FACT CHECK: GOP debaters mix up facts in Mesa

Twentieth Republican presidential debate includes many falsehoods

By

 Updated:

Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich share the stage during a Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Ariz.

Jae C. Hong/AP

The four remaining GOP presidential candidates met in Mesa, Ariz., for another debate, and mauled a few facts. Rick Santorum claimed earmarks were done in an “open” process during his time in Congress. Mitt Romney said dispensing morning-after pills to rape victims was “entirely voluntary” for Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich kept on claiming he balanced federal budgets that Congress approved after he resigned.

The debate was carried live by CNN on Feb. 22, and this time the candidates were seated.

Santorum’s Earmarks

Santorum made one false and one exaggerated statement when defending his earmarks — which are pet projects added to the annual spending bills at the request of members of Congress:

  • Santorum said that when he was in Congress the members would “publicly request” earmarks in an “open process.” That’s not true. The rules requiring public disclosure did not pass until 2007 — after Santorum left office.
  • He also called Rep. Ron Paul “one of the most prolific earmarkers in Congress today.” Paul does request earmarks, but he’s not close to being one of the most prolific in bringing home the bacon.

Romney attacked Santorum for securing earmarks for Pennsylvania, when Santorum was a member of Congress. This has been a recurring theme raised by Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who never served in Congress. In his defense, Santorum insisted that the process for requesting earmarks was transparent.

Santorum: "It’s really interesting, governor, because the process you just described of an open process where members of Congress put forth their suggestions on how to spend money, have them voted on individually, is exactly how the process worked. So what you just suggested as to how earmarks should work in the future is exactly how they worked in the past. …

You’re entitled to your opinions, Mitt. You’re not entitled to – "

Romney: "I’ve heard that line before. I’ve heard that before, yes."

Santorum: " — misrepresent the facts, and you’re misrepresenting the facts. You don’t know what you’re talking about. What happened in the earmark process — what happens in the earmark process was that members of Congress would ask, formally, publicly request these things, put them on paper, and have them allocated, and have them voted on a committee, have them voted on, on the floor of the Senate."

Santorum, however, is the one misrepresenting the facts. Members of Congress did not have to publicly disclose their earmarks when he was in Congress. The requests were privately submitted to the relevant appropriations committees. Even earmarks that were inserted into spending bills did not carry the sponsors’ names. Public disclosure was left up to the individual members, many of whom took credit for projects in their districts or states.

That lack of transparency changed in 2007, when the House and Senate passed legislation requiring the disclosure of earmarks. Santorum was defeated in his bid to win reelection to the Senate in 2006.

In 2007, the Senate disclosed the sponsors of earmarks that were included in spending bills. The rules were later expanded, and now senators must disclose their earmark requests, too. They must post on their government websites “a description of the items proposed — including their purpose, location, the recipient of the funds, and an explanation of why the spending is in the interest of the taxpayers.” Senators also must certify that they or their immediate family members have no financial interest in the earmarks.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks spending on earmarks, told us in an email: “Lawmakers didn’t ‘publicly request’ earmarks when Sen. Santorum was in office (unless they wanted to — that would be virtually none that I can remember.)”

In defending himself on earmarks, Santorum also said as an aside that Rep. Ron Paul is “one of the most prolific earmarkers in the Congress today.” But that’s an exaggeration.

Using earmark data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for Public Integrity did an analysis of fiscal year 2010 earmark requests. Paul sought 15 earmarks for a total of $17 millionthat year, ranking him 242 out of 435 House members. He was successful in obtaining 14 of those earmarks at a cost of $11.1 million, placing him 299 on the list of top earmarkers, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. That year Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, requested 67 earmarks at a cost of $154 million — the most of any member. She was one of nine House members who requested more than $100 million, and she secured 63 of her requests for $116.6 million, placing her third on the list of top recipients. Now that’s prolific.

Paul ranked higher in the previous two years. He was 33rd on the list in fiscal year 2009 with 23 earmark requests at a cost of $80.7 million, and he was 163rd in fiscal year 2008 with eight earmark requests that cost $27 million. But the totals still pale compared with the most prolific earmarkers. In fiscal year 2009, when Paul requested $80.7 million, there were 16 House members who requested more than $100 million, including top earmarker Rep. David Loebsack, D-Ill., who sponsored 29 earmarks at a whopping $217 million.

“Ron Paul requested a lot of earmarks,” Ellis said. “He always defended it by saying he thought it was his constituents’ money and they should have as much of it back as possible. However he was never prolific in getting them. Mostly because he wasn’t on the appropriations committee where the money was being allotted.”

Santorum Spins What The Standard Said

Santorum misrepresented what a conservative magazine said about his record for conservatism on taxing and spending when he was a U.S. senator:

Santorum: "The Weekly Standard just did a review, looking at the National Taxpayers Union, I think, Citizens Against Government Waste, and they measured me up against the other 50 senators who were serving when I did and they said that I was the most fiscally conservative senator in the Congress in the — in the 12 years that I was there."

That’s not quite true. The Weekly Standard said in a Feb. 15 analysis that Santorum was no spendthrift and that he got very good vote ratings from taxpayer groups, as we also did in a similar report on Feb. 18. But those groups didn’t rate Santorum the most conservative.

According to the Standard, Santorum’s average rating of “A-minus” from the National Taxpayer’s Union put him “in the top 10 percent of senators, as he ranked 5th out of 50.” The NTU itself calculates Santorum’s average at a “B-plus.” Either way, other senators rated more highly.

What Santorum is referring to is some political handicapping in the Standard article, which went beyond the vote ratings to give Santorum extra credit for being from a state that often votes Democratic. “[C]onsidering the state he was representing, one could certainly make the case that Santorum was the most fiscally conservative senator during his tenure,” the article said.

But making an argument is one thing, and making a flat statement is another. The Standard didn’t say Santorum was the most fiscally conservative senator, period. Santorum misquoted the article.

Gingrich vs. Romney on Morning-After Pill

Former House Speaker Gingrich was right in a back-and-forth with Romney over requiring Catholic hospitals to provide morning-after pills to rape victims in Massachusetts when Romney was governor.

CNN’s debate moderator, John King, asked Romney whether he “required Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.”

Romney: "No, absolutely not. Of course not.

There was no requirement in Massachusetts for the Catholic Church to provide morning-after pills to rape victims. That was entirely voluntary on their report. There was no such requirement. … "

Gingrich: "Well, the reports we got were quite clear that the public health department was prepared to give a waiver to Catholic hospitals about a morning-after abortion pill, and that the governor’s office issued explicit instructions saying that they believed it wasn’t possible under Massachusetts law to give them that waiver. Now, that was the newspaper reports that came out."

As we wrote in January, Romney vetoed the law requiring the morning-after pill to be dispensed to rape victims at hospitals. His veto was later overridden by the Legislature. Romney then backed a state ruling that private hospitals, including religious hospitals, didn’t have to follow the requirement if they had moral objections. But he later flip-flopped on that position, saying that his legal counsel concluded that all hospitals would have to follow the new law. The Boston Globe also quoted Romney as saying: “My personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information.”

Old Refrains

As to be expected, the candidates repeated some well-worn claims from previous debates:

  • Santorum wrongly said the federal health care law amounted to “a couple trillion dollars in spending over the next 10 years.” Not true. Spending alone under the law would be $1.4 trillion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. And that doesn’t include $732 billion in spending reductions and $520 billion in revenue-producing measures in the law. Even without those, the figure is well short of “a couple trillion.” Romney has made similarly wrong claims about the cost of the law.
  • We’ve lost track of the number of times Gingrich has taken credit for balancing the budget for four years, even though he was only in office for two of those years. But he said it again tonight: “When I was speaker … we balanced the budget for four consecutive years.” Gingrich was speaker when Congress passed balanced budgets for fiscal years 1998 and 1999, but he had left the House before the balanced budgets for fiscal 2000 and 2001 were passed.
  • Santorum also said that “Romneycare … was the model for Obamacare and the government takeover of health care.” But neither the federal law nor the Massachusetts law is a “government takeover.” We’ve heard this claim from conservatives many times, but repeating it doesn’t make it true. While both laws expanded access to Medicaid, they also increased business for private insurance companies, which stand to gain millions of new customers under the federal law.
  • Paul continued to downplay the possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon, saying: “We don’t know if they have a weapon. As a matter of fact, there’s no evidence that they have it.” The International Atomic Energy Agency did not say in a Nov. 2011 report that Iran was definitely building a weapon, but it expressed strong concern that the country could do so. IAEA said that its information indicated that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

– Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, Lori Robertson and Brooks Jackson