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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pork, Served Two Ways, in Iowa

A TV ad from Rep. Bruce Braley says his Republican opponent in the Iowa Senate race “never wrote one measure to slash spending” as a state senator — implying her record is devoid of any effort to cut spending. But that’s not the case.

The ad says Joni Ernst “never sponsored a bill to cut pork,” despite her attention-getting TV spot that says her experience castrating hogs would come in handy in pork-filled Washington. (“Let’s make ’em squeal,” Ernst says of Washington “big-spenders.”)

But the Democrat’s ad doesn’t mention that Ernst also backed measures aimed at decreasing spending. To be sure, Ernst’s record as an Iowa state senator isn’t loaded with cost-cutting legislation. The Ernst campaign points to just three measures to defend itself. But she has indeed supported legislation aimed at saving the state money.

Braley’s ad is essentially a video form of a column by the conservative Iowa Republican website.

The column — written by the site’s founder, Craig Robinson, a former state Republican Party political director — mentions Ernst hog-castration ad and then says she “has never offered an amendment that would cut spending in her time in the Iowa Senate.” Robinson continues: “Perhaps that’s why Ernst uses her experience on the farm castrating pigs to tout her pork cutting in her campaign ad and not her record in the Iowa Senate. In fact, instead of cutting pork in the Iowa Senate, Ernst has a record of sponsoring amendments that actually increase spending.”

The criticism was written May 15, before Ernst won the GOP primary on June 3.

The narrator in the Braley ad similarly says: “We’ve all heard the one about pigs squealing, but when Joni Ernst had the chance to do something in Iowa, we didn’t hear a peep. In the state Senate Ernst never sponsored a bill to cut pork. Never wrote one measure to slash spending. In fact the Iowa Republican says she backed measures to actually increase spending.”

Ernst may not have authored legislation to “slash spending,” but she co-sponsored several measures intended to save the state money or cut wasteful spending, such as bills to freeze state hiring, develop less expensive state retirement plans and require a cost-benefit analysis before building new state rest stops. The ad says she never “wrote” cost-cutting legislation, language we took to mean she hadn’t introduced such a bill as the lead sponsor. But the Braley campaign goes even further in the support it sent us for the ad, saying, “Ernst Has Never Introduced, Sponsored Or Co-Sponsored A Bill That Would Cut Wasteful Spending In The Iowa State Government.” That’s simply not accurate.

The Ernst campaign points to three measures to defend itself from the Braley ad claims: Ernst’s co-sponsoring of the hiring freeze bill, and her co-sponsoring of two resolutions to limit government spending. (Resolutions are non-binding declarations.) None of these measures made it out of committee.

We found more in Ernst’s legislative history to show a desire to reduce or limit spending. In 2011, Ernst co-sponsored a bill that would have required the state Department of Transportation to do a cost-benefit analysis before building a new rest area along a highway. The bill said, “The department shall consider all available options for reconstructing, expanding, or otherwise improving an existing rest area in accordance with section 306C.21 and shall not proceed with construction of a new rest area unless it is determined that making improvements to the existing rest area would be cost prohibitive.” The measure didn’t pass — and never actually came to a vote — but it’s clearly intended to reduce unnecessary spending.

In February of this year, Ernst co-sponsored legislation calling for a new defined contribution pension plan for some public employees, including police officers, fire fighters and judicial employees. The bill, which hasn’t moved since being referred to committee in mid-February, required the study and development of new retirement systems that would come at a lower, and more stable, cost to taxpayers.

It’s unclear how much — if anything — some of these bills would have ended up saving the Iowa government. For instance, the state Department of Transportation would have to spend something to do a cost-benefit analysis on whether to build new rest stops, and we don’t know how much the analyses would actually save. Also, the Braley campaign argues that a hiring freeze doesn’t necessarily save money and points to a March 23, 2011, article by Stateline that backs up that assertion. Stateline reported that hiring freezes were a popular form of cost-cutting, but even the long-term efforts “sometimes have reverse consequences, adding new, semi-permanent layers to the bureaucracies they’re tasked with trimming.”

Like other hiring freezes, the one Ernst supported included exemptions, including positions related to corrections, state hospitals, mental health, child protective services, fire fighting and public safety. Since the bill never passed — or even garnered significant debate — we don’t know what impact it would have had. We called and emailed the Ernst campaign to ask whether there were any analyses or cost-cutting projections related to the bill, but we did not get a response.

As for the ad’s claim that “the Iowa Republican says she backed measures to actually increase spending.” That’s accurate, and Ernst did. She backed measures for spending on transportation projects, the state preschool program, and a fund for road and bridge repair.

The Braley campaign’s press release says its ad “exposes state Sen. Joni Ernst’s record as a typical politician who says one thing, but does the exact opposite.” But Ernst never claimed she had cut legislative pork or slashed spending in her ad. Instead, Ernst said her experience with real, live pigs would be relevant in a Congress filled with the metaphorical type of pork, saying: “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork.” Voters can decide for themselves whether to take that seriously.

Ernst’s record is fair game for her opponent, whether she aired a popular tongue-in-cheek (we think) ad or not. But saying she “never wrote one measure to slash spending” overlooks the part of her record aimed at cutting costs.

— Lori Robertson, with Lauren Shapiro