Service Bill More Than $38,000 a Day (The Hill, 6/19/16)
- Sanders’ Refusal to End Campaign Costs Taxpayers $38,000 a Day (Slate, 6/19/16)
- Bernie Sanders’ Continuous Campaigning Is Costing Taxpayers $38,000 a Day (AOL.com, 6/20/16)
The cynicism of the talking point reached a depressing low with this tweet from Clinton surrogate and actress Debra Messing:
Wudnt it be amazing if Sanders asked that the $38,000 a day was donated to Orlando families? https://t.co/dGrq4BpeQV
— Debra Messing (@DebraMessing) June 19, 2016
How does Messing propose that the Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security, given Sanders’ authorization to stop protecting him, turn the resulting savings into cash for the purposes of “donating to Orlando families”? She, of course, won’t be proposing any such process, because this talking point is based on shallow moralizing, not on an honest assessment of the costs of Sanders’ continuing his campaign. Even without the exploitation of the Orlando attack, it’s a talking point that doesn’t make any sense.
The number the Post reported was frequently used by then–Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan in 2008. From CBS News (4/4/08):
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The Secret Service is spending about $38,000 per candidate per day, Sullivan said, and at the height of campaign season later this year expects to spend $44,000 per candidate each day. The agency has protected candidates at more than 1,000 campaign venues and has put 550,000 people through magnetometers and metal detectors, he said.
Notice Sullivan isn’t saying the Secret Service is spending $38,000 per candidate in addition to what they would spend anyway. He’s only saying it’s what they spent per candidate. This, one can assume, includes fixed costs, like labor and infrastructure. Clearly, protecting Sanders also has other costs above fixed ones—like overtime, per diems, travel—but without any context or knowledge of what the $38,000 is in reference to, it’s a totally useless number. Wagner is taking a one-off McStat without explaining how it was arrived at, and using it to mean something much more specific and consequential.
The sleight-of-hand comes from taking a specific budget item and assuming that if it wasn’t there, the costs associated with it would disappear rather than be displaced. Wagner does this by saying “protection can cost taxpayers more than $38,000 a day,” which gives the reader the impression that if Sanders dropped out, “taxpayers” would magically get back $38,000.
Does anyone think the Secret Service is going to fire the exact number of agents assigned to Sanders the day he drops out? Does anyone think the additional vehicles and equipment needed will quickly be pawned off and the money transferred over to Johnny Taxpayer? Does anyone repeating this talking point think that if the Sanders campaign had ended one week ago the US federal government would somehow be $166,000 richer?
Of course not, because anyone with a passing understanding of how federal budgets work knows that budgets are based on approximates, not line items picked on an as-needed basis. So, even if the claim is true as such—even if the $38,000 is in reference to monies needed beyond the Secret Service’s normal course of operation—it still doesn’t make any sense. Until the Secret Services asks Congress for additional funds, there is no money being added or taken from their actual budget, and thus no money being added or taken away from “the taxpayer.”
The framing ignores this and uses a Grover Norquist–like gimmick of isolating one-off costs as something being taken away from the “taxpayer”—a term with considerable right-wing baggage and whose uniform adoption here by journalists belies their ostensibly neutral motives.
When FAIR reached out to the Secret Service for comment on the $38,000 figure, a spokesperson told us, just as they told the Post, that they “do not comment on the details of protection.”
This messaging trick has been used against Clinton, too, with stories such as “Investigating Hillary Clinton’s Emails Costs As Much As $13,000 A Day” (Vocativ, 3/29/16). In this case as well, a price tag is presented as though the FBI agents working her case would otherwise be fired if they weren’t kept busy with the email probe. But the FBI, like the Secret Service, doesn’t have 100 percent labor liquidity, rendering these type of cartoon breakdowns at best misleading and at worst demagogic.