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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bachmann’s Waterloo

The GOP lawmaker's presidential campaign starts with a slew of off-base claims.


Rep. Michele Bachmann officially joined the presidential campaign trail, but made a flurry of false and misleading claims along the way.

The Minnesota Republican appeared on two Sunday talk shows the day before giving her formal announcement speech in Waterloo, Iowa. On the shows, she made false statements about income from her family farm and government subsidies to her husband's business. She also made misstatements regarding earmarks, federal pay, government-owned "limousines" and health care:

  • Bachmann falsely claimed that she and her husband "have never gotten a penny" from a family farm that received federal subsidies. But she reported income from the farm in 2006, 2008 and 2009 — the most recent year available — on her congressional financial disclosure statements.
  • She claimed she had been "faithful" to her pledge not to request federal earmarks. But she requested $40 million in transportation earmarks in the 2009 fiscal year budget after taking the pledge, later claiming such projects should not be subjected to her promise. She withdrew her requests after the House Republicans took a party position in 2010 not to seek earmarks.
  • Bachmann wrongly blamed President Obama for increasing the number of federal transportation workers who earn more than $170,000 from one to 1,690 during the recession. At least two-thirds of those employees were receiving more than $170,000 before Obama took office.
  • She criticized the president for a 73 percent increase in government "limousines." But one department accounted for the increase, and it had a long-term plan, pre-dating Obama, to add armored vehicles. The term "limousine" includes armored vehicles and sedans, not just actual limos.
  • She claimed government money received by her husband's counseling clinics did not benefit the business, because the funds paid for employee training. It's true the clinics received $24,041 for training, but the business received thousands more in government funds, including money for treating crime victims.
  • The three-term congresswoman repeated — on two Sunday shows — the false claim that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the federal health care law will "cost the economy 800,000 jobs." The CBO never said that. It said there will be a "small" impact on jobs.

When she got to Waterloo to deliver her first official campaign speech, Bachmann made her now viral gaffe in saying that tough-guy actor John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. The Duke was born in Winterset, Iowa, and was raised in California. It was John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, who was from Waterloo.


Rep. Michele Bachmann announced on June 27 that she will run for president. In advance of her announcement, she appeared on the Sunday talk shows on Fox News and CBS. The headlines from her Sunday appearances were dominated by a question posed to her by "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, who asked Bachmann if she is a "flake." He later apologized

We aren't interested so much in what questions she was asked, but rather how she answered them — beginning with another question by Wallace about the Bachmann family farm.

No Income from Family Farm?

In a June 26 article, the Los Angeles Times wrote that a family farm of which Bachmann is a partner received nearly $260,000 in federal farm subsidies from 1995 through 2008. Asked about the subsidies by Wallace on "Fox News Sunday," Bachmann falsely claimed she and her husband "have never gotten a penny from the farm." She also left the wrong impression that she has nothing to do with the farm. 

Bachmann, June 26: … regarding the farm, the farm is my father-in-law's farm. It's not my husband and my farm. It's my father-in-law's farm. And my husband and I have never gotten a penny of money from the farm.

Every year since joining Congress in 2007, Bachmann has reported that she is a partner in the "Bachmann Farm Family LP" in Independence, Wisc. Her and her husband's share of the farm was valued at between $100,001 and $250,000 in her most recent financial disclosure report for 2009. The Times said the farm was owned by her late father-in-law, Paul Bachmann, until his death in 2009, and that she "retains a partnership in the farm."

A database on federal farm subsidies maintained by the nonpartisan Environmental Working Group shows that Paul Bachmann's farm received $259,332 in subsidies from 1995 through 2008.

Michele Bachmann reported income of between $2,501 and $5,000 from the family farm in 2006. That same year, the farm received $19,528 in commodity subsidies, according to the environmental group's database. Bachmann reported no farm income in 2007, but she did report income of between $15,000 and $50,000 in both 2008 and 2009. The farm received just $274 in subsidies in 2008 and has received nothing since then, the data show.

It's true that during her time in Congress, the Bachmann family farm received a relatively small amount in federal subsidies. But it did get some federal aid, and she and her husband did receive some income from the farm.

Update, July 13: A reader asked if Bachmann reported gross or net income from the family farm. House guidelines for filling out financial disclosure statements require members of Congress to report gross income, but not necessarily net income. The guidelines say, “You must report the gross income of an unincorporated business such as a sole proprietorship you own. You may report the net income in addition to, but not in place of, the gross income figure.”  Bachmann told the Associated Press that "all of the income goes to the farm," presumably as expenses, indicating that the farm was not profitable. But it’s not clear if Bachmann followed the rules and reported gross income, or whether she reported net income. On publicly available disclosure forms, Bachmann reported income in three of the four years, as we say in the above article. She did not report any income in 2007, although the farm received $7,085 in federal subsidies that year. Her campaign has not responded to repeated requests for clarification. 

'Faithful' to Earmarks Pledge?

Bachmann was less than forthcoming when she told Wallace she never violated her pledge not to request federal earmarks. She requested and received earmarks shortly before taking her pledge. She even sought transportation earmarks after agreeing to the pledge — believing they should be exempt from her agreement. She withdrew the post-pledge requests after the House Republicans took a party position not to accept earmarks.

Bachmann, June 26: During my first year — during my first term in Congress, I signed a pledge that I will take no more earmarks and I've been faithful to that pledge.

Bachmann took her oath of office in January 2007. In late 2007, she joined the Reagan21 caucus, a group of GOP members of Congress committed to the principles of President Ronald Reagan. Among other legislative goals, members of the Reagan21 caucus pledged to request no new earmarks. The caucus members were later included among those who had taken the Club for Growth's 2008 anti-earmark pledge, which Bachmann took again in 2009. In March 2010, all 178 House Republicans agreed to swear off earmarks for the year.

In her first term, Bachmann requested seven earmarks totaling nearly $3.8 million, including two requests at her sole request. That was during the fiscal year 2008 appropriations process. But the requests "were already on the books" before she took the pledge in late 2007, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. So, in that case, she did not violate her pledge. 

But in 2009, Bachmann submitted five requests for earmarks totaling $40 million for Minnesota's 6th congressional district. In a June 2009 Q&A with Minnesota Public Radio, Bachmann explained that she requested five projects in the transportation authorization bill. As the St. Cloud Times reported a year later, Bachmann told local officials she was making an exception to her pledge.

St. Cloud Times, June 2010: Bachmann has been a vocal critic of the earmark process. But after requesting the transportation bill projects last year, she acknowledged to local officials she was making an exception to her no-earmark stance.

Bachmann spokeswoman Rachel Horn now says the "high-priority project requests" Bachmann made weren't "in the same category" as an earmark request.

Horn told the Times that the House GOP's unified position against all earmarks (announced in March 2010) influenced Bachmann to withdraw her earmark requests.

Yet, her support for transportation earmarks persisted. In November 2010, Bachmann told the Star Tribune that transportation projects are vitally important and should be exempted from the House earmark ban.

Star Tribune, Nov. 15, 2010: Bachmann told the Star Tribune she supports a “redefinition” of what an earmark is, because, she said: “Advocating for transportation projects for ones district in my mind does not equate to an earmark.”

“I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark,” Bachmann said. “There’s a big difference between funding a tea pot museum and a bridge over a vital waterway.”

Anti-earmark advocates, such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, criticized her position. "It’s like a drunk swearing off the booze, but only if alcohol is redefined so as not to include beer," the nonpartisan watchdog group said in a Nov. 19, 2010, blog post. 

So, Bachmann's position on earmarks is much more nuanced and complicated than she let on during her interview on Fox.

Fat Federal Paychecks …

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Bachmann made two misleading statements — on federal pay and government limousines — to support her claim that President Barack Obama "isn't serious about cutting spending." 

Bachmann, June 26: I’ll tell you one thing that should be on the table, under Barack Obama the last two years the number of federal limousines for bureaucrats has increased seventy-three percent, in two years…. When you’re increasing federal limousines seventy-three percent or let me give you another example, the Department of Education or — or Transportation. When the recession started, there was one employee that made over hundred seventy thousand a year. A year and a half into the recession, we had 1,690 employees that were making over one hundred seventy thousand a year.

Let's take the federal pay first. Bachmann's statistics are correct, but misleading because most of the 1,690 DOT employees she cites were already being paid more than $170,000 before Obama took office.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. As of September 2007, three months before the recession started, only one DOT employee — the Secretary of Transportation — made more than $170,000, according to an online database maintained by the Office of Personnel Management. By June 2009, when the bureau declared the recession had ended, there were 1,690 employees in the Department of Transportation making more than $170,000 a year.

So, Bachmann's figures check out. But is this an example of Obama failing to cut spending? Hardly.

OPM's database also shows that 1,122 of the 1,690 DOT employees cited by Bachmann were earning more than $170,000 in pay as of September 2008 — nine months into the recession — while President George W. Bush was still in office. OPM's next data set isn't until March 2009 and, by that time, Obama had been in office for less than three months. By March 2009, the DOT was paying 1,686 of its employees more than $170,000. That's nearly all of the 1,690 DOT employees she cites as earning more than $170,000 by the end of the recession.

OPM's online database provides annual salary figures up until 2008 and quarterly figures beginning in March 2009, so we were unable to determine precisely how many of the 1,690 DOT workers saw their pay top $170,000 under Bush and how many did so under Obama. OPM and DOT declined to provide more information. But this much is clear: At least two-thirds of the DOT employees who broke the $170,000 pay barrier did so under Bush. It's probably higher than that, though, because Bush in 2008 signed into law a bill that gave federal workers a 3.9 percent across-the-board pay increase, effective Jan. 1, 2009. (Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009.) That pay increase would have been reflected in the March 2009 data.

We are not looking to blame Bush for rising federal pay. In fact, the Republican president in 2008 sought a 2.9 percent raise for civilian federal workers and 3.4 percent pay hike for military workers, but the Democratic-controlled Congress succeeded in getting a larger pay increase, a 3.9 percent across-the-board pay hike, signed into law. Our interest here is purely whether Obama can be blamed for the spike in DOT employees earning more than $170,0000 during the recession. 

Since becoming president, Obama has taken steps to slow federal pay. He recommended a 2 percent pay increase for the fiscal year 2010. Under normal circumstances, the increase would be 2.4 percent based on the Employment Cost Index, which measures salaries of non-federal workers. However, citing "serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare," Obama implemented the "alternative pay plan."

In November 2010, Obama proposed a two-year civilian federal pay freeze for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. This is reflected in the General Schedule Salary Table for 2011, which froze rates at the 2010 levels.

… and Fancy Limousines

Now, what about those limos?

Bachmann blames Obama for a 73 percent rise in the federal government's limousine fleet and, indeed, there is an investigative article by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity that makes that claim.

But, as with federal pay, there is more to the issue than meets the eye. Bachmann ignored some serious caveats mentioned in the article that cast doubt on the 73 percent figure. The article also says:

  • The 73 percent increase represents an increase of 174 vehicles since fiscal year 2008, which ended Oct. 1, 2008. Obama took office Jan. 20, so the time period spans two administrations.
  • Some of the vehicles could have been requested by the Bush administration through the 2008 appropriations process, which started in 2007 before Obama took office.
  • The story is based on statistics from the General Services Administration. But the agency says its figures are unreliable because it loosely defines the word "limousine" and such vehicles "can range from protective duty vehicles to sedans." The article quotes a GSA official saying the agency “cannot say that its report accurately reflects the number of limousines.”  
  • One department — the State Department — saw an increase of 194 vehicles, meaning the rest of the federal government combined saw an overall decline. And, the story says, "Appropriations documents indicate the State Department was engaged in a longer-term effort to increase the number of armored vehicles that would have stretched back to at least 2007."

So, many of the vehicles are not really limousines, and some of them could have been purchased or requested under the Bush administration. And the one agency that saw the biggest increase had a "longer-term effort" dating to the Bush administration to increase its fleet of armored vehicles.

This is not to say there was no increase under Obama. But there is not enough evidence to support her claim that Obama is responsible for a 73 percent increase in government-owned limousines.

More Government Subsidies

As part of his question about Bachmann's family farm, Fox News' Wallace also asked about government subsidies that went to her husband's counseling clinics. Bachmann claimed that government money did not benefit the business, because it paid for employee training. But even if the $24,041 the counseling clinics received for training "didn't help our clinic," as Bachmann said, the business received thousands more in government funds, including payment for treating crime victims.

Wallace asked how Bachmann could be a "fiscal hawk," when she has "gone after federal and … state government money." In addition to farm subsidies, the June 26 Los Angeles Times story said her husband's Christian counseling clinics, Bachmann & Associates, had received about $30,000 since 2006, according to the state's online database.

Los Angeles Times, June 26: The bulk of the money — $24,041 — came in the form of grants from the state Department of Human Services to train staff how to deal with clients suffering from chemical dependency and mental illness. That program was financed in part by the federal government.

Bachmann told Wallace that the money didn't go to the clinic, but that it "went to employees" and that it "actually took away from the clinic."

Bachmann, June 26: First of all, the money that went to the clinic was actually training money for employees. The clinic did not get the money. And my husband and I did not get the money either. That's mental health training money that went to employees. …

Wallace: In terms of the money — and, obviously, I don't know the details nearly as well as you do about the clinic that's run by your husband. If you say money is going to employees, that — I mean, if he runs the clinic, that would seem to be benefiting you guys. …

Bachmann: Actually, it did not. It actually took away from the clinic, because these were training hours where employees were not able to bring more income in. This is one-time training money that came in from the federal government. And it certainly didn't help our clinic. It was something that was additional training to help employees.

We'll leave it up to readers to judge whether or not government grant money to train employees is beneficial to the employer. But Bachmann & Associates still received other state money, including $3,237 from 2007 through 2011 from the Department of Public Safety. That money was "reparation payments for services for victims of crime," Dennis Smith, public information officer for the department, told us in an e-mail. Bachmann's congressional office gave us an e-mail address for a campaign spokeswoman, and we sent requests for further explanation of those government funds and the family farm income. We have not yet received a response.

Repeating a Falsehood on Health Care

Bachmann also continued to push a falsehood about the federal health care law and jobs, distorting the Congressional Budget Office's analysis. Not once, but twice.

On Fox News, she said:

Bachmann, June 26: Even worse, the Congressional Budget Office is saying we'll lose 800,000 jobs with Obamacare. When we're in a situation now where we have massive job loss, this is not what we want to do with Obamacare.

And on CBS' "Face the Nation," she said:

Bachmann, June: The Congressional Budget Office estimated Obamacare will cost economy eight hundred thousand jobs, probably the —

Host Bob Schieffer: Again, that is data that other people would question.

Bachmann: That’s — well, that’s the Congressional Budget Office, that’s not Michele Bachmann, that’s Congressional Budget Office figures saying that we’re– we have the potential of losing 800,000 jobs.

The CBO didn't say that. Instead, the CBO said that the law would cause a reduction in the amount of labor workers choose to supply. Some Americans would decide to work fewer hours or retire earlier because their ability to get health insurance would be more secure. And low-income workers would receive subsidies to purchase insurance, putting more money in their pockets. Overall, the CBO said the impact on jobs would be "small."

CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf told Congress in February that this "reduction in the labor used" would be equal to roughly "half a percent" of the economy at the end of this decade — which would be equivalent to 800,000 workers. But those aren't 800,000 jobs lost. Elmendorf and the CBO have repeatedly made clear that the impact on jobs is primarily due to Americans cutting back on the work they supply.

Yet, Bachmann, and other Republicans, have repeatedly twisted the CBO's findings, ignoring the full explanation in its analysis.

'People Can Make Mistakes'

Bachmann visited Waterloo, Iowa, where she lived as a child, to announce she was running for president. She peppered her speech with references to Waterloo — including the famous Sullivan brothers who joined the Navy together and died from wounds suffered together in the same attack. The speech contained no blunders. But after the speech, she made a gaffe in referring yet again to Waterloo in an interview with Fox News.

Bachmann, June 27: What I want them to know is, just like John Wayne is from Waterloo, Iowa, that's the kind of spirit that I have too.

By now you know: John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907 and raised in California. He was not from Waterloo. But John Wayne Gacy, the notorious serial killer, was from Waterloo.

A day later, Bachmann told CNN's "American Morning" that John Wayne's parents' "first home was in Waterloo, Iowa." Asked about her misstatements that have been catalogued over recent years, Bachmann said she cannot be perfect.

Bachmann, June 28: People can make mistakes and I wish I could be perfect every time I say something, but I can’t. 

And that is true for everyone.

— by Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Wendy Zhao and Dave Bloom


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