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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Debatable Facts in South Carolina

In a spirited debate between South Carolina congressional candidates Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Mark Sanford, we found a couple of misleading statements — and one seemingly contradictory exchange about Sanford’s voting record that isn’t.

  • Democrat Colbert Busch said that when Sanford, a Republican, was governor “98,000 jobs were lost in this state.” That’s incorrect. Colbert Busch was counting the increase in the number of unemployed people, but the labor force grew. There were 7,200 more jobs by the end of Sanford’s term — a 0.4 percent increase, slightly better than the national performance.
  • According to Sanford, one government report shows the federal health care law will add $6.2 trillion to the national debt. He is referring to an analysis of the cost using an “alternative scenario,” which assumes some cuts in the law are politically unrealistic. And it then considers debt accumulated over the next 75 years.
  • Colbert Busch, meanwhile, said the cost of the law is already “$500 billion higher than we initially anticipated.” But she is comparing numbers from two different time periods. The year-to-year projection of the cost of the law has changed little.
  • Colbert Busch repeatedly noted that Sanford voted in Congress to deny funding for projects at the Charleston Harbor and Port of Charleston. Sanford called that a “gross mischaracterization.” They are both technically correct. Sanford expressed support for the projects, but voted against the large spending bills that contained them because he opposes earmarks.

The first and only debate in the high-profile special election to fill a vacant South Carolina congressional seat was a contentious affair from the start. Colbert Busch subtly jabbed Sanford for using taxpayer money to fly to Argentina for a “personal purpose” (he was visiting his then-mistress, now fiance). Sanford, meanwhile, repeatedly tried to paint Colbert Busch as beholden to labor unions and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

While clear differences emerged on a whole host of issues, from immigration to school vouchers, the April 29 debate was muddied by some distorted claims on jobs, health care and Sanford’s position and votes on Charleston port projects. The election is May 7.


Colbert Busch went on the attack against Sanford’s record of creating jobs while he was governor of South Carolina from 2003 to 2011.

Colbert Busch, April 29: Mark, let’s be candid, when you were governor, 98,000 jobs were lost in this state.

Sanford said he “respectfully disagreed,” and added, “if you look at the numbers, our state was 15th in the nation in employment growth during my governorship and ninth in the nation in labor force.”

We went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and found that the number of jobs in South Carolina went from 1,809,600 in January 2003 (when Sanford took office) to 1,816,800 in January 2011 (when he left office). That’s an increase of 7,200 jobs. Percentage-wise, it’s just a 0.4 percent increase. But that still bested the national jobs figures, which ended up almost exactly where they started eight years prior.

So how did Colbert Busch get to 98,000 jobs lost? The Colbert Busch campaign office explained that it was looking at the BLS’ unemployment statistics. That’s a different data set. The employment figures count the number of jobs. Some people may have two jobs, and those are counted twice. The unemployment figures, on the other hand, count people.

The number of unemployed people in South Carolina grew from 125,530 to 229,413 between January 2003 and January 2011. So Colbert Busch would have been accurate had she said that there were 103,883 more unemployed people. But it’s not accurate to say 103,883 jobs were lost. The labor force in South Carolina also grew during that period by 191,784.

As we have written before, state employment numbers can be misleading when used in political campaigns, as they often parallel national trends. For example, the unemployment rate in South Carolina went from 6.4 percent when Sanford took office to 10.6 percent when he left. Nationally, the unemployment rate went from 5.8 percent to 9.1 percent. In other words, South Carolina’s unemployment rate was a little higher than the national rate when Sanford took office, and it was a little higher than the national rate when he left.

Health Care

In a debate that featured many stark differences in positions, both candidates agreed that the federal health care law is far too expensive, though they offered different numbers for how much the estimated cost of the law has grown. And it turns out, both are citing misleading figures.

Asked about the bill, Sanford said, “Let me be clear, I don’t like the bill. … And I would vote to defund it if I moved to become a member of Congress.”

Sanford: If you look at the Government Accounting Office’s numbers, what they show is that it will add $6.2 trillion to the national debt. And the Congressional Budget Office numbers have already shown a doubling in its cost.

Colbert Busch agreed the law is “extremely problematic” and “needs an enormous fix.”

Colbert Busch: It is a $500 billion higher cost than we originally anticipated. It’s cutting into Medicare benefits.

Let’s start with the Sanford version. Sanford’s office said he was referring to a Government Accountability Office report that considered the impact of the law if some of the cost control measures in it are not fully implemented. According to the report, the idea that the law would not add to federal deficits “depends largely on whether elements in PPACA [Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] designed to control cost growth are sustained.” As we have noted in the past, and the GAO report echoes, Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has warned that it “may be unrealistic” to assume that some restraints on the future growth of Medicare payments to hospitals and skilled nursing facilities called for in the health care law will actually materialize.

That’s because Foster’s computer simulations suggest that roughly 15 percent of hospitals and other such providers would become unprofitable under the restraints. “Although this policy could be monitored over time to avoid such an outcome, changes would likely result in smaller actual savings than shown here for these provisions,” Foster wrote in a 2010 report. He noted that Congress had overridden similar restraints on Medicare payments to physicians (enacted in 1997) for each of the seven years prior to his report. Congress has continued to put off those doctor-payment cuts since then.

Based on that reality, GAO ran an alternative scenario that “assumed cost containment mechanisms specified in PPACA were phased out over time while the additional costs associated with expanding federal health care coverage remained.” The GAO report concluded the health care law would increase federal deficits by 0.7 percent of gross domestic product, or roughly $6.2 trillion, over the next 75 years.

So Sanford left out two very big caveats: first, that the report assumed the law would not be implemented as written, and second, that the debt figure he cited is over the next 75 years.

Both candidates gave highly misleading accounts of the law’s cost. Sanford claimed CBO’s updated projections “have already shown a doubling in its cost,” while Colbert Busch claimed the law will result in a “$500 billion higher cost than we originally anticipated.”

Both are referring to the latest report from the CBO about the budgetary impact of the health care law:

CBO, March 20, 2013: When the ACA and other proposals that led up to that legislation were being considered by the Congress in 2009 and 2010, CBO and JCT [Joint Committee on Taxation] prepared estimates of those proposals’ budgetary effects over the 2010–2019 period. In the estimate prepared in March 2010, CBO and JCT projected that the provisions of the ACA related to health insurance coverage would cost the federal government $788 billion between 2010 and 2019. The latest projections extend the original ones by four years, corresponding to the shift in the regular 10-year projection period since 2009, and the estimated cost of the ACA’s insurance coverage provisions between 2013 and 2023 is $1,329 billion. However, the projections for each given year have changed little, on net, since March 2010.

So Colbert Busch argues that the projected cost has risen from $788 billion to $1.33 trillion, or a little more than $500 billion. We have written before about the fallacy that the projected cost of the health care law has doubled. As the CBO makes clear, the difference in the numbers is due to a difference in the years included. The newer report looks at a 10-year projection beginning in 2013. As the report states, for the common years considered by the earlier and later reports, “the projections for each given year have changed little, on net.”

It is also worth noting that both Sanford and Colbert Busch were citing only the costs of the health care law. As the CBO noted it its latest report, when one also considers the projected revenues from the law, it is expected to reduce federal deficits slightly over the next 10 years.

As for Colbert Busch’s comment that the health care law is “cutting into Medicare benefits,” there are no proposed cuts to traditional Medicare benefits. However, the law would, over time, cut back the extra money paid to private Medicare Advantage plans until those payments come in line with payments for traditional Medicare. That may result in lower participation in the program or the elimination of some extra benefits provided by some Medicare Advantage plans, such as free gym memberships or eyeglasses.

Bridge and Dredging

Colbert Busch repeatedly criticized Sanford for voting in Congress against federal money for dredging the Charleston Harbor shipping channel and building a higher bridge so the port can accommodate newer and larger container ships.

Colbert Busch: I would like to make note that Mark Sanford, my opponent, voted against the dredging for the port, voted against the bridge and voted against everything. And he was the only congressman [from South Carolina] to do that.

Sanford, who served in Congress from 1995 to 2001, allowed that he “voted exactly as has been roughly described.” But he called her claim a “gross mischaracterization” of his position. Sanford said he does, in fact, support federal funding for those projects, but that he voted against bills that included those projects because they were laden with earmarks — which he has staunchly opposed.

Sanford: I would say it would be a gross mischaracterization to say I voted against the bridge/port funding or anything else because I disagree with the method of getting money for the bridge. I absolutely did not disagree with getting money to the bridge. And I think that’s a very important distinction. Because I was in essence against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool.

First of all, neither the bridge or dredging projects came before Congress for a standalone up or down vote. A $21 billion energy and water development appropriations bill in 1997 included $2 million to begin dredging Charleston Harbor (it was estimated to ultimately be a $117 million project). Sanford was the only member of the South Carolina delegation to vote against the appropriations bill, which passed 404-17. Ultimately it was signed into law. Sanford was in the company of a small but growing number of conservative groups pushing back against the practice of earmarks. A memo from the conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, denounced the hundreds of “pork barrel” projects stuffed into the bill and urged then-President Bill Clinton to line-item veto all of them, including the $2 million for the Charleston Harbor.

But opposition to earmarks is different than opposing the projects. Sanford noted in the debate that he was always a proponent of the dredge and bridge projects. His office pointed to testimony he delivered to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development in 1996.

Sanford, Feb. 28, 1996: The dredging of the Charleston and Georgetown Harbors is a vital function that is also provided by the Army Corps of Engineers. … It is very clear that the return from this investment is going to more than justify this proposal. These improvements are necessary in order to sustain the growth of this port that benefits not only my district, but also the exporters throughout South Carolina. … The Port of Charleston needs to continue to be deepened to keep up with newer and larger container ships. … This should be viewed as a basic maintenance cost on what is a national resource that creates jobs as well as revenues for the federal treasury.

Sanford also opposed a $216 billion transportation bill that included $416.4 million per year for six years and $39.3 million toward a Cooper River Bridge replacement, according to the Charleston Post and Courier on May 23, 1998. Sanford missed the vote on the bill, which passed 297-86. But the Post and Courier quoted his aides as saying that Sanford would have voted against it because it included 1,467 earmarks and he had philosophical concerns about special project money. The newspaper noted that Sanford did, however, urge transportation officials to put the 1st District’s share of special projects money toward the Cooper River Bridge.

And last, Sanford voted against a $58 billion transportation appropriations bill that included a $30 million earmark for construction of the Cooper River Bridge. The bill passed 344-50.

All three of the bills included hundreds, in some cases thousands, of earmarks totalling billions of dollars, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks earmarks.

“It is certainly the case that Congressman Sanford was against earmarks before being against earmarks was cool,” Ellis told FactCheck.org. “Just because you vote against a piece of legislation doesn’t mean you oppose every single thing in it.”

— Robert Farley