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Fact-checking the eighth Democratic debate

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pan Donald Trump, vow to reform immigration and spar over their respective records at The Washington Post debate in Miami. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post partnered with Univision to host the eighth Democratic presidential debate on March 9, a face-off between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).

Not every statement could be easily fact-checked, but here are 12 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we review assertions in debates.

“It was not prohibited. It was not in any way disallowed. And as I have said and as now has come out, my predecessors did the same thing and many other people in the government.”
— Hillary Clinton 

This is language that had previously earned Clinton Three Pinocchios. Clinton is relying on the fact that the legal requirement to immediately preserve emails from nongovernment email accounts was not made mandatory until nearly two years after she stepped down as secretary of state.

But that does not mean that when Clinton was secretary of state, there were not already in place State Department rules on how to handle emails and whether to use a personal email account. While Clinton says that “my predecessors did the same thing,” none had set up an exclusive and private email server for all of their departmental communications. (In fact, only Colin L. Powell has ever said he sent emails from a personal account, so Clinton’s use of plural is misleading.)

The rules also quickly became clearer. In 2009, just eight months after Clinton became secretary of state, the U.S. Code of federal regulations on handling electronic records was updated: “Agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency record-keeping system.” The responsibility for making and preserving the records is assigned to “the head of each federal agency.”

On top of that, when Clinton was secretary, a cable went out under her signature warning employees to “avoid conducting official Department business from your personal email accounts.”

The issue thus becomes whether Clinton cooperated in the spirit of the laws and rules in place at the time. In reality, Clinton’s decision to use a private email system for official business was highly unusual and flouted State Department procedures, even if not expressly prohibited by law at the time. Moreover, Clinton appears to have not complied with the requirement to turn over her business-related emails before she left government service.

“I did not oppose the bailout or the support of the automobile industry.”
— Bernie Sanders
“The fact is the money that rescued the auto industry was in that bill.”
— Clinton 

Clinton and Sanders have been trading charges about votes concerning the auto industry bailout, as they did again in the debate. Neither gets the story entirely correct. But it’s a good example of how voters should be wary about claims concerning past votes in the Senate.

Sanders focuses on a vote in December, 2008, that would have provided $15 billion to the auto industry. Both he and Clinton voted for it, but as Clinton noted it failed to advance in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Clinton focuses on votes for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was originally designed to assist the financial industry as the economy collapsed. There was a vote to provide $350 billion on Oct. 1, and then another vote on Jan. 15 to release a second installment of the TARP funds, also worth $350 billion. Clinton voted in favor both times, while Sanders voted to block the funding.

Here’s where it gets tricky. After the failure of December vote to help the auto industry, President George W. Bush announced he would use the TARP funds to rescue the auto industry. He advanced $13.4 billion — and said another $4 billion would be given to auto makers after Congress approved releasing the second tranche of funds. (Ultimately, the U.S. government gave the automotive industry nearly $80 billion, and all but $9.3 billion was paid back.)

When Sanders voted against TARP the first time, he likely had no idea that Bush would tap it to help the auto industry. But it was clear the second TARP vote would aid the auto industry, as Michigan lawmakers specifically urged a “yes” vote for that reason.

Clinton is right that Sanders voted against the mechanism that ended up helping the auto industry, but it would be wrong to suggest he was against helping the auto industry. He certainly was on record of having supported an auto bailout when it was not tied to Wall Street. Sanders, meanwhile, has gone too far to suggest he cast a vote for the auto industry that actually would have made a difference; that particular legislation went nowhere.

“We have the most secure border we’ve ever had. Apprehensions coming across the border is the lowest they’ve been in 40 years.”
— Clinton

Clinton is correct that apprehensions are at an all-time low. Apprehensions along the Southwestern border peaked in 2000 at 1.6 million, and has been declining sharply since.

In fiscal 2015, there were 331,333 apprehensions along the border, according to Customs and Border Protection data. That is the lowest it’s been since 1972 (321,326) with the exception of fiscal 2011, when the total number of undocumented immigrant apprehensions along the Southern border dipped to 327,577.

In fact, there has been an unprecedented drop, by 1 million people, in the unauthorized immigrant population since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

More Mexicans are now leaving the U.S. than are entering, and there has been a net loss of 140,000 Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico in 2009-2014, Pew research shows. Family unification was the main reason they chose to return.

Sanders “sided with those Republicans to stand with vigilantes known as Minutemen who were taking up outposts along the border to hunt down immigrants.”
— Clinton
“There was a piece of legislation supported by dozens and dozens of members of the House which codified existing legislation. What the secretary is doing tonight and has done very often is take large pieces of legislation and take pieces out of it.”
— Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders went on the attack after rival Hillary Clinton accused him of supporting the Minutemen. (Video: The Washington Post)

Clinton was referring to an incident that BuzzFeed documented in December. In 2006, members of Congress had become upset at rumors that American officials were tipping off the Mexican government about the whereabouts of Minutemen patrols. Sanders, then a House member, was one of 76 Democrats who voted in favor of an amendment that barred the Department of Homeland Security from providing “a foreign government information relating to the activities of an organized volunteer civilian action group, operating in the State of California, Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona.”

Sanders was running for a Senate seat at the time.

A Sanders spokesman dismissed the measure to BuzzFeed as a “nuisance amendment” that was dismissed by Customs and Border Protection as “a meaningless thing” and so he voted for it. (Among Democrats, he was joined by mostly conservative members.) But National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group, at the time said the amendment was part of a “a backdoor effort to criminalize the undocumented population.”

While Sanders suggested the measure was a small part of a larger bill, it was approved in a recorded vote as a stand-alone amendment.

“It is a record on achievement for veterans … working to achieve the most significant veterans’ health care bill in decades.”
— Sanders

Sanders touts his record as chairman of Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, but he has faced criticism from veterans groups for not paying attention to the health care delays as soon as they were revealed publicly in 2014.

In April 2014, whistle blowers revealed delays in accessing health care and manipulation of wait time data at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. The allegations rocked the VA and ultimately led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. In response to the scandal, Congress passed a bipartisan $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the VA. Sanders worked on this landmark compromise as chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

But many veteran groups still criticize Sanders for not reacting to the scandal quickly enough. They still point to Sanders’s comments in May 2014, the month after the Phoenix VA problems were aired publicly, saying that the VA is a large health care system that inevitably has problems. During a May 15, 2014, hearing, Sanders said:

“The point I want to make is that when you are dealing with 200,000 people, if you did better than any other health institution in the world, there would be thousands of people every single day who would say ‘I don’t like what I’m getting.’ And we have to put that all of that in the context of the size of the VA.”

Members of the Senate VA Committee also wrote a letter urging Sanders to hold more oversight hearings and said their previous requests for hearings had not been fulfilled. Sanders ultimately worked with his counterparts in the House and Republicans in the committee to work out a compromise VA overhaul bill.

Student loan “interest rates literally go from 8 to 14 percent. … You can refinance your house to get a lower interest rate. … Under my plan, you will be able to also lower your debt [for student loans].”
— Clinton

Interestingly, and as Bernie Sanders pointed out after Clinton said this, this is a go-to Sanders talking point. The comparison is an odd one, since student loans and mortgages are so different (for one, mortgage rates are lower because there is a collateral a home).

Plus, the numbers are off. Most mortgages are 30-year loans, and the average fixed rate averaged 3.9 percent in 2015 and it could reach 4.7 percent by the end of 2016. Those are rates from borrowers with pristine credit, so the rate would be higher for those with credit problems. That’s not too different from the fixed 5 percent interest rate for some federal student loans.

Clinton uses the higher end of student loan interest rates. Student loan rates increase based on the type of loan (undergraduate, graduate/professional, parent), additional fees, the year the loan was disbursed, and whether the loan was consolidated (and at what interest rate). But the Stafford Loan, the most common federal loan, has been capped at 6.8 percent since 2006.

Moreover, there already is an income-based repayment plan option for student loans. The Education Department’s Revised Pay as You Earn plan, or REPAYE, allows all borrowers to take advantage of the repayment plan regardless of their income or when they borrowed. REPAYE caps borrowers’ monthly bills at 10 percent of their income for 20 years. After 20 years, the remaining debt is forgiven.

Under this program, the calculation for your monthly payment is based on your discretionary income. If your income is very low, you may not have to pay anything until your paycheck increases. REPAYE is the government’s most generous student loan repayment plan. [Update: The Clinton campaign later noted she was referring to private loans, which her plan covers so that “private borrowers who are current on their loans" are eligible for refinancing. Her campaign noted that since private loans have higher rates, the number she cited is within the range of private student loans.]

“I went to Wall Street before the Great Recession and basically called them out, said that their behavior was putting our economy at risk, called for a moratorium on foreclosures.” 
— Clinton

Clinton tends to overstate the significance of her visit to Wall Street some months before the crash. ProPublica obtained a video of the 28-minute speech and said she “steered a middle ground” to the business executives gathered at the Nasdaq stock exchange on Dec. 5, 2007.

As ProPublica put it:

Clinton gave a shout-out to her “wonderful donors” in the audience, and asked the bankers to voluntarily suspend foreclosures and freeze interest rates on adjustable subprime mortgages. She praised Wall Street for its role in creating the nation’s wealth, then added that “too many American families are not sharing” in that prosperity.
She said the brewing economic troubles weren’t mainly the fault of banks, “not by a long shot,” but added they needed to shoulder responsibility for their role. While there was plenty of blame to go around for the spate of reckless lending, and while Wall Street may not have created the foreclosure crisis, it “certainly had a hand in making it worse” and “needs to help us solve it.”

Clinton said she would consider legislation if the voluntary proposals were not adopted. But when her ideas were not accepted, neither were her five proposed bills. All but one had no co-sponsors — and no Senate committee took action on them. She played little role in a major housing bill that became law in 2008. And her bill to curb corporate compensation also went nowhere.

“Look, clearly, clearly, the secretary’s words to Wall Street has really intimidated them, and that is why they have given her $15 million in campaign contributions.”
— Sanders

Sanders actually understates the amount. A Washington Post analysis in February of Federal Election Commission filing determined that donors at hedge funds, banks, insurance companies and other financial services firms had given at least $21.4 million to support Clinton’s 2016 presidential run — more than 10 percent of the $157.8 million contributed to back her bid.

“Everybody, who, quote, ‘got money’ in the quote, ‘bailout,’ that also included money for the auto rescue, has paid it back.”
— Clinton

There are different ways to slice this, but Clinton’s certainly not correct about the auto bailout. The most recent update released this month by the Treasury Department shows that $376 billion was repaid out of $431 billion disbursed, or about 82 percent. (Another figure is that a total of $455 billion was authorized.) However, the U.S. government also earned about $66 billion in dividends and other income, bringing the total cash back to $442 billion, more than was disbursed.

The money earmarked just for the auto industry bailout, however, was net loser. Nearly $80 billion was disbursed, of which $63 billion was paid back. Even counting additional income, $70.5 billion was repaid, or about 88 percent.

“One out of five Americans cannot afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe.”
— Sanders

Sanders cites outdated data. New figures reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the figure is now closer to one in 10.

In 2015, the CDC reported that nearly eight percent of American adults did not take medication as prescribed because they couldn’t afford it. Another 15 percent asked the doctor for a lower-cost medication. Among those aged 18 to 64, about nine percent of people did not take medication as prescribed to save money. Among that age group, 5.3 percent skipped doses, 5.6 percent took less medication and 7.2 percent delayed filling a prescription – all to save money.

Previous government reports had found that one in five Americans had faced problems paying medical bills, leading to people skipping necessarily medical care or getting prescriptions filled because they couldn’t afford it. A Consumer Reports survey released in 2015 found that 24 percent of those surveyed who had experienced a price increase on their drugs in the previous 12 months had skipped filling a prescription because they couldn’t afford it.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said it was a "mistake" for the U.S. to "go around overthrowing small Latin American countries." (Video: The Washington Post)
“Look, let’s look at the facts here. Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian undemocratic country, and I hope very much as soon as possible it becomes a democratic country. On the other hand, it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in health care. They are sending doctors all over the world.”
— Sanders

Much of the praise over Cuba’s state-run health-care system is deserved, but quality medical care is not consistently available, especially in remote areas.

Cuba is a destination for medical tourism (trips taken for surgery or other medical care, usually because it’s cheaper). As Sanders says, Cuban doctors work abroad in other developing countries on behalf of money or goods for the Cuban government. By 2008, Cuba had trained 20,000 foreign doctors and nurses per year.

But Cuba has its medical shortcomings. Some medicines are not available and hospitals have out-of-date equipment. International SOS, a global health organization that ranks countries based on risks associated with access to health care, rated Cuba a “high risk” nation in 2015. The designation is reserved for countries where emergency services are inconsistently available in remote areas, there is limited access to quality prescription drugs and there is a threat of serious infectious diseases, according to our WorldViews colleagues.

“Is it acceptable that in America the top 0.1 percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? Is it acceptable that while the average American works longer hours for lower wages, 58 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent?”
— Sanders

Sanders’s closing statement included facts he has used many times before.

The first part is based on a 2014 working paper by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman that found that wealth has become increasingly concentrated among the super-wealthy, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The average wealth of bottom 90 percent 144 million families with average wealth of $84,000 had increased in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, but then collapsed in the financial crisis.

The top 1/10 of one percent is comprised of 160,000 families with net assets of at least $20 million. These families saw their share of wealth increase from seven percent of total household wealth in the 1970s to 22 percent in 2012; by contrast, the bottom 90 percent saw their share of wealth drop from 35 percent in the mid-1980s to 23 percent in 2012. As Sanders noted, that means the top 0.1 percent own almost as much as the bottom 90 percent.

There is some evidence that the situation may have improved since 2012. Sanders used to say that 70 percent of all new income is going to the top one percent based on another Saez study, but he had to shift his rhetoric after Saez in June updated that study with figures dating to 2014. The new numbers showed that the top one percent captured 58 percent of total real income growth. “The recovery from the Great Recession now looks less lopsided than in previous years,” Saez said.

Clinton and Sanders square off during debate in Miami

MIAMI, FL - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders participate in the Univision News and Washington Post Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on the Miami Dade College Kendall Campus in Miami, Florida on Wednesday March, 9, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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