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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sunday Replay

On this week’s Sunday talk shows, we found false claims on the debt, discretionary spending, foreign-funded attack ads and polling data.

Wrong on Debt

On ABC’s "This Week," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell made a false claim about the federal debt — a claim that we debunked in January, when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, made a similar statement. The debt situation has worsened since then, but not enough to make this GOP talking point true.

McConnell: What most Americans think is extreme is the kind of government we’ve been running for the last year-and-a-half. We’ve seen the government taken over banks, insurance companies, car companies, nationalizing the student loan business. We’re on a path to double the national debt in five years and triple it in 10.

First, current projections don’t show the debt doubling in five years or tripling in 10. Second, McConnell incorrectly blames Obama for the bank bailout. Obama supported it as a senator, as did McConnell, but it was signed by President George W. Bush. And, lastly, the changes in the federal student loan program will not increase the federal debt; in fact, they will save the federal government $62 billion over 10 years, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

McConnell’s larger point was about the growth of the national debt, but according to the latest CBO report (table 1-6), the public debt reached $7.55 trillion at the close of the 2009 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. The CBO estimates it will reach $11.95 trillion by 2014 and $15.28 trillion by 2019. That’s a 58 percent increase in five years and a doubling of the debt in 10 years. Large increases, no doubt, but not nearly as large as McConnell states.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said his boss was starting his "five years" and "10 years" from fiscal year 2008, which ended nearly two years ago. The debt at the end of FY 2008 was $5.8 trillion.

Obama’s first budget was fiscal year 2010. The 2009 fiscal year was nearly a third over by the time Obama took office and included, for example, money for the bank bailout that McConnell cites as a reason for the exploding debt.

Foreign-Funded Attack Ads?

White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod said that independent political groups supporting Republican candidates are secretly financed by "foreign-controlled companies." But he provided no evidence of it and, if they are, that would be a violation of federal law.

Axelrod: In some districts, they’re spending more money than the candidate — candidates themselves on negative ads from benign-sounding Americans for Prosperity, the American Crossroads Fund. No. These are front groups for special interests. These are front groups for foreign-controlled companies, which would have been banned under the bill that we put through Congress, and they don’t want the American people to know, and the American people ought to be alert to that.

Axelrod was talking about the conservative political committees in the context of the Supreme Court ruling in January that removed some restrictions on how corporations and unions can spend money on political communications. He was making an argument in support of legislation that would require groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, to disclose their donors.

As we have written in our "Cash Attack" series, Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS do not have to disclose their donors. Both are 501(c)(4) nonprofits established under IRS regulations. American Crossroads, a sister group of Crossroads GPS, is registered with the Federal Election Commission as an independent political committee and discloses its donors in monthly reports.

Obama famously chided the Supreme Court in a State of the Union speech for opening the door to allowing foreign-controlled companies to finance U.S. elections. But, as we said at the time, the Supreme Court did not deal with that issue. There is a federal law that remains on the books that bans foreign companies from spending on U.S. elections.

We asked the White House to provide support for Axelrod’s claim, but we have not received a response. Crossroads GPS does solicit corporate donations but states clearly on its website: "Crossroads GPS does not accept contributions from foreign entities" We could not find a similar disclaimer on the Americans for Prosperity website.

Discretionary Spending

On "Fox News Sunday," Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California incorrectly stated that federal discretionary spending has increased 88 percent in just the last three years:

McCarthy: Now, let’s look at what has happened across America for the last three years. Every household has had to cut back. What has this discretionary spending done? It has been increased by 88 percent.

That’s not true. Figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office show that discretionary spending increased from $1.04 trillion in fiscal year 2007 to just under an estimated $1.36 trillion in the current fiscal year, which ends this Thursday. (See table F-5 on page 5 of CBO’s "Historical Budget Data" and Table 1-2 on page 4 of CBO’s latest "Budget and Economic Outlook.")

That’s an increase of about 30.5 percent over the past three years, after accounting for rounding error. That’s a big jump to be sure, but nothing close to the 88 percent claimed by McCarthy.

The congressman was misquoting a section of the Republicans’ "Pledge to America," of which he was the principal author. The pledge refers (on page 20) to an 88 percent increase in "non-security" discretionary spending — which the GOP document defines as discretionary spending minus spending by the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Veterans Affairs.

Amtrak Subsidies

McCarthy also exaggerated how much money could be saved by eliminating federal subsidies for first-class travel on the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak.

McCarthy: Every person that buys a first-class ticket on Amtrak for the sleeper car — we subsidize that by $364. That’s $1.2 billion saved if we decide that the American public shouldn’t borrow 40 cents out of every dollar to subsidize someone buying a first-class ticket.

That’s an exaggeration. While it is true that Amtrak loses an average of $32 per passenger and that subsidies are much higher for sleeper cars, it would take a lot more than just charging full rates for first-class travel to save $1 billion, even spread over several years. The CBO recently estimated that cutting out sleeper cars would save between $75 million and $158 million per year. To save $1 billion over five years, CBO estimated, also would require eliminating the system’s five most unprofitable routes. (See page 95 of CBO’s "Budget Options" document.) CBO didn’t say which five routes it was referring to, but Subsidyscope.com, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, says Amtrak’s biggest money-loser is the California Zephyr, which runs between Chicago and San Francisco and loses $59.4 million a year.

Credit Card Woes

Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for Senate in Florida, made a false statement when asked about financial accusations on "Face the Nation." Host Bob Schieffer asked Rubio: Your opponents “say you’ve been deeply in debt for much of your life. They say you have sometimes put your own personal expenses on your Republican Party credit card. How do you answer those critics?”

Rubio answered: “They’re false.” And then added: “The Republican Party of Florida has never paid for my personal expenses.”

But it’s not “false” to say that Rubio charged personal purchases on the GOP card. He did, and, in fact, he has admitted it, saying he paid back $16,000 in charges from 2006 and 2007. A St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald investigation found that Rubio had charged personal expenses, such as grocery bills, a pricey haircut and wine purchases, to the GOP American Express card. Rubio’s statement that the “Republican Party of Florida has never paid for my personal expenses” reflects his previous comments that he had reimbursed the party for these charges. However, the Times-Herald investigation also turned up double-billed plane expenses worth $2,400 that Rubio has subsequently paid. He has been criticized for not releasing credit card statements prior to 2006.

His actions are not the only ones under fire: An investigation ordered up by the state GOP, and released this month, identified about $500,000 in party expenses that were not business-related since 2007, when the now-indicted and ousted Jim Greer became party chairman. That includes vacation expenses for a trip the families of Greer and Charlie Crist, the independent candidate for Senate, took to Disney World.

As for the debt, Rubio said his obligations came from two mortgages and a student loan for law school. According to a Wall Street Journal report this month, Rubio had avoided foreclosure on a home he owns with another state politician, and, the Journal said, his campaign “acknowledged Mr. Rubio still carries a pile of debt on two homes, a home equity line of credit, a car loan and more than $150,000 in student loans.”

Poll Misrepresentation

On CNN’s "State of the Union," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin got his polling facts all wrong:

Durbin: If you ask the American people what’s the No. 1 issue in this election, jobs. And then you say, which party do you trust when it comes to jobs and unemployment the most? The Democrats have a 13-point lead over the Republicans.

That’s not right, according to Gallup and Rasmussen polls. Both show Americans saying that the economy, not jobs, is the most important issue. (Though they are closely related, the economy and jobs are separate issues in these polls.) And both show that respondents trust Republicans more than Democrats to shore up the economy.

However, Durbin was correct in saying that Democrats have a lead over Republicans on the jobs issue. Gallup did find that of the 28 percent of people who cited jobs as the most important issue, 49 percent had more faith in Democrats to improve the situation, while only 33 percent trusted Republicans. But 33 percent of the respondents said that the economy was more important, and of those, 44 percent said Republicans were the ones to trust and 36 percent said Democrats.