The Source Documents Behind the News (A librarian reads the news...)

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Presidents Running for a Second Term: The source documents behind the news

This was actually the first set of primary sources that I pulled together, but it was before I realized that I should post these things here on my blog rather than in comments on other people’s Facebook posts. Anyway, you may have forgotten all about this uproar by now, but…

In late January there was a popular tweet storm (several of which have since been deleted) that lamented the constrictions that Trump’s perpetual candidacy puts on non-profits. It made two assertions: 1) filing for re-election on inauguration day is not normal, and 2) this would restrict non-profit speech about the President, since they are prohibited from “campaigning.”

Is this normal?

No. President Trump filed a “statement of candidacy” (Form 2) for the election in 2020 on the afternoon of his inauguration day, 1/20/2017. The letter does say that he is not formally announcing candidacy as of yet, but this opens the door for election fundraising.

Previous 2-term presidents that I could find files for have waited until just over one year before the election to file Form 2: Barack Obama filed Form 2 on 4/4/2011, George W Bush filed Form 2 on 5/16/2003, Bill Clinton filed Form 2 on 4/14/1995, and Ronald Reagan filed Form 2 on 10/17/1983.

Just as an aside, I did find an 2015 FEC “statement of candidacy” for Ronal Reagan’s Ghost, so there’s that.

Would this muzzle non-profits?

Probably not. While there is a Restriction on “Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations,” tax lawyers have weighed in and said that this only restricts what non-profits can say specifically about Trump’s candidacy in 2020. Snopes (liberal bastion though it may be) quotes the opinions of tax lawyers on this topic for us.

Presidential security and travel costs: the source documents behind the news

The Primary Source Crusader (my own mashup of images)

How much does it cost to have Melania and Barron Trump live in New York rather than at the White House? How much do the President’s weekend trips to Florida cost?

Sadly, this is one of those questions that cannot be fully answered using officially published information, not least because the details of the budget for protecting the President and First Family are classified (as pointed out by Politico in paragraph 7). Not only that, but there are lots of judgements to make about what costs to include in these estimates since multiple parts of multiple departments are involved in multiple ways. This is one issue where we’ll probably have to wait for next year’s budgets and reports come out before we have a very clear picture of a) what the actual costs are, and b) how they compare to previous administrations.

Currently, news sources are relying on a combination of interviews with sources in the know and estimates based on past budgets and reports. Even Congress and the Government Accountability Office rely on commissioned reports that, themselves, rely on information that doesn’t seem to be publicly available. So with all of my usual caveats for this series* plus all the above as additional caveats, here are some of the past budgets and reports that I’ve been able to dig up…

The most recent estimates of domestic presidential travel are found in an October 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office. (I believe this is the report mentioned in the recent Washington Post article estimating costs of current presidential travel.) If this report, which focuses on a single trip, offers anything like an average estimate of costs per day for presidential travel, over and above typical security costs, we’re looking at about $901,000 per day when looking at only the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense (not local police departments or other local services).

Meanwhile, local police departments also contribute to protection. Since no official numbers seem to be available for key numbers floating around on this topic, here are some that get quoted often, and where they come from. Quite a few news outlets are quoting the ballpark estimates of about $500,000 per day (provided by several anonymous sources to CBS in NYC and then quoted by other news outlets) as the local police force costs when all members of the First Family are in town for a day — it costs less President is not there with the rest of  the First Family. Politico took a different tack, using NYPD overtime costs to estimate local costs for Obama visits to New York City. They reported this at somewhere around $8000 per hour during Obama’s recent 4- and 6-hour visits to New York City (paragraph 13). They also acknowledge that this is a blunt instrument when estimating costs on this issue since it only includes overtime and not straight salaries or infrastructure.

Back to government reports, a 2012 Congressional Research report on presidential travel talks mostly about international travel costs, but it mentions one trip to Hawaii in 1990, saying that it cost the Air Force “$1 million to $1.5 million.” (I haven’t yet been able to put my hands on the full text of that report, H. Rept. 102-985 from October 1992, and without that it’s unclear how long that Hawaii trip was or whether the 2012 report is using 1990 or 2012 dollars, but here’s an inflation calculator to play with if you like.) Without further information, this isn’t a very useful number.

Another way to build context for current reports on presidential travel is to look at the Department of Homeland Security’s Budget Justification Book for FY2017, volume 3 (dealing with the Secret Service). Useful information in this 1,189-page volume includes:

  • Since the Secret Service protects presidential candidates in addition to the President, Vice President, First and Second Families, and visiting dignitaries, FY2016 was an expensive year costing $753,012,000 for protections operations and support. $100,853,000 was for the presidential campaign alone (page 7 of the section on Operations and Support).
  • They have requested $734,547,000 for FY2017 (page 1 of the section on Operations and Support).
  • Numbers of trips Obama went on per year, durations not listed (page 14 of the section on Operations and Support):

If anyone else has found more or better primary sources for this, please let me know!

* Two caveats: 1) Not all knowable things are knowable using official, original published sources, but that’s the limit I’ve set for myself even when that’s inconvenient or frustrating, and 2) I am a librarian trained in tracking down and evaluating sources — nothing more or less than that. I’m doing my best to find the most authoritative version of the primary sources behind the news, and I welcome suggestions and corrections. If you or someone you know would like to add to my collection of primary sources, please let me know.

Journalism, News Media, and Sources: praise and condemnation for 21st century practices

Journalist with Pipe

Schjelderup, C.A.D. “Journalist with Pipe.” Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re constantly wondering if you can believe anything you hear or read these days, constantly worried that you’ll be taken in by some tidbit of fake news (however we’re defining that at the moment), and overwhelmed and exhausted by the prospect of sorting out the real information from the bias, you are not alone. And I would argue that the history and rhetorical traditions of the mainstream media are partly to blame. There’s a lot that’s very, very good about good journalistic practices, but they could do better, and they could do it relatively easily in the age of online news.

First, what are they doing right? Becoming a journalist means becoming trained in ethical standards and methods fact-checking that involve getting independent corroboration from multiple sources before publishing. Another thing that is more invisible but probably more powerful is the publication process itself, which requires that stories get submitted for review by fact-checkers and editors prior to publication. There are multiple points built into the process for people to decide not to publish a story until it has more reliable sources, more or better corroborating sources, etc. This doesn’t mean that sources are unbiased, but it should at least mean that they aren’t deliberately publishing falsehood. And of course, mistakes can happen in journalism just as in the peer reviewed scholarly publishing world, but the system has been set up over journalism’s long history to minimize those chances, there are consequences for messing with the system, and there are multiple levels of staff to do all the work that the system requires.

But the long social and rhetorical history of the news can muddy the waters, too. Printing newspapers back in the day meant strict character and word limits and painstaking type-setting, none of which were conducive to any desire to add full citations to articles like we’re used to in academia. And besides, they were The News — sourced and fact-checked and vetted prior to printing — so readers shouldn’t need full cumbersome citations in order to believe what was being presented.

The problem is that at least for the online version of the news, linking to the study or bill or report when you mention it is trivial. If the New York Times can have an animated gif as its main image for a front page story of the online edition, they can certainly hyperlink these references in the online edition as well. Just as an example I spent over an hour trying to track down “an October government report analyzing White House travel” referenced in a Washington Post article yesterday (and I think I found it, but good grief do you know how many reports from how many parts of “the government” were presented or published in October, and in how many places the different reports could be published??). In fact, my whole recent series of posts has resulted from me asking the very basic question “what publication are they referencing in that article?” or “where did they get that number?” and then essentially providing the footnotes for the news stories I read.

Not only would links or citations help readers consume the news more critically just in general, but they would also help us distinguish between solid journalism and those publications that really are fake news in the original sense of the term. I think it’s long past time for newspapers to do themselves and their readers the courtesy of a citation when they’re referring to published documents.

Healthcare Spending: The source documents behind the news

The Primary Source Crusader (my own mashup of images)

Yesterday the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published their projections for National Health Expenditure, covering 2016-2025. Some numbers are floating around the news and social media, and these are the numbers that your lawmakers will (probably) be looking at as they propose healthcare spending legislation. If you’d like to see how accurate those numbers are, here is the report and the data tables for these projections.

Curious about how these projections stack up compared to the years since 1960? Have no fear, the CMS has you covered, summaries and data tables are available.

The projection tables include things like projected population, projected GDP, projected Medicare/Medicaid costs, and even details like projected costs for hospitalization vs medications, so the numbers are sliceable, diceable, and comparable in various ways.

Just to illustrate how you might build context around these numbers, here’s one way of looking at the table laying out total health expenditures (not just Medicare/Medicaid) from 1960-2015 (click to enlarge):

Table 1: National Health Expenditures; Aggregate and Per Capita Amounts, Annual Percent Change and Percent Distribution: Selected Calendar Years 1960-2015. Available from NHE Tables at Historical National Health Expenditure Data. (My annotations)

And then there’s a similar chart for Medicare and Medicaid spending over the same time periods (click to enlarge):

Table 3: National Health Expenditures; Levels and Annual Percent Change, by Source of Funds: Selected Calendar Years 1960-2015. Available from the NHE Tables at Historical National Health Expenditure Data. (My annotations)

And finally, here’s a similar chart for people’s Out-of-Pocket spending over the same time period (click to enlarge):

Table 3: National Health Expenditures; Levels and Annual Percent Change, by Source of Funds: Selected Calendar Years 1960-2015. Available from the NHE Tables at Historical National Health Expenditure Data. (My annotations)