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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Disgrace, Influence Peddling and Other Debate Charges

Newt Gingrich complained that in one early burst at the first Florida debate, Mitt Romney said “at least four things that are false” about him. Now Gingrich has specified which claims he was talking about, and we’ve checked the evidence he promised he would — and did — post on his website.

We conclude that two were not false; one was (mostly); and one is a matter of interpretation. In all cases, the claims are in need of further explanation and context.

Romney’s claim that Gingrich worked as an “influence peddler in Washington” is broadly accurate. And it’s clear that Gingrich once called Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan “right-wing social engineering.”

But Romney was wrong when he said Gingrich encouraged cap-and-trade in an ad with Democrat and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Cap-and-trade was never mentioned in the ad, and Gingrich quickly made clear that he did not support the cap-and-trade bill that was then being considered in the Senate.

Finally, it’s largely a matter of interpretation whether former Speaker Gingrich “had to resign in disgrace.” If the implication was that Gingrich resigned because of sanctions over ethics violations, Romney’s time line is off. Those charges were resolved nearly two years before Gingrich resigned. Rather, Gingrich’s ouster was prompted by a poor showing in the 1998 elections, and eroding support among his Republican colleagues.

Here’s the full exchange:

Romney: I think it’s about leadership, and the Speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace. Now, in the 1970s, he came to Washington. I went to work in my first job in the 1970s. It was at the bottom level of a consulting firm. In the 1990s, he had to resign in disgrace from his job as speaker.

I had the opportunity to go off and run the Winter Olympic games. In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington. And during those 15 years, I helped turn around the Olympics, helped begin a very successful turnaround in the state of Massachusetts.

When I was fighting against cap-and-trade, the Speaker was sitting down on a couch with Nancy Pelosi encouraging it. When I was fighting to say that the Paul Ryan plan to save Medicare was bold and right, he was saying that it was right-wing social engineering.

Gingrich: Look, I’m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Gov. Romney’s misinformation. We will have a site at Newt.org by tomorrow morning. We’ll list everything — He just said at least four things that are false. I don’t want to waste the time on them.

As promised, Gingrich’s website, Newt.org, promptly posted a response to Romney’s charges. We’ll take each of the alleged falsehoods one by one.

Was Gingrich a Strategist, Consultant, Lobbyist?

Romney: In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the Speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington.

Romney actually hedged his language a bit here. In the days leading up to the debate, Romney repeatedly called Gingrich a lobbyist, a title Gingrich denounced as a deliberate falsehood.

According to Gingrich’s campaign website, “Newt has never engaged in lobbying, period. Newt made a decision after resigning that he would never be a lobbyist so that nobody would ever question the genuine nature of his advice and perspectives.”

Rather, the site says, a consulting firm founded by Gingrich, The Gingrich Group, offered “strategic advice” to a variety of clients, including Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored mortgage entity. The day of the debate, Gingrich released a $25,000 per month contract with Freddie Mac, which states that the firm was hired to perform “consulting and related services as requested by Freddie Mac’s Director, Public Policy.” That’s Craig Thomas, who is a registered lobbyist for Freddie Mac.

“There is no place in the contract that provides for lobbying,” Gingrich said at the debate. “I have never done any lobbying.”

Gingrich cited two character witnesses, former Republican Rep. J.C. Watts and New York Rep. Rick Lazio. Watts, a Gingrich supporter who at one time headed up FM Policy Focus, a coalition of groups critical of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said that, “in the five, six years, seven years I was involved with that effort, I never heard Newt Gingrich’s name. If he was lobbying for Fannie and Freddie, he was pretty pathetic lobbyist in my opinion.” And Lazio, who chaired the Housing and Community Opportunity subcommittee from 1995 to 2001, told the Daily Caller, “I don’t recall that he ever intervened or asked me to do anything that would have protected or helped either Freddie or Fannie during those years.”

Gingrich also pointed to a New York Times story on July 26, 2008, which reported that Gingrich spoke at a private party meeting encouraging Republicans to oppose a measure extending funding to Fannie and Freddie.

“I think it’s pretty clear to say that I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying,” Gingrich said.

But that is not clear. While it’s true that Gingrich has never been a registered lobbyist, a recent, in-depth New York Times analysis presents a murkier picture of Gingrich’s advocacy.

According to the story, although Gingrich routinely wrote into contracts, “does not provide lobbying services of any kind,” the company also boasted of “contacts at the highest levels” of state and federal government. Gingrich, the story states, “has made millions of dollars while helping companies promote their services and gain access to state and federal officials. In a variety of instances, documents and interviews show, Mr. Gingrich arranged meetings between executives and officials, and salted his presentations to lawmakers with pitches for his clients, who pay as much as $200,000 a year to belong to his Center for Health Transformation.”

According to a Dec. 29, 2011, story from Bloomberg News: “In 2003, Gingrich gathered about two dozen Republican House members who opposed a $395 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit to pitch them on why they should support it, former Representative C.L. ‘Butch’ Otter, who said he was in the room, said in an e-mail.”

According to the story, “Otter, who supports Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primaries and is now governor of Idaho, said it was ‘obvious’ to him and others in the room that they were being lobbied. The meeting occured as Gingrich was building the Center for Health Transformation, which was seeking financing from drugmakers.”

According to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, a lobbyist is someone who receives compensation, meets with at least two senior officials per quarter, and “whose lobbying activities constitute 20 percent or more of his or her services’ time on behalf of that client during any three-month period.”

And lobbying activities are “any efforts in support of such contacts, including preparation or planning activities, research and other background work that is intended, at the time of its preparation, for use in contacts and coordination with the lobbying activities of others.”

In other words, it is possible Gingrich did not meet that legal definition. But many lobbying experts say his actions may meet a common sense one.

“It all depends on what your definition of lobbyist is,” said Michael Beckel, a spokesman with the Center for Responsive Politics. “There are a lot of ways to be involved in the influence game without being a registered lobbyist. Newt Gingrich has never been a registered lobbyist, but he has certainly been involved in the influence game in Washington, D.C.”

“Players on both sides of the aisle engage in this type of hair-splitting,” Beckel said. “Some say they only offer strategic advice or consulting. And that’s part of what lobbyists are involved in. Speaker Gingrich is right that he has never technically been a lobbyist. But that’s not a distinction that many voters have at the forefront of their minds.”

Added Gabriela Schneider of the Sunlight Foundation: “For all intents and purposes, the work he does on behalf of his clients is the very definition of what a lobbyist does. When you have former elected officials wielding influence on behalf of clients, as Gingrich has done, that’s what lobbying is.”

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, offered this blunt assessment in a blog post for The Hill: “Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist. Any way you cut the cake, he was working to influence policy.”

In short, whether Gingrich acted as a lobbyist or as merely a strategic consultant is a matter of debate even among those who follow such things closely. But during the debate, Romney used the phrase “influence peddler.” There’s no legal definition for that. Gingrich wrote op-eds, organized meetings with members of Congress, testified at congressional hearings and appeared at health care conferences, advocating positions dear to groups who were paying him large sums of money. He supported stimulus funding for health care information technology, and Medicare Part D. While Gingrich can make the case he was not a registered lobbyist, “influence peddler” is a broad enough term for Romney to argue that Gingrich’s paid actions fit that bill.

Left in Disgrace?

Romney: The Speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace.

Romney later clarified that “88 percent of Republicans voted to reprimand the speaker, and he did resign in disgrace after that.” Romney is referring to a reprimand by a Republican-controlled House in 1997 for submitting misleading statements to House investigators, who were looking into his alleged misuse of tax-exempt charities to advance his political agenda. The House voted 395 to 28 in favor of the punishment. Gingrich had to pay $300,000 to resolve the charges against him. He still denies that it was a “fine,” and technically he’s correct: The Ethics Committee report (page 94) didn’t call it a fine, but rather a “payment reimbursing the House for some of the costs of the investigation.”

The Gingrich website correctly notes that in 1999, after a three-and-a-half-year investigation, the Internal Revenue Service under President Bill Clinton concluded that Gingrich did not violate any tax laws. The website cites “renowned CNN Investigative Reporter Brooks Jackson” (now director of FactCheck.org) concluding, “it turns out [Gingrich] was right and those who accused him of tax fraud were wrong.”

There’s also a hole in Romney’s time line. As Gingrich later correctly noted, he didn’t announce his resignation until nearly two years after the reprimand, on Nov. 5, 1998. His ouster was prompted by a poor showing in the 1998 elections, in which the GOP lost five House seats. It was the first time since 1934 that the party holding the White House had gained seats in a midterm election. That, more than any lingering effects of the ethics case, caused Gingrich to lose the support of his Republican colleagues in the House.


Romney: When I was fighting against cap-and-trade, the speaker was sitting down on a couch with Nancy Pelosi encouraging it.

The Gingrich campaign website states that “Newt absolutely opposes ‘cap and trade’ as well as any system of taxing carbon emissions,” and that he “does not believe there is a settled scientific conclusion about whether industrial development has dramatically contributed to a warming of the atmosphere.”

OK, but was Romney wrong? In July 2008, Gingrich appeared seated on a small sofa next to Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi: We don’t always see eye to eye, do we Newt?

Gingrich: No, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.

The Gingrich-Pelosi spot was produced by the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore. And in the rest of the ad, Pelosi says, “We need cleaner forms of energy, and we need them fast.” To which Gingrich replies, “If enough of us demand action from our leaders, we can spark the innovation that we need.”

There was no mention of cap-and-trade in the ad. And Gingrich, who soon said he regretted making that ad, posted a clarification of his position and made clear that he was firmly against a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill that was then being considered in the Senate.

The issue is muddled some by Gingrich’s evolving position on cap-and-trade. In 2007, Gingrich said that he would “strongly support” cap-and-trade if combined with “a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions.” Furthermore, Gingrich said in House testimony in 2009 that he still might support a cap-and-trade system covering “the 2,000 most polluting places,” if packaged with incentives for nuclear power and “green coal,” among other things.

Romney also has a bit of a muddled record on cap-and-trade. As governor of Massachusetts, he was an early proponent of a regional cap-and-trade plan. National Review noted that Romney wrote then-New York Gov. George Pataki in July 2003 stating that a “regional cap and trade system could serve as an effective approach” for both states.

The Wall Street Journal later noted that Romney hired environmentalist Douglas Foy to negotiate a regional climate change plan with neighboring Northeast states, but that Romney ultimately rejected Foy’s plan for a regional cap-and-trade consortium, saying it was too burdensome on businesses.

But what is not muddled is that Gingrich was not “encouraging” cap-and-trade in the ad with Pelosi, as Romney claimed.

Engineering the Paul Ryan Budget

Romney: When I was fighting to say that the Paul Ryan plan to save Medicare was bold and right, he was saying that it was right-wing social engineering.

There’s simply no getting around Gingrich’s assessment of Ryan’s budget plan, uttered on “Meet the Press” on May 15, 2011, in response to a question by host David Gregory.

Gregory: Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors …

Gingrich: Right.

Gregory: … some premium support and — so that they can go out and buy private insurance ?

Gingrich: I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors. …

Gregory: But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare.

Gingrich: I, I think that, I think, I think that that is too big a jump. … I’m against Obamacare, which is imposing radical change, and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change.

Gingrich later said his choice of words was too extreme, and he apologized to Ryan. Gingrich now says he “agrees wholeheartedly with Rep. Ryan that we must give our seniors more choices” by offering “the opportunity for seniors to buy private insurance.” But Gingrich notes that under his plan, seniors will also have the choice to stay in the current Medicare system.

It’s also worth noting that while Romney said Gingrich’s harsh early assessment came at a time when Romney was “fighting to say that the Paul Ryan plan to save Medicare was bold and right,” Romney’s own early support for Ryan’s budget plan was more tepid than he let on.

According to a May 28, 2011, report in the New York Times, “In a question-and-answer session with reporters, [Romney] declined to say whether, if he were president, he would sign into law the House Republican budget plan, sponsored by Representative Paul D. Ryan, that seeks to reduce spending by replacing Medicare with a voucher-based system for voters under 55.”

”That’s the kind of speculation that is getting the cart ahead of the horse,” Romney said. ”I’m going to propose my own plan. And my plan will be somewhat different than what the Paul Ryan plan is, but I support the objectives of the Paul Ryan plan in terms of keeping Medicare alive, keeping it solvent and keeping the nation solvent.”

An Associated Press story the same day said Romney “hedged” his support for the Ryan plan. And the Boston Globe noted a few days later that “Romney has said that he and Ryan were ‘on the same page,’ although he has not wholly embraced the Wisconsin Republican’s budget plan.”

— Robert Farley