In Congress, a Whole Lot of Half-Truths

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By Richard Morin
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Members of Congress tell the truth -- the whole truth -- only about a quarter of the time when debating major legislation on the floor of the House and Senate.

Instead, legislators mostly rely on half-truths, misleading exaggerations or outright inaccuracies when debating the nation's business, according to two political scientists who have studied the quality of debate in Congress.

Gary Mucciaroni of Temple University and Paul J. Quirk of the University of British Columbia sought to see how truthful America's lawmakers were in debating three major bills: welfare overhaul in 1995-1996, the fate of the estate tax in 1999-2000 and telecommunication deregulation in 1996 .

The two meticulously sifted through the Congressional Record to identify key claims made by each side to support its case and to rebut the assertions of opponents. They also compared the claims with available data to see if they were true, false or somewhere in between. In all, they examined the accuracy of 18 claims in 43 separate House and Senate debates.

How did the nation's lawmakers do? Not so well.

Researchers judged the claims made in only 11 of the 43 debates to have been largely substantiated by the facts. An additional 16 were deemed to be "unsubstantiated"-- a polite way of saying they were misleading, mostly false or flatly wrong -- while 16 were an artful mix of fact and fiction, they report in their new book, "Deliberative Choices: Debating Public Policy in Congress."

They rated the quality of the debates somewhere between "fair" and "poor" -- a C-minus, at best.

Does one party tell whoppers more often than the other? It's hard to tell, Mucciaroni said. "The Republicans performed worse than the Democrats in the welfare and estate tax debates, but not as much in telecommunications," Mucciaroni said. "We feel that this is probably due to the Republicans controlling Congress, especially the House. We might expect Democrats to do as poorly if they were in control . . . because majority status emboldens the majority to make more extravagant claims, and they feel pressure to deliver 'results.' "

They stopped short of asserting that members of the House and Senate lied to advance their positions. "We don't pretend to know whether they are lying, are ignorant, or misperceive the facts and informed opinion on an issue," Mucciaroni said. "Instead of using 'flatly lying,' we prefer 'flatly incorrect' or 'flatly inaccurate.' "

Somehow, that's not reassuring.

Tall and Smart

Researchers have known for decades that taller people earn more and have better jobs. Some researchers said it was because tall people had more self-esteem. Others said taller individuals physically and psychologically dominated their shorter colleagues. Still others said it was height discrimination.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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