Politics no excuse for misleading on subsidies

American politics has a long and colorful history of hyperbole and exaggeration. Even still, the fact we are entering the thick of another campaign season shouldn’t give license to politicians to stretch the bounds of truth too far.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see campaign advertising from the president of the United States single out a leading American company with a claim that doesn’t hold water.

At issue is President Obama’s most recent campaign ad, which claims he will “eliminate oil subsidies” and takes express aim at ExxonMobil. That spot follows on a Rose Garden event in March where the president pointedly mentioned ExxonMobil while criticizing the oil and gas industry for taking “billions a year in taxpayer subsidies.”

It is bad enough that these attacks unfairly target one company. The real problem, though, is that the charge on which they’re based isn’t true, and no amount of repeating it can change that.

In late June the Washington Post awarded the Obama campaign “Four Pinocchios” for an ad criticizing Mitt Romney for allegedly outsourcing jobs while running Bain Capital. One can be excused for thinking the president’s advisers would be extra careful in subsequent ads to make sure their claims could be backed up. Unfortunately that’s not the case when it comes to the oil and gas industry.

I’ve used this space before to set the record straight on claims of industry subsidies. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to cover this ground again.

The simple fact is that neither ExxonMobil nor the U.S. oil and gas industry as a whole receives subsidies.

What the president refers to as subsidies for companies like ExxonMobil are actually legitimate tax provisions that apply to many organizations and many industries across the board.

The best example of so-called industry subsidies – and the one that critics usually cite first – is the manufacturing income deduction under section 199 of the tax code.

This is no subsidy at all; it’s a deduction available to virtually every American manufacturer – whether you refine oil into gasoline or make cars or toasters or microprocessors or even if you produce Hollywood movies. In fact, the scope of this deduction is actually less for oil and gas producers than for other manufacturers.

That alone gives lie to the notion it is a special benefit extended to the oil and gas industry by politically connected friends in Washington. And to entirely bar the largest oil companies from taking advantage of the 199 deduction available to other manufacturers amounts to nakedly punitive political punishment.

And the other supposed subsidies? A recent Wall Street Journal editorial noted they are merely “deductions from taxes that cover the cost of doing business and earning income to tax in the first place.” And like the 199 deduction, most are available to other manufacturers in other industries.

The fact is, U.S. oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil are actually making a significant economic contribution at a time when the country is still recovering from the ill effects of a multi-year recession.

Consider that oil and gas companies created 9 percent of new U.S. jobs in 2011. Or that for every new job directly related to oil and gas extraction, three more were created in industries that supply energy companies with goods and services. On top of that, the industry pays the federal government approximately $86 million a day – or about $31 billion a year – in rents, royalties, bonuses and corporate taxes.

The overall contribution of the U.S. energy industry has been one of the few economic bright spots over the last four years, and arguably has prevented a recession from developing into a depression.

It also goes a long way to explaining why the Progressive Policy Institute recently honored ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies as “Investment Heroes” for betting on America’s future with significant capital investment.

It’s no surprise that candidates play politics with hard-hitting campaign advertising during an election season. But an ad that singles out one company by name for unfair and misleading attack is a poor contribution to America’s great political tradition.