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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bogus Bipartisan Claims

In a mailer to constituents, a Republican congressman claims 27 “bipartisan bills” have passed the House but “hit a brick wall” in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But most of the bills are not very “bipartisan.” A majority of House Democrats voted against all but five of the 27 proposals, sometimes overwhelmingly. One of these “bipartisan bills” had the support of only four Democrats, and another had the support of just eight.

The mailer — sent out by Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland and part of a larger campaign led by House Speaker John Boehner — contained other misleading claims:

  • The mailer states that the 27 bills have hit a “brick wall” in the Senate, although one of the bills became law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has expressed support for three more.
  • Westmoreland uses inflated figures in claiming that the Keystone XL Pipeline project would create “tens of thousands” of jobs.
  • The mailer misuses figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to falsely state “reports predict higher unemployment for the next two years.”

Our thanks to Jeanie Fusaro, of Peachtree City, Ga., who uploaded the mailer to our Spin Detectors website, through which we ask our readers to help us monitor political claims and campaigns across the country. Fusaro said she received the mailer in early March. Westmoreland sent the taxpayer-funded letter under the “franking privilege,” which dates to 1775 and is designed to allow elected officials to send official communications to constituents.

Hitting a ‘Brick Wall’

In his mailer, the Republican congressman argues that 27 bills designed to spur the economy have “hit a brick wall” in the Senate. It’s part of a House Republican campaign, led by Boehner, that contends the GOP-controlled House has done its job in trying to strengthen the economy.

Westmoreland mailer: … House Republicans have introduced more than 30 bills to help create jobs, grow our economy, and get our country back on the path of success. These bills have all passed the House with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, 27 of these bipartisan bills have hit a brick wall in the Senate, where leadership in the Senate has refused to bring these bills to the floor for an up or down vote.

Inflated claims of bipartisanship are not uncommon in Washington. In September, President Barack Obama overstated past bipartisan support for each proposal in his jobs stimulus bill. But — just as with the claims we examine here — parts of the president’s plan received only token Republican support while being opposed by an overwhelming majority of Republicans.

Westmoreland’s mailer provides a link to the “complete list of bipartisan legislation blocked by the Senate.” We used the Library of Congress website to track the votes for each bill. The first bill the GOP lists has been passed by the Senate and signed into law — contradicting Westmoreland’s “brick wall” claim. The bill was the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (known as the payroll tax cut extension), which Obama signed Feb. 22. The GOP’s website still lists the bill as “awaiting Senate action” and provides an outdated outline of the original bill, which had hardly any bipartisan support and barely resembled the final version. Ten Democrats voted for the version touted by the GOP. But the final version passed with true bipartisan support, as 146 Republicans joined 147 Democrats to approve it.

That bill was an exception, not the rule. We also found:

Leslie Shedd, a spokeswoman for Westmoreland, told us in an email: “To me, something is bipartisan if it has any support from both a Republican and a Democrat. For example, if a bill passes the House with only one Democrat vote, I still regard that bill as bipartisan.” She also provided a link to a definition of “bipartisan,” which described the word as “representing, characterized by, or including members from two parties or factions.” Shedd said: “[I]t describes it as ‘including members from both parties or factions.’ All of these bills did just that.” That same link also provided another definition from the World English Dictionary that described bipartisan as “consisting of or supported by two political parties.”

We found the Oxford Dictionaries website similarly described bipartisan as “of or involving the agreement or cooperation of two political parties that usually oppose each other’s policies.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no agreement between the parties here. There is, in most cases, only token support from some individual Democrats.

Two ‘Bipartisan Bills’

Westmoreland’s mailer singles out two pieces of legislation in particular as examples of “bipartisan bills” being blocked by the Senate. But both had only token Democratic support:

  • The Jobs and Energy Permitting Act was opposed by 85 percent, or 164 of 192 House Democrats. The bill was designed to speed up the permitting process for offshore oil drilling — particularly for Shell Oil off the northern coast of Alaska. Republicans said the bill would provide a fair process for Shell. Democrats argued the act would weaken EPA air pollution controls not just in Alaska but in other offshore areas.
  • The Protecting Jobs from Government Interference Act was supported by even fewer Democrats. Only eight of the 192 House Democrats voted for the bill last fall. Westmoreland’s mailer gives an incomplete description of the events that led to the bill. The mailer claims “[t]he bill is in response to last year’s suit filed by [the National Labor Relations Board] against Boeing for opening a new plant in the right-to-work state of South Carolina.” But South Carolina’s right-to-work status had nothing to do with the suit. As we wrote earlier this year, the NLRB alleged Boeing made the move to punish workers in Washington for engaging in five strikes since the 1970s. And the complaint was later dropped.

Blocked by Senate Leadership?

Four of the five proposals approved with a majority of House Democrats were the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act, the Access to Capital for Job Creators Act, the Small Company Capital Formation Act and H.R. 1965, which had no title but would amend the securities laws. The bills, designed to help small businesses, received support from 83 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of Republicans. With the exception of H.R. 1965, the bills were bundled into the Republican-sponsored Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. The House on March 8 overwhelmingly passed the bill with a 390-to-23 vote, with 19 members not voting. Reid, the Senate majority leader, said he would introduce similar legislation and “move as quickly as we can” to pass it, although he also touted a Senate highway bill that he said would create jobs more quickly.

The fifth bill that passed the House with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans was the “Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act.” The bill would ease country-specific limitations on high-skilled immigrants, allowing U.S. companies to retain more engineers and scientists from China and India. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has introduced similar legislation. Schumer’s bill hasn’t passed the Senate — but not because of its Democratic leadership. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has tried to slow the bill’s momentum, tacking on amendments, because he said he is concerned about high-skilled Americans seeking the jobs.

We’ve Heard This Before

The mailer repeated some well-worn spin from other Republicans. One misleading claim in the mailer’s first paragraph is: “While we have seen some improvement lately, reports predict higher unemployment for the next two years.”

Shedd, the spokeswoman for Westmoreland, told us that claim refers to a CBO report from January. But the CBO was not predicting higher unemployment, as the mailer claims. It was using a baseline projection to measure the impact of congressional actions against current law. Specifically, the report considered what would happen to the unemployment rate if Congress fails to extend tax cuts, fails to patch the Alternative Minimum Tax that threatens to raise taxes on more than 31 million Americans, and also allows big spending cuts to take effect. The CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario” — which considers the impact of Congress acting as it has in the past — projects next year’s unemployment rate could range from 7.4 percent to 8.9 percent. It’s currently 8.3 percent. We wrote about the report in February when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce similarly misused the CBO’s numbers.

Westmoreland also spins the truth about jobs and the Keystone XL Pipeline in making his case to remove “burdensome regulations.”

Westmoreland mailer: This is exemplified by President Obama’s recent decision to deny the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project expected to create tens of thousands of jobs and bring much needed energy from Canada.

First of all, Obama did not deny the permit; he delayed a decision on it, as we wrote in November when Michele Bachmann made a similar claim. And, as we wrote in December, the “tens of thousands of jobs” estimate — widely cited by proponents of the pipeline — comes from a report commissioned by the company pushing the pipeline. The numbers are based on “person-year” jobs, the equivalent of one full-time job for one year. If the same person works the same job for two years, it is counted as two one-year jobs. The State Department in August estimated the number of direct jobs created by the Keystone Pipeline at a more modest 5,000 to 6,000. Shedd, of Westmoreland’s office, told us the congressman trusts the report commissioned by TransCanada. She added: “Many people do expect the Keystone Pipeline to create tens of thousands of jobs, which is exactly what the mailer says.”

Overall, however, we found that Westmoreland’s mailer provides his constituents with a partisan view of what’s going on in Washington. And that’s ironic considering his overstated claims of bipartisanship.

— Ben Finley