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Fact-checking the seventh Democratic debate

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off in Flint, Mich. on March 6. Here are the key moments. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

CNN aired the seventh Democratic presidential debate on March 6, a pre-Michigan-primary showdown between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont held in the city of Flint.

Not every statement could be easily fact-checked, but here are 13 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.

“We will commit to a priority to change the water systems, and we will commit within five years to remove lead from everywhere.”
— Hillary Clinton

Five years seems quite unrealistic. The Environmental Protection Agency said in 2013 that it would cost $384 billion through 2030 in order to provide safe drinking water for Americans, including removing lead from pipes. Some $247.5 billion would be needed to replace or refurbish aging or deteriorating lines.

Moreover, some 24 million homes have deteriorated lead paint, and it would probably take years to deal with that issue.

“Five hundred thousand children today have lead in their bodies.”
— Clinton

Clinton is citing data available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data come from 2014, but the CDC continues to use the estimate for blood lead levels in children today.

According to the CDC, about 500,000 children in the United States aged 1 to 5 years old have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

The CDC considers this amount of lead a level of potential public health concern. At 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter or higher, the CDC recommends follow-up and intervention. About 4 million households have children that are being exposed to high levels of lead, the CDC says.

There is no demonstrated safe amount of lead in children’s blood, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint.”
— Clinton

Clinton is correct. According to the Detroit Free Press, 2½ times the percentage of kids tested in Cleveland are poisoned than were in Flint at the height of the crisis. The newspaper noted “those are only the children who get tested. Most don’t get screened for the toxin, recommended for all kids under the age of 6 because of the high prevalence of lead paint in the city’s housing.”

Here are the numbers:

  • Six percent of children under the age of 6 in Flint in 2015 had levels of lead in their blood above five micrograms.
  • More than 17 percent of the children under 6 had more than five micrograms in Cleveland during a five-year period ending in 2014.
  • Only 20 to 30 percent of the children who should get screened get the test.
“NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], supported by the secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest.”
— Bernie Sanders

Sanders appears to be citing an estimate from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning group which has opposed free-trade agreements, which in 2011 estimated a job loss of nearly 700,000; the estimate was boosted to 850,000 in 2014.  (Another group, Public Citizen, pegs the jobs loss at 1 million.) But these are not universally accepted estimates, with many economists say that the job losses in manufacturing cannot be easily blamed just on NAFTA.

Manufacturing was already under stress before the agreement was reached in 1993, while the U.S. economy has transitioned away from manufacturing toward services. Advocates of the agreement instead point to the export-related jobs that they say have been created through the trade with Mexico and Canada. The Congressional Research Service in 2015 concluded the “net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest.”

No one really knows the job impact of various trade agreements, but both sides will argue vigorously over the figures. Then-President Bill Clinton famously declared that “I believe that NAFTA will create a million jobs in the first 5 years of its impact.”

Two years later, after a financial meltdown in Mexico and collapse of the peso evaporated any job gains from NAFTA, the economist who generated million-job forecasts famously said he would stay away from job forecasting in the future.

“I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA. You’re looking at a guy who, in 1988, lost a statewide election for Congress because I was the only one who said, you know what, I don’t think it’s a great idea in this country to be selling military-style assault weapons, which are designed to kill people. I lost that election by three votes.”
— Sanders

For the first time in a debate, Sanders drew a direct connection between his stance against assault weapons to his narrow loss during his first congressional race in 1988. But it’s not clear exactly why he lost the election; he could’ve just as easily lost the election because he split votes with a Democrat. Sanders lost the election by almost 9,000 votes — not three votes. He must have gotten his figures mixed up; he lost the election by 3.7 percentage points, not votes.

His most recent grade from the NRA was a D-minus. Since 1992, the first year the NRA started issuing a grade for Sanders, he has received between a C-minus and an F.

Sanders has opposed assault weapons since 1988 and has been consistent on that issue. The NRA endorsed his two rivals in the race: a Republican and a Democrat, both of whom signed the NRA pledge not to support additional restrictive firearms legislation. Sanders did the opposite, telling Vermont sportsmen’s clubs he would support a ban on semiautomatic rifles, the type now commonly called “assault weapons.”

Peter Smith, the Republican candidate, beat Sanders, but would only serve one term. Smith changed his mind in Congress and supported a ban on certain semiautomatic rifles. It angered the NRA, which actively campaigned for Sanders in 1990 to oust Smith. In the NRA’s view, Sanders at least was consistent in his opposition to semiautomatic rifles. Sanders unseated Smith.

Did Sanders in fact lose the 1988 election because of his assault weapons stance? The evidence is mixed. He could have just as easily lost the election because he split votes with a Democrat, as opposed to being the only candidate without an NRA endorsement.

“No other industry in America has absolute immunity [like gun manufacturers].”
— Clinton

Actually, gun manufacturers don’t have absolute immunity. Clinton exaggerates with this talking point.

She is referring to the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, which was passed after a wave of lawsuits filed against gun manufacturers by municipalities and gun-control advocates. The 2005 law does not guarantee blanket immunity, and it has some exceptions.

Manufacturers or dealers can be sued if they knowingly sold a product that would be used to commit a crime. They can be sued if they were negligent in selling the product to someone they knew was unfit (i.e., a child or someone who was drunk). They can be sued for another technical negligence claim (“negligence per se”) that relates to the violation of a safety statute. The law bars any other type of negligence claims against a gun manufacturer.

Still, Clinton has a point. The law provides a unique federal legal shield that most consumer goods manufacturers do not have.

There are few industries that have federal liability immunity. Vaccine manufacturers have limited protection from lawsuits if their vaccine led to an injury. The federal government enacted this immunity to encourage companies to produce more vaccines without the fear of lawsuits, for their benefit to public health. Another example is federal protection for the airline industry from lawsuits arising from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But unlike the gun law, both cases established a compensation scheme for victims to recover money for damages.

“Where we are right now is having more than 2.2 million people in jail — more than any other country on earth. This is a campaign promise, at the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.”
— Sanders

This promise — which Sanders also made in the last debate — is as unrealistic as Clinton’s on removing lead in five years.

The World Prison Population List, published by the U.K.-based International Centre for Prison Studies, is the go-to source for the breakdown of global prison populations. The most recent report, published in February, uses data available through October 2015.

The report notes that its numbers are incomplete for some countries, mainly China. The United States ranked the highest with 2.2 million prisoners. China ranked second, with 1.6 million. But the China figure includes only sentenced prisoners; it does not include the unknown number in pre-trial detention or “administrative detention.” (More than 650,000 people were held in 2009 in other forms of detention in China, the report says.)

But if you take these numbers at face value, Sanders is claiming that as president he would reduce the prison population by nearly 600,000 people in four years. That would be a tall order just by itself, but it is made harder by the fact that only a small percentage of prisoners — 13 percent — are incarcerated at the federal level, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. So a President Sanders would have to force states and municipalities to make dramatic reductions.

“Fifty-one percent of African American kids today are unemployed.”
— Sanders

Sanders usually clarifies that he is talking about “real” unemployment by using the broadest measure of underemployment, not actual unemployment rates. But he didn’t do that this time and created a misleading impression.

He is citing research from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The 51 percent figure refers to high school graduates between 17 and 20 years old who are not enrolled in additional schooling. This report is different from the official unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which does not break out data for 17- to 20-year-olds.

The report looks at employment status for high school graduates who are unemployed, working part-time and “marginally attached to the labor force” (meaning “those who want a job and have looked for work in the last year but have given up actively seeking work in the last four weeks”). It uses the broadest measure of underemployment, called the U-6 measure of labor underutilization.

I talk to scientists who tell me that fracking is doing terrible things to water systems all over this country.
— Sanders

Sanders is apparently not talking to the scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency.

A draft assessment by the EPA released in 2015 said it found no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The EPA did find some  contamination of drinking water wells, but said the number of identified cases “was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

However, those findings have been greeted with controversy. An EPA advisory board said the conclusion that shale gas fracking hasn’t caused significant damage to the nation’s water supplies is not supported by the cited data.

“I have talked to scientists all over the world. And what they are telling me — if we don’t get our act together, this planet could be 5 to 10 degrees warmer by the end of this century — cataclysmic problems for this planet.”
— Sanders

There are various projections for global climates by 2100. Sanders largely gets the point correct, but the range is off.

Average global temperatures are expected to rise between 0.5 to 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These projects may change based on the emissions scenarios and climate models. There is a likely increase of at least 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, except for the scenario with the most aggressive mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA says.

For the United States, the average temperature is projected to increase by 3 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the emissions levels.

What “that legislation [the 1996 welfare overhaul] ended up doing is increasing extreme poverty; the poorest people in this country have become much poorer as a result of that — really a bill that was written by Republicans.”
— Sanders

Sanders is correct that the number of American households living on less than $2 cash income per person has more than doubled from 636,000 to 1.5 million since the welfare bill was signed into law in 1996. But experts say that a direct connection to the legislation is difficult, though it certainly played a role.

The bill was written by the Republican-controlled Congress, but then-President Clinton vetoed it twice before saying he had negotiated enough changes that he could sign it with misgivings.

Moderator Anderson Cooper: “Senator Sanders, you’ve been very tough lately. Last week, you said this about Secretary Clinton. Quote, ‘Just as I believe you can’t take on Wall Street while taking their money, I don’t believe you can take on climate change effectively while taking money from those who would profit off the destruction of the planet.’ Are you suggesting that she’s in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry?”
Sanders: “No, I’m suggesting we have a corrupt campaign finance system. And instead of standing up to that finance system, Secretary Clinton has a super PAC which is raising … a lot of money from Wall Street and from the fossil fuel industry.”
— exchange during the debate

We won’t make a judgment on what “a lot of money” is. At least one major super PAC that supports Clinton has received $25,701 from the oil and gas industry in the 2016 election so far. Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, via, show the oil and gas industry is the 15th highest ranking industry that donated to Ready for Hillary.

The oil and gas industry is not a top donor this election cycle to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC allied with the Clinton campaign. Oil and gas is included in the bulk $100,000 donations from “other” donors in the 2016 cycle for Priorities USA Action.

Clinton has received $267,970 from employees in the oil and gas industry (for context, her campaign has raised $130 million) so far.

The employees who donated may be rank-and-file or high-ranking employees. But it doesn’t rank among the top 20 industries that have donated to her campaign so far.

“We’re the only major country on Earth that doesn’t provide paid family and medical leave.”
— Sanders

Sanders is right. There are only two countries which do not guarantee paid leave for working mothers — the United States and Papua New Guinea. Among industrialized nations, the difference is especially stark, with the United States providing zero weeks while Hungary and Slovakia offer the possibility of as much as 160 or more weeks of leave, though not all of it may be paid, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Clinton and Sanders clash during debate in Flint, Mich.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stand stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Michigan-Flint, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)