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FactChecking the Arkansas Senate Race

The Arkansas Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton began for us in June 2013 — just six months into the new Congress — with an article that carried the headline “It’s Groundhog Day for Fact-Checkers.” It hasn’t gotten much better for fact-checkers since then.

The race — which remains a toss-up by virtually all accounts — has been our most fact-checked campaign of the 2014 congressional elections. Here are some of our findings:

Illegal Immigration and Border Security

Claim: Pryor voted “against a border fence.”

Facts: A Cotton campaign ad says Pryor cast three votes “against a border fence.” But that ignores Pryor’s votes for border fencing.

The first of the three votes highlighted in the TV ad came on April 7, 2006, when Congress was considering the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Pryor voted against cloture on a Republican immigration bill that focused primarily on border security. His campaign said Pryor feared a bill focused solely on security would have impeded progress on the comprehensive bill. In fact, Pryor several weeks later joined an overwhelming majority to support an amendment to the comprehensive bill that would have increased fencing along the border.

senatebattleSimilarly, the Cotton ad cites Pryor’s July 13, 2006, vote against an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions that would have provided the funding for it: $1.83 billion to construct 370 miles of double-layered fencing and at least 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the border with Mexico. But Pryor and others opposed the amendment because it would have made across-the-board cuts to the rest of the Homeland Security appropriations. Several weeks later, on Aug. 2, 2006, Pryor joined a large, bipartisan majority that voted for $1.83 billion in funding to construct 370 miles of triple-layered fencing, and 461 miles of vehicle barriers along the southwest border.

The third vote was against a 2010 amendment to a supplemental spending bill to provide funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other disaster relief in Haiti and the United States. Pryor’s campaign said he feared the amendment would slow down the progress of the supplemental bill.

Full story: “Cherry-picking Pryor on Border Security,” Aug. 6

Claim: Cotton “voted to cut funding for the border protection.”

Facts: This claim is based on the Pryor campaign’s assumption that Republican Study Committee budget plans, which Cotton supported, would have applied their deep cuts to discretionary spending across-the-board. The budgets, offered as more conservative alternatives to the mainstream Republican House budgets, don’t say that.

The 2014 plan, for example, called for a 22 percent cut in non-defense discretionary spending by fiscal year 2016. If those cuts were applied across-the-board, the Pryor campaign argues, it would mean cutting the border security budget by more than $800 million. The key phrase in the Pryor analysis, though, is “if those cuts were applied across-the-board” — a caveat that is missing in the ad. There is no suggestion of that in the RSC budget. In fact, the plan, a nonbinding budget resolution, is completely silent on the issue of border security funding.

Additionally, there is some evidence that Cotton has made border security a priority in the past, including his co-sponsoring H.R. 2220, the SMART Act of 2013, which would have beefed up security along the southwestern border.

Full story: “More Border Security Spin in Arkansas,” Aug. 8

Claim: Pryor “voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.”

Facts: Actually, what Pryor voted for wouldn’t have paid a penny to any immigrant living in the U.S. illegally.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which made this claim in a TV ad, cited a vote to kill a Republican amendment offered by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada that would have stripped those gaining legal status under the proposed immigration bill of a right they already had. That is, the right of anyone gaining citizenship or legal status to get credit toward future Social Security benefits based on taxes paid while working in the U.S. without legal permission.

To twist a vote to kill Ensign’s measure into a vote to pay benefits to people while they are here illegally is a gross distortion of the facts.

Full story: “Headed for the Hall of Shame,” Aug. 20

Affordable Care Act

Claim: Pryor voted “to give members of Congress special benefits to purchase Obamacare.”

Facts: Pryor voted to continue the same employer payments for health insurance that members of Congress have had for many years — the same as those paid for millions of other federal employees, retirees and their families. This common distortion, used against those who voted for the Affordable Care Act, came from the NRSC.

The vote in question came during the final hours of the partisan maneuvering that resulted in last year’s 16-day government shutdown. In a straight party-line vote, Pryor joined 51 other Democrats (and two independents) to reject a House-passed bill that would have delayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate for a full year in return for providing funding to keep the federal government open through Dec. 15. The bill also contained a provision that would strip lawmakers and aides of their long-standing health care benefits.

But there’s nothing “special” about those benefits. The Office of Personnel Management pays an average of 72 percent (but no more than 75 percent) of the private health insurance premiums for federal workers under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which until this year also covered members of Congress and their staffs. OPM adopted a rule on Oct. 2, 2013, that continued the same employer payments when congressional members and aides moved from the FEHB to the new exchanges.

Full story: “Headed for the Hall of Shame,” Aug. 20

Claim: Pryor’s vote for the Affordable Care Act is responsible for “higher health care costs.”

Facts: Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group responsible for this ad, cites a Forbes story about an analysis from the conservative Manhattan Institute. But the analysis pertains only to the individual market and didn’t adjust for subsidies or increased benefits under the ACA.

The institute concluded that individual market premiums would rise by an average of 49 percent due to the new health care law. But the ad does not mention that it is referring only to those who buy insurance on the individual market. That’s 4 percent of Arkansans. The institute study also did not adjust for the fact that ACA plans have certain minimum benefit requirements that pre-ACA plans did not have to meet. It also did not account for federal subsidies, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would be extended to 80 percent of all those buying exchange plans nationwide.

For most Arkansans— 40 percent of the population —who have their insurance through their workplaces, premiums have gone up 5.9 percent, on average, per year since the law was enacted, while in the five years before the ACA, premiums went up 4.8 percent, on average, per year.

Full story: “Stretching the Truth in Arkansas,” July 21

Social Security

Claim: Pryor “suggested raising the retirement age” for Social Security.

Facts: Pryor suggested raising the retirement age for those who are now teenagers, but an ad run by the conservative group Crossroads GPS uses pictures of elderly Americans to leave the false impression Pryor was talking about seniors who are in or near retirement.

The ad displayed pictures of elderly Americans and a video clip of Pryor speaking the words, “say that they couldn’t get Social Security until they turn 68 or 69.” The full quote from a June 6, 2011, interview with Hope, Arkansas’ KTSS-TV makes it clear that he is referring to “my kids’ generation, teenagers today” when he is talking about raising the retirement age for Social Security.

It’s a technique we’ve seen in political ads many times, when the images on screen leave the false impression that a politician had made proposals that would impact those who are seniors today.

Full story: “More Senior Scare in Arkansas,” Aug. 22

Claim: Cotton wants to “privatize Social Security.”

Facts: 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 the Pryor campaign claims.

The Cotton website 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. 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. That’s not the same thing as privatizing Social Security, as we’ve said numerous times.

Full story: “Arkansas Race Off to a Misleading Start,” Aug. 9, 2013

Government Spending

Claim: Pryor is responsible for “higher gas and grocery bills.”

Facts: Americans for Prosperity cites three votes cast against domestic drilling to support its claim in a TV ad that Pryor is responsible for higher gasoline prices. All three were for amendments that would have banned drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But a 2008 report by the Energy Information Administration examined the impact of drilling in ANWR and concluded that oil production in that area would not significantly influence world oil prices and warned that there may not be any impact at all.

As for higher grocery bills, AFP cites Pryor’s vote for the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The 2005 Energy Policy Act mandated that specified levels of renewable fuel be blended into gasoline. Pryor’s 2007 vote expanded the requirement for renewable fuel, which increased the demand for ethanol and, in turn, increased prices of livestock and corn products. However, the USDA said in 2008 that the inflated price of corn had very little effect on overall retail food prices.

Full story: “Stretching the Truth in Arkansas,” July 21

Claim: Pryor has voted with President Obama and the Democratic Party 90 percent of the time.

Facts: Cotton accuses Pryor of “toeing the line” for President Obama and the Democratic Party, claiming Pryor voted with them 90 percent of the time. But the party unity figure is wrong (it’s actually 80 percent), and the presidential support figure, although accurate, shows Pryor voted against Obama more than any other Senate Democrat.

The ad cites a Feb. 3 CQ Weekly article. The CQ Weekly analysis shows that in votes where Obama expressed a preferred vote outcome, Pryor opposed him 10 percent of the time — including votes on gun control, border control and one of Obama’s judicial nominees. No Senate Democrat seeking reelection this fall voted against the president’s wishes more often. In terms of the Democratic Party, CQ Weekly found that Pryor bucked the party unity votes nearly 20 percent of the time last year, second among Senate Democrats only to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Cotton’s voting was actually more reliably Republican than Pryor’s was reliably Democratic. According to CQ Weekly, Cotton voted in accordance with his party 97 percent of the time last year.

Full story: “Pryor’s Prior Partisan Votes,” June 13

Claim: Pryor supported “trillions in debt, including wasting our money on Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere.”

Facts: 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.

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. The Bridge to Nowhere may never be built as the state considers improving ferry service instead.

Full story: “Arkansas Race Off to a Misleading Start,” Aug. 9, 2013


Claim: Cotton “wants to end Medicare’s guarantee, giving billions in profits to insurance companies while costing seniors $6,000 more a year.”

Facts: The Senate Majority PAC has made this claim or something similar in more than one TV ad. But it is an outdated attack based on an old budget plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan in 2011 and supported by Cotton as a candidate that year. The $6,000 figure is also inaccurate.

The Ryan budget plan in 2011 would have radically changed Medicare in the future — for workers now under age 55.  The plan called for new Medicare beneficiaries to purchase private insurance with the help of federal subsidies. An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office at the time indicated that a 65-year-old in 2022 could pay about $6,000 more than he or she would for the year under traditional Medicare.

But Ryan changed this budget plan the next year. Every plan since then would give seniors the option of staying in a traditional Medicare plan or receiving premium-support payments to buy private insurance plans. And he has made other changes to make the premium-support payments more generous. In fact, his latest plan is modeled on an option that a September 2013 CBO report said could produce savings in total health costs. That CBO report also said its 2011 analysis of the Ryan plan was based on assumptions that turned out to be incorrect, making the $6,000 figure both outdated and no longer valid.

Full story: “Disconnecting the Dots in Arkansas,” April 11

Claim: Cotton was “paid handsomely working for insurance companies” before joining Congress.

Facts: Cotton’s supposed experience “working for insurance companies” amounts to consulting work done on behalf of the Federal Housing Administration.

The Senate Majority PAC portrayed Cotton as someone who is trying to help out his buddies in the insurance industry by supporting Ryan’s Medicare proposal. The group points to Cotton’s Facebook “about” page, which says during his time as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. he “advised some of America’s most respected companies on business strategy, operations, finance, and marketing. His industry experience includes agribusiness, health care, oil and gas, food processing, insurance, and aerospace.”

But our reporting found that insurance experience amounted to consulting work done on behalf of the Federal Housing Administration to help its Office of Multifamily Housing Programs better manage its backlog. Any money that McKinsey — where Cotton was a consultant — made from the FHA project would have ultimately come from the federal government, not from private insurance companies. And so, we concluded, the insinuation that Cotton’s time at McKinsey gave him ties to the insurance industry — that are now influencing his views on Medicare — was simply misplaced.

Full story: “Disconnecting the Dots in Arkansas,” April 11

Claim: Cotton backed a plan that could “cost seniors up to $1,700 more a year.”

Facts: The $1,700 figure, used in a Patriot Majority USA ad, refers to Cotton’s support for Ryan’s Medicare proposal and its impact on the prescription drug “doughnut hole.” Most seniors wouldn’t be affected.

The ad says: “Cotton pushed a plan that would undermine Medicare’s guarantee. And could cost seniors up to $1,700 more a year.”

As we’ve written before, the Ryan plan would increase prescription drug costs for some — but not all — seniors because it repeals a provision of the Affordable Care Act that lowered prescription drug costs for some seniors. The Ryan plan would do away with the Affordable Care Act provision that slowly closes the so-called “doughnut hole” coverage gap in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. The $1,700 figure refers to seniors who surpass the gap in coverage. In fact, most do not. In 2013, 12 percent of the 35.7 million seniors with Part D plans received discounts while in the coverage gap, so those seniors would have paid something more under the Ryan plan.

Full story: “More Weak Claims on Cotton’s Insurance Ties,” April 17

Claim: “Cotton’s plan” for Medicare would affect “every senior in Arkansas” and “cut benefits.”

Facts: Similarly, the Pryor campaign attacked Cotton for his support of Ryan’s Medicare plan, but it wouldn’t pertain to those who are now seniors.

Ryan’s plan would not pertain to those 55 and over, and another plan Cotton supported (an alternative offered by the Republican Study Committee) would not pertain to those 60 and older. So, neither plan would affect “every senior in Arkansas.”

As for cutting benefits, Ryan’s plan requires that policies sold on the Medicare exchange include a minimum level of benefits, the actuarial equivalent of traditional Medicare. Critics say seniors may have to settle for fewer benefits if the premium-support subsidies don’t keep up with health care costs. But that’s speculation.

Full story: “Old Medicare Claims in Arkansas Senate Race,” Feb. 21

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of summary articles on key races that could decide control of the U.S. Senate. The Senate is currently controlled by the Democrats.

— The Staff of FactCheck.org