Last week, we handed Two Pinocchios to Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) for his claim that he voted to “repeal and repay” the Troubled Assets Relief Program (a.k.a., “the Wall Street bailout”) because he had actually voted for TARP in the first place — a fact not disclosed in his campaign literature or his ads. Simpson made the ad in response to the Club for Growth, which has highlighted Simpson’s original vote for TARP — and his frequent defense of that vote until he faced a serious challenge this year. The Club for Growth is backing Simpson’s primary challenger, Bryan Smith.

Simpson’s campaign cried foul, saying The Fact Checker should apply the same scrutiny to the Club for Growth ad — titled “The Facts” — that prompted Simpson’s response. We are happy to do so.

The Facts

What we have here is a battle of two different narratives, in which each side is calling attention to particular votes to make their case. The Fact Checker faulted Simpson on the claim about TARP vote because he highlighted a procedural vote of little importance, compared to the actual vote for the legislation.

The first claim in the ad is that Simpson voted for TARP. No argument there.

So let’s look at the three other claims made in the Club for Growth ad regarding votes to raise the debt limit, an amendment on the stimulus bill and a vote on a park in Nancy Pelosi’s district. Which side has the better argument?

“Simpson voted to increase the national debt by trillions without any spending cuts”

Here, it depends on what votes you count, as Simpson did vote to increase the debt limit in 2002, 2004 and 2008, when George W. Bush, also a Republican, was president. Then, he generally voted against raising the debt limit once Barack Obama took office.

This is fairly typical congressional behavior, but Todd Cranney, a senior adviser to the Simpson campaign, denied that Simpson was swayed by partisan concerns. He says during the Bush years the country was fighting two wars and the deficits were smaller, but that Simpson shifted his position once annual deficits exceeded $1 trillion. However, Simpson more recently voted in 2013 to “suspend” the debt limit, in effect raising it.

Club for Growth is an organization that looks for ideological consistency, whereas Simpson is trying to explain that his votes need to be examined in context. In his own ad, Simpson sidesteps questions about the debt limit and instead emphasizes his support for a balanced budget amendment and for voting from spending cuts.

On this matter, it’s a draw. Simpson sometimes did vote as Club for Growth claims, but he has also opposed increasing the debt limit. Despite the campaign’s claims, we suspect the party of the president is an important factor, as it is for many Democrats and Republicans.

“Simpson teamed up with Democrats to support a bigger Obama stimulus bill”

This concerns a 2009 vote on amendment that would have stripped all discretionary funding in the stimulus bill, making it consist mostly of tax cuts. The amendment failed to pass, as Simpson was one of 43 Republicans who joined all 257 Democrats in rejecting it.

Cranney says that there were spending items in the bill, such as funds to clean up the Idaho National Lab and to stem wildfires, which Simpson supported. He also noted that Simpson voted against the overall stimulus bill in committee and on the floor of the House. He accuses Club for Growth of “cherry-picking” a vote.

Still, this is a vote that Club for Growth rated on its scorecard, and Simpson’s campaign previously has touted the fact that the “repeal and repay” TARP vote also was on the scorecard. One could quibble with the phrasing of the ad, however, because it sounds like Simpson wanted to make the stimulus bigger, when in fact he voted against an effort to make it smaller.

Oddly, Simpson has been inconsistent in talking about stimulus. Once, he went to the floor of the House to denounce spending in other states that he implicitly supported by voting against the amendment. But he also touted the funds that Idaho had received from the stimulus, such as highway funds.

Simpson may win few points for consistency, but he did vote against the stimulus bill. For the Republican voters of his district, that may be more important than this specific vote on an amendment. The Club for Growth, however, did consider this an important vote and has been critical of GOP lawmakers who opposed the amendment.

Simpson voted “to spend millions on a park in Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco”

The park in question is the Presidio, a former military base that, with federal funding, was converted to a privately funded enterprise. The amendment that Simpson opposed in 2011 aimed to eliminate $23 million in federal funding, forcing the park to immediately be supported by private funds. Cranney explains that Simpson, who chaired a congressional panel overseeing national park spending, had supported the original agreement on the Presidio and wanted to stick to the deal. He said the only reason the Club for Growth is highlighting this vote is because Pelosi, the former House Speaker, is considered “a bad person in a conservative world.”

Pelosi, in fact, singled out Simpson for praise in her statement after the amendment passed the House. (Much of the funding was later restored in the Senate.)

Simpson was one of 10 Republicans (out of 234) to vote against the amendment. As a factual matter, the statement in the ad is correct, though it is a relatively narrow issue.

“Mike Simpson isn’t disputing a single fact in the ad,” said Club for Growth Spokesman Barney Keller. “He voted for trillions in debt limit increases without spending cuts. He voted with Democrats for a bigger Obama stimulus. He voted to spend millions on a park in Nancy Pelosi’s district. Mike Simpson’s desperate and pathetic attempts to explain away his actual votes are simply his recognition that his liberal record is completely out of step with a Idaho’s conservative electorate.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Fact Checker takes no position on the accuracy of such labels as “liberal” or “conservative,” as that is up to voters to determine. Club for Growth, for instance, rates Simpson at about 52 percent on its scorecard, so by their definition that makes him a liberal; other scorecards would probably rate him more of a conservative.

By the standards of attack ads, this sticks relatively close to the facts. Simpson voted for TARP and supported Presidio funding. Depending on the year, he has backed increases in the debt ceiling without seeking spending cuts. The most questionable assertion is that he worked with Democrats to boost the stimulus, since it highlights a relatively minor vote while ignoring the fact that he opposed the overall stimulus bill (while apparently liking the parts that applied to his state).

Overall, the ad earns One Pinocchio.

One Pinocchio


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