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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Arkansas Race Off to Misleading Start

The Arkansas Senate race got off to a dubious start as both major party candidates found themselves under attack in misleading TV ads:

  • Sen. Mark Pryor’s campaign ad says Rep. Tom Cotton “voted against the farm bill.” Cotton initially voted against the farm bill, but three weeks later he voted for the bill after it had been stripped of food-stamp funding. Cotton called the revised version a “true farm bill.”
  • Pryor also says Cotton wants to “privatize Social Security.” Cotton has voiced support for what he calls “a mixture of the traditional system and personal investments accounts.” That’s not the same as privatizing Social Security, as we’ve said numerous times.
  • Pryor claims Cotton “wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system,” citing his vote for the fiscal 2014 House budget. But the ad doesn’t mention that the budget plan says it would keep “the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program” in addition to creating a “premium-support payment,” or subsides, which the Democrats call “a voucher system.”
  • A Club for Growth Action TV ad says Pryor supported “trillions in debt, including wasting our money on Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere.” Pryor voted for a transportation bill in 2005 that included funding for two Alaska bridges, including the so-called Bridge to Nowhere. But he later voted to give Alaska the option to spend that money on other projects. The Bridge to Nowhere may never be built as the state considers improving ferry service instead.

Cotton, a freshman House Republican, announced he would run for the Senate on Aug. 6. That same day the Pryor campaign went on TV in Little Rock with a minute-long video titled “Running” that attacks Cotton’s brief record in Congress. Club for Growth Action announced its support for Cotton the next day and followed that up with a TV ad called “One Question” that attacks the Democrat Pryor’s “liberal” record.

Farm Bill

Let’s start with the Pryor ad and its claim about the farm bill.

The ad shows a muscular farmer standing in his field, while the narrator says, “Cotton voted against the farm bill, supported by every major farm organization in Arkansas and critical to our economy.” A list of Arkansas agricultural organizations that support the farm bill scrolls across the screen.

The Pryor campaign cites Cotton’s June 20 vote against the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost $940 billion over 10 years. Cotton had plenty of company in voting against the bill, which was defeated 195-234. Republican opponents, including Cotton, criticized the bill as too expensive. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as food stamps — was at the heart of the dispute, with some Republicans wanting deeper cuts in the program.

Three weeks later, on July 11, the bill came back up for a floor vote, and this time it passed, 216-208, after it had been stripped of funding for food stamps. Cotton voted for it.

As USA Today wrote, “The measure focuses solely on farm programs and would delay, at least for now, efforts to overhaul the country’s food-stamp program that traditionally has made up 80% of spending in the bill.” Cotton called it a “true farm bill” in a press release issued on the day of the vote. He said, “The Congress will work to reform food stamps at a later date, but it should pass a Farm Bill now.”

Not all of the state’s agricultural organizations saw Cotton as voting against the interests of farmers.

The Agricultural Council of Arkansas called the July 11 vote “progress” and said it appreciated Cotton “for changing his vote in support of this bill.”

The Agricultural Council of Arkansas, July 11: The Agricultural Council of Arkansas was glad to see the House of Representatives make progress on the farm bill. While we were disappointed that the House was unable to pass the Committee passed farm bill (H.R. 1947), we are pleased that the House was able to advance the non-nutrition titles of that farm bill, which will allow for the House and Senate to move to Conference. We hope the House and Senate will work together to provide a Conference Report that will contribute to deficit reduction, offer sufficient safety nets for farmers and low income Americans, and provide the certainty of a five-year law.

It would be more accurate for the Pryor campaign to cast Cotton’s votes on the farm bill as opposition to the level of funding for the food-stamp program, not opposition to the state’s farmers.

Social Security

The Pryor ad also says Cotton wants to “privatize Social Security.” Those words appear on the screen along with an elderly couple, who are clearly of retirement age. In support of its claim about privatizing Social Security, the ad cites two sources: Cotton’s campaign site, specifically from Sept. 14, 2011, and Cotton’s March 20, 2013, vote (roll call #86) on a budget alternative that failed. But neither source supports the claim of privatization.

Vote 86 was a failed attempt by Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia to amend and replace the House Republican budget resolution (H Con Res 25) sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan with an alternative drafted by the conservative Republican Study Committee, as explained by Woodall on page H1690 of the Congressional Record. The annual budget resolution is a non-binding document that sets general spending levels for the coming fiscal year, in this case fiscal 2014. The study committee’s plan would have set the course for the U.S. to have a balanced budget in four years, instead of 10 years as proposed under Ryan’s plan. Woodall’s amendment failed 104-132, with 171 members voting “present” and another 24 not voting at all. Cotton voted for it. Ryan’s budget resolution passed a day later. Cotton voted for that, too.

But here’s the thing: Woodall’s budget plan would not privatize Social Security. As a statement of policy, the Republican Study Committee’s plan did say that Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) payments should be “indexed to chained CPI-U, which more accurately tracks the impact of inflation.” But that same proposal was also made by President Obama in his fiscal 2014 budget, and it has nothing to do with privatization.

The ad also cites Cotton’s campaign website, specifically a post on Sept. 14, 2011, in support of the privatization claim. On that date, the campaign posted an item in Cotton’s own words that expressed support in general for cutting spending and reducing the debt. Cotton said in the item that he “support[s] plans like Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity budget and the Republican Study Committee’s Honest Solutions budget.” But neither of those proposed to privatize Social Security. Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” — an April 2011 document that provided policy proposals to support the House Republicans’ fiscal 2012 budget resolution — urged Congress to undertake “Social Security reform,” but it offered no specific proposals. The Republican Study Committee’s budget alternative would have raised the retirement age, but said nothing about privatization.

The only specific mention of Social Security in the Sept. 14, 2011, item was this: “I will work to save and strengthen Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security by introducing consumer choice and competition before these important programs collapse under the burden of debt.” Again, no specifics.

The Cotton website also posted a blog item on Oct. 7, 2011, from the National Review Online that quoted Cotton as saying the U.S. should “move to a mixture of the traditional [Social Security] system and personal investments accounts” — similar to what President Bush proposed in 2005. But that’s not the same thing as privatizing Social Security, as we’ve said numerous times. Under Bush’s plan, such personal investment accounts would be voluntary and would supplement the existing Social Security system, not replace it, and not all Social Security funds could be invested in the private accounts, which would be regulated mutual funds.

One last thing before we leave Social Security: The ad is largely accurate when it says that Cotton supported raising the “retirement age” for Social Security to 70. The Republican Study Committee’s fiscal 2014 budget plan, which Cotton supported, makes this proposal for Social Security: “The threshold for eligibility would increase to 70 in increments of 2 months per year beginning in 2024. These reforms would be phased in over decades and neither reform would have any impact on individuals currently 55 or older.” None of those details, however, are explained to viewers, who may be misled by the image of the elderly couple shown on the screen.


The ad also engages in Mediscare, when it warns that Cotton “wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system,” citing Cotton’s vote in March for Ryan’s budget plan. But it’s misleading to describe Ryan’s current plan as simply a “voucher system.”

Ryan has drafted the House budget resolution since he became chairman of the House Budget Committee in January 2011. His fiscal 2014 budget plan — as it did in fiscal 2013 — includes a “policy statement” that proposes to create a “premium-support payment” option for future Medicare beneficiaries “alongside the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program.”

Under his latest proposal, future beneficiaries — those who turn 55 in 2014 — would have the option beginning in 2024 to stay in the traditional Medicare plan or switch to one of the private plans that would be available on a new Medicare exchange. Beneficiaries would receive a subsidy in the form of a “premium-support payment” to cover the cost, or part of the cost, depending on which plan they pick. The premium-support payment would be tied to the cost of the second-cheapest plan, and the cost of that plan can’t rise faster than gross domestic product plus 0.5 percent.

Ryan first developed this Medicare plan with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in December 2011, and he included it in his fiscal year 2013 budget that he released in March 2012.

The TV ad doesn’t mention that the traditional program would remain an option for seniors or that the plan would only affect those who are now younger than 55.

Now, it is true that Ryan’s fiscal 2012 budget plan did include a proposal that would have replaced the traditional fee-for-service Medicare system with a “premium-support payment” system or a “voucher system,” as the Democrats called it. It is also true that Cotton voiced his general support for that budget plan in the Sept. 14, 2011, campaign Web post, as we mentioned earlier. But that Medicare plan is outdated. Ryan abandoned it in December 2011, when he came out with a new plan that keeps traditional fee-for-service Medicare as an option. And that’s what Ryan has included in his budget plans for the past two years, including the one that Cotton voted for in March.

Bridge to Nowhere

In support of Cotton, the Club for Growth Action aired a TV ad critical of Pryor’s vote for the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, using it as an example of his support for wasteful spending. But the bridge may never be built, and Pryor’s involvement in the project was minimal, no different than that of most senators.

Funding for two Alaska bridges — the Gravina Bridge and Knik Arm Bridge — was included in a $286.4 billion transportation spending bill in 2005 that was approved by the Senate with 91 votes, including Pryor’s. But Pryor did not sponsor the bill and did not request funding for the bridges, one of which — the Gravina Bridge — was derided by critics as the “Bridge to Nowhere” because it would connect Ketchikan to Gravina Island, which at the time had a population of 50 and an airport.

The members of Congress most responsible for the bridge funding were, not surprisingly, from Alaska: Then-Sen. Ted Stevens, a longtime member and twice the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Don Young, the then-chairman of the House transportation appropriations subcommittee and sponsor of the House bill.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn offered an amendment to specifically defund the bridges and redirect the funding to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridge in Louisiana that was damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Stevens threatened to resign if the Alaska projects were defunded. Coburn’s amendment failed by a 15-82 vote. Pryor voted against Coburn’s amendment.

However, as a result of the controversy, the transportation bill was later revised to remove specific mention of the bridges and instead give that money to the Alaska Department of Transportation with no strings attached. The bill passed 93-1, with Pryor voting for it. Under the law, Alaska could use the money for the bridges or for any other transportation project. As we wrote in 2008, then-Gov. Sarah Palin chose not to use the money for the Gravina Bridge and used it instead on other projects, including the Knik Arm Bridge.

Currently, the Alaska DOT is considering alternatives to the Gravina Bridge, and this month the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly voted to endorse improved ferry service, dropping its longtime support for the bridge.

Eugene Kiely

Correction, Feb. 6, 2014: We originally wrote that Club for Growth had aired the TV ad critical of Pryor. It was Club for Growth’s super PAC, Club for Growth Action, that aired the television spot.