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Fact checking the NBC Florida debate

at 01:35 AM ET, 01/24/2012


(Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

There were fewer fireworks Monday night as we continued our long march through GOP Endless Debate World, but still many dubious facts and statistics popped up at the debate hosted by NBC News with the National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times. We will examine some key ones in the order in which they were made, reserving the right to examine others in more detail in the coming days.

As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchio ratings during instant debate fact checks, only in full length columns.

“When I was speaker [of the House], we had four consecutive balanced budgets, the only time in your lifetime, Brian, that we’ve had four consecutive balanced budgets.”

— Newt Gingrich

We have repeatedly called Gingrich out on this, and yet he keeps saying it. There are three key problems with his claim.

First, he was only speaker for two of those years. He left in January 1999; the budget ran a surplus in the fiscal years of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Second, Gingrich opposed two tax-raising budget deals in 1990 and 1993 that were mostly responsible for bringing the budget into balance.

The budget was also balanced because, during the Gingrich years, the Democratic White House and Republican Congress were in absolute legislative stalemate, so neither side could implement grand plans to increase spending or cut taxes. (Look what happened with tax cuts — and the surplus — when a Republican president followed Clinton.)

Third, the gross debt kept rising because the surplus included money earmarked for Social Security. Thus, even during the surplus years, the gross debt (including bonds issued to Social Security and Medicare) rose by $400 billion. Gross debt is the figure that conservatives tend to use. During Gingrich’s time as speaker, the public debt was essentially flat, and the gross debt rose $700 billion.

“In the 1990s, he had to resign in disgrace from this job as speaker.... In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington.... They also took a vote, and 88 percent of Republicans voted to reprimand the speaker, and he did resign in disgrace after that. This was the first time in American history that a speaker of the House has resigned from the House.”

— Mitt Romney

There is a lot to unpack in this series of statements by Romney, but Gingrich was right to claim that the chronology was all jumbled up. Romney suggests that Gingrich had to resign because of the ethics probe, but that is not correct. As Rep. Ron Paul noted, “he didn’t have the votes” after Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections. You can read The Washington Post article on Gingrich’s resignation, and see that there is no mention of the ethics probe.

As Gingrich pointed out, the ethics probe, which resulted in a reprimand and a $300,000 fine, was completed almost two years before his resignation, though it certainly weakened him. As for Gingrich being the first speaker to resign, that’s not correct. Gingrich, in fact, became famous for forcing the resignation of House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 over ethics violations.

Romney’s use of the phrase “influence peddler” is also tendentious. The phrase has a criminal tinge to it, but so far there is nothing to suggest that Gingrich broke any laws, even if one thinks his “consulting” efforts are akin to lobbying.

“Mr. Speaker, on this stage, at a prior debate, you said you were paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac as an historian. They don’t pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians.”

— Romney

Romney is twisting what was certainly a bad turn of phrase by Gingrich at the CNBC debate in November.

What Gingrich actually said was: “Every contract that was written during the period when I was out of the office specifically said I would do no lobbying, and I offered advice.” Then, he added that “my advice as a historian” was that their business model of “making loans to people who have no credit history” was “insane.”

Perhaps sensing that the phrase would come back to haunt Gingrich, his campaign that night put out a statement to clarify why he was hired. “The Gingrich Group was hired to offer strategic advice to Freddie Mac on a number of issues,” the statement said.

“Government-sponsored enterprises include, for example, telephone cooperatives, rural electric cooperatives, federal credit unions.”

— Gingrich

Gingrich, who should know better, has said this in a number of debates, earning “pants on fire” from our colleagues at PolitiFact. Not by any stretch of the imagination are rural electric cooperatives or federal credit unions the equivalent of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

“We [Bain Capital] didn’t do any work with the government.”

— Romney

This was a strange comment by Romney. Bain Capital certainly benefited from government tax breaks and subsidies in some of its investments, as the Los Angeles Times documented earlier this month.

“I signed a letter, along with 24 other senators, that said, we either do something now, stop the filibuster of this bill. Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, all of whom were in the Senate at the time. They were filibustering this bill to allow reform of Fannie and Freddie. And we said, if this doesn’t happen, if we don’t constrain these two behemoths from continuing to underwrite this subprime mortgage problem, then we’re going to have a collapse.”

— Rick Santorum

Santorum appears to overstate the importance of this letter. The key writer of the letter was Sen. John McCain, and it was addressed to the Republican leadership. There is no mention of the “subprime mortgage problem” in the letter.

“Under this president and under prior presidents, we keep on shrinking our Navy. Our Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917.”

— Romney

Romney is technically correct, and notes that the smaller Navy is the result of many presidents, not just Obama. But it’s a bit of a nonsense fact, because naval ships today do much more than the ships of nearly 100 years ago. (Think nuclear power.) This claim reminds us of another naval tale that Romney seems to have dropped after we pointed out how wrong it was.

“And I would say that the most dangerous thing, which by the way, Barack Obama just did, the — the Iranians are practicing closing the Strait of Hormuz, actively taunting us, so he cancels a military exercise with the Israelis so as not to be provocative?”

— Gingrich

Gingrich is repeating a rumor that was strongly denied by the Israeli ambassador to the United States.

“Such postponements are routine and do not reflect political or strategic concerns,” Michael Oren said, citing technical reasons. “The United States and Israel remain committed to holding the exercise — code-named Austere Challenge 12 — the largest and most robust in their historic alliance.”

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported this week that Iran has “made a subtle blink” and backed down from its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.

“We have $15 trillion of debt. We’re headed to a Greece-type collapse, and he adds another trillion [dollars] on top for Obamacare and for his stimulus plan that didn’t create private-sector jobs.”

— Romney

Two wrong statements in a single sentence. The Obama health plan over 10 years slightly reduces the deficit, mainly because of new taxes; Romney does the old trick of counting only costs. And while there have been complaints about the effectiveness of the stimulus bill, most studies have concluded that it created private-sector jobs — lots of them.

“I went to a Goldwater organizing session in 1964. I met with Ronald Reagan for the first time in 1974.”

— Gingrich

This is an example of selective history. Gingrich neatly skips over the fact that he was southern regional director for the presidential campaign of (northeast liberal!) Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1968.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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