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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

GOP Exaggerations in Iowa

Bachmann, Gingrich and Barbour revise history at conservative confab.


Several Republicans testing the presidential waters in Iowa made more than a few statements that we found all wet. Among the dubious claims:

  • Rep. Michele Bachmann falsely stated that Obama administration officials have approved only one new drilling permit "since they came into office." That's not even close. It's more than 200.
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he "helped balance the budget for four straight years." But he was in Congress for only two of those four years.
  • Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was wrong when he claimed the 2010 election was "the most massive repudiation of any president’s policies in the history of the United States." The Democrats lost more seats during the "Roosevelt Recession" in 1938, and the ruling Federalist Party lost a higher percentage of seats in the "revolution of 1800." The Federalists never came close to a majority again and later disappeared.
  • Bachmann exaggerated how much it will cost to "pre-fund the implementation of Obamacare," saying it will cost $105 billion. But that includes $40 billion for a popular children's health care program that was enacted more than a decade ago with bipartisan support.
  • Bachmann also said the nation’s debt grew 75 percent when Nancy Pelosi was House speaker, but the actual rise was 62 percent.


More than a few potential GOP presidential candidates gathered March 26 in Des Moines for Rep. Steve King's Conservative Principles Political Action Committee Conference — including Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Three: Over-the-Top Statements

In her speech, Bachmann gave a by-the-numbers review of the president's first two years in office, and we counted at least three times when she gave either false or misleading information.

On domestic oil production:

Bachmann, March 26: Let's look at the number 1. Number 1, that's the number of new drilling permits under the Obama administration since they came into office.

This claim is not even close to the truth. A query of Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement's online database shows 276 permits were approved for "new wells" — both developmental and exploratory — from the time Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009 to the date of Bachmann's speech.

Now, Bachmann doesn't say what kind of drilling permits she means, but Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for a moratorium on issuing new deepwater drilling permits after the Gulf oil spill and the slow pace of permit approvals since the moratorium was lifted. But even by this measure, she is wrong.

A day before her speech, the BOEMRE announced that it had issued its sixth deepwater drilling permit since Feb. 17, "when industry demonstrated that it had the capacity to handle subsea blowouts and spills," according to BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich. Also, the agency reports as of March 30 there have been 39 permits for new gas and oil wells in shallow water (500 feet or less) since the new rules went into effect June 8, 2010. On the new health care law:

Bachmann, March 26: 105,464,000,000. Does anyone know what I'm referring to? This is the money that was hidden in plain sight in the Obamacare bill in order to pre-fund the implementation of Obamacare.

This is a distortion. The Minnesota Republican is referring to a Congressional Research Services report that lists $105 billion in mandated appropriations and fund transfers over 10 years. However, that includes funding for existing programs — including the Children's Health Insurance Program — and not just implementation of the new health care law. CHIP, as it is called, represents $40 billion, or about 38 percent, of the total $105 billion. As the Kaiser Family Foundation notes, CHIP "was enacted with bipartisan support." It's available in every state and covers more than seven million children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Side note: We would like to add, however, that Bachmann now refers to the $105 billion as being "hidden in plain sight," rather than incorrectly saying — as she had earlier — that it was "secretly" added to the health care law "unbeknownst to members of Congress." We wrote about that false claim on March 8. On the nation's debt:

Bachmann, March 26: Let's start with the number 75. Seventy-five percent, as a matter of fact. That is the amount the national debt has increased just under the four years that Nancy Pelosi held the gavel. It took us 231 years to establish something over $8 trillion in debt. It took her four years to run up $6 trillion more in deficits to get us up to $14 trillion.

First of all, no one person or party is responsible for the increased debt during the four-year period, January 2007 to January 2011, when Pelosi was speaker. There was a Republican president, George Bush, for two of those years.

Second, Bachmann is not quite right in her math. The nation's total outstanding debt did increase a lot, but not as much as Bachmann claims.

According to the Treasury's "Debt to the Penny" website, the total public debt was $8,670,596,242,973.04 on Jan. 4, 2007, when Pelosi became the first woman speaker. It was $14,011,526,727,895.85 on Jan. 5, 2011, when she gave up the gavel to Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. That's a 62 percent increase, not 75 percent. And the debt did not go up by $6 trillion during this time; it went up about $5.3 trillion. Bachmann is rounding up for partisan purposes. But $700 billion is not a small rounding error — even in Washington.

Balancing Act

Gingrich took credit in his speech for balancing the federal budget for four straight years.

Gingrich, March 26: I helped balance the federal budget for four straight years, the only time in your lifetime we had four years of a balanced budget. We paid over $400 billion in federal debt off.

The federal budget was indeed balanced for four straight years, from fiscal years 1998 to 2001. The only problem is that Gingrich left office in January 1999, so he was in Congress for only two of those four budget years (fiscal years 1998 and 1999), and the total surplus in those years was $194.9 billion — about half of what he claimed credit for.

Gingrich announced Nov. 6, 1998 that he would not run for reelection, and left office when his term ended in January 1999. A new House speaker was elected Jan. 6, 1999. And it was not until Nov. 18 of that year that the House approved the fiscal 2000 budget.

When asked why the former Georgia congressman claims responsibility for a balanced budget during years when he wasn't in office, Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said: "Balancing the budget was no small feat and it was the GOP policies that created the growth which sustained keeping the budget balanced for four years."

History and Tax Lessons

In his speech, Barbour placed the 2010 election in the wrong historical context.

Barbour, March 26: … because the American people agree with us on policy, and they showed in the 2010 election the most massive repudiation of any president’s policies in the history of the United States.

By either modern or colonial standards, the Mississippi governor was wrong.

As the Brookings Institution noted after the 2010 elections: “The recent midterm elections saw the largest loss of seats in the House of Representatives for the party in power since 1938.” That midterm election was in the middle of President Franklin Roosevelt's second term, when the nation's still fragile economy had plunged into what was referred to as the "Roosevelt Recession." The House Democrats went from 334 to 262 seats — a loss of 72 seats, House records show. In 2010, the Democrats lost 64 seats, going from 257 to 193, according to those same records. On the Senate side, the Democrats lost seven seats in 1938 and six in 2010. Of course, FDR would go on to win reelection twice more.

And what about what Thomas Jefferson called "the revolution of 1800," when voters tossed out the ruling Federalist Party? Under the Federalists, President John Adams steered the United States into an undeclared naval war with France and signed the Alien and Sedition Acts that allowed the government to jail anyone for "false, scandalous, and malicious writings" aimed at bringing government officials "into contempt or disrepute." Voters repudiated all that, big time.

Before that election, the Federalists held 60 House seats, a solid majority (the House numbered 106 at the time). But they were cut to 38 seats in the Congress that was seated in 1801. So in that election the ruling party lost 37 percent of the House seats it had held previously, a much higher percentage that the 25 percent loss the Democrats suffered last year.

The Federalists never again came close to a House majority, and had all but disappeared by 1820. Now, that's a shellacking — as the president might say — even worse than what the Democrats suffered in 2010.

Barbour also talked about Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2012:

Barbour, March 26: It called for $1.3 trillion of tax increases on the American people.

That's a 10-year projection, not a tax increase for fiscal year 2012. Barbour didn't say how he arrived at this figure. We e-mailed questions to two spokesmen for Barbour's political action committee but haven't received a reply. But to arrive at such a large number, Barbour is undoubtedly including the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for high-wage earners at the end of 2012 and projecting the tax burden over a 10-year period, as the House Republicans have done.

Actually, Barbour was letting Obama off too easily. A recent analysis by the independent Tax Policy Center puts the figure at just under $2 trillion over the next 10 years, measuring the increase against what people are paying now — which is how we prefer to look at it.

Compared to "current policy," the TPC said that "the president’s proposals would raise an additional $2 trillion over the coming decade," including more than $800 billion from allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule in 2013 for upper-income earners and keeping the estate tax at its 2011 level, indexed for inflation.

But the increase won't fall on all "the American people," as Barbour implies. The TPC said only about one-third would see an increase in 2013, including "virtually everyone in the top 1 percent." The TPC said 97 percent of those at the very top (earning over $643,739) "would see their taxes go up by an average of nearly $90,000, cutting their average after-tax income by more than 6 percent." But the bottom 60 percent — those making below about $67,000 — would see average tax bills fall by a few dollars.

— by Eugene Kiely, with Brooks Jackson, Lauren Hitt, Melissa Siegel and Michael Morse


Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. "APD/AST/ABP Online Query." New permits between 20 Jan 2009-25 Mar 2011. Accessed 30 Mar 2011.

"BOEMRE Approves Sixth Deepwater Drilling Permit that Meets New Safety Standards." Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Press release. 25 Mar 2011.

"Status of Well Permits & Plans Subject to Enhanced Safety and Environmental Requirements in the Gulf of Mexico." Accessed 30 Mar 2011.

"State Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP): Reauthorization History." Kaiser Family Foundation. Feb 2009.

Congressional Research Services. "Appropriations and Fund Transfers in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." 10 Feb 2011.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "What is CHIP?" Accessed 30 Mar 2011.

Kiely, Eugene. "No Secret: Michele Bachmann Gets It Wrong." FactCheck.org. 8 Mar 2011.

U.S. Treasury. "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It." Accessed 30 Mar 2011.

Office of Management and Budget. Historical Tables, Table 1.1 — Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits. Accessed 30 Mar 2011.

"The Speaker Steps Down; Text of Statement on Standing Down." New York Times. 7 Nov 1998.

U.S. House. Roll call vote 2. 6 Jan 1999.

U.S. Library of Congress. "Status of Appropriations Legislation for Fiscal Year 2000." Accessed 30 Mar 2011.

"Do Religious Issues Still Matter? What Role Did They Play in the 2010 Elections?" Brookings Institute. 17 Nov 2010.

"The Depression of 1937." Digital History. University of Houston. Undated, accessed 30 Mar 2011.

U.S. Office of the Clerk. "Party Divisions of the House of Representatives (1789 to Present)." Accessed 31 Mar 2011.

Madison, Lucy. "Obama's 2010 'Shellacking' is Like Bush's 2006 Thumping." CBS News. 3 Nov 2010.

"More Spending Taxes and Debt." Majority Caucus, House Committee on the Budget. 15 Feb 2011.

"2012 Budget Tax Proposals." Tax Policy Center. Undated, accessed 31 Mar 2011.