Fact Checker: Is Michele Bachmann misleading Americans?

Aug 16, 2011

"Well, I think the one thing we have to do is reject the new normal level of spending under the Obama administration, because President Obama amped up spending to never-seen-before levels... I mean, one example I'll give you is, we had one employee at the federal Department of Transportation that made $170,000 a year at the beginning of the recession. We had the trillion-dollar stimulus, and 18 months into the recession, we had 1,690 employees making over $170,000. Government has really been growing at - a lot of largesse, but the people in the real world aren't. And that's what has to change. Government has no conformity at all with the real world."
- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Aug. 14, 2011

Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler discussed why Michele Bachmann's federal workers stat is misleading Americans.

Read: Michele Bachmann's too-good-to-be-true stat on federal workers

Note to readers: Unlike many of our other chat series, Fact Checker will not take place at the same day and time every week. The time of these chats will be determined by what Glenn is working on and current events. Chats in this series will be designated by the words "Fact Checker" in the chat title. Thank you.

Okay, glad to have another chat this week. Let's get started!

I know it's something of a slippery slope and might involve a bit of mind-reading, but would you discuss your thoughts on when "misleading" or "inaccurate" might cross all the way over into "lies." Is simple gross negligance (the refusal to actually look into a topic because one doesn't want to know) a sufficient reason to refrain from calling a spade a spade? When does "spin" fall within acceptable bounds, and when does it become a willful act requiring condemnation?

This is a good question, similar to what I was asked last week. Here's what I wrote then: " Let's look at the dictionary definition of 'lie:' a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.

 "I have to deal with the facts. How can I prove that a politician intended to deceive people? In some cases (see Paul, Ron), some of these statements, no matter how wacky, come from deeply-held beliefs. The best thing I can do is show how, based on the facts, these statements are inaccurate.

"Hence we use a scale of Pinocchios. A reader could decide that a four-Pinocchio statement, made repeatedly, is a 'lie' under the dictionary definition. But that's a judgement for you to make, not me. "

So, to sum up, it's kind of an eye of the beholder where something misleading has crossed into the realm of lie. The example i examined today is instructive: it is a true fact (though frankly a bit meaningless) but framed in a way that appears to be mislead people.



Where did her 170k number come from? Why didn't she pick 180k or 160k instead? Was that 170k picked for some misleading point too?

The number actually came from a USA Today article in 2009. I'm not sure what they picked that threshold, except that it made for an eye-catching figure.

But if you dig deeper, you see it is fairly arbitrary. Virtually of all these workers were just below $170,000--in the range of $160,000 to $169,999. That's because no one could have a salary higher than the Federal Aviation Administration chief. He/she got a raise, and then all of their salaries went up (by no more than about three percent.) So suddenly you had a whole bunch of people who were now above $170,000. If the figure looked at was above $160,000, there would have been little change. 

How many 170k positions at DOT were created or filled in the Bush vs. Obama administrations?

These were all existing positions, not new ones. The workers simply got raises authorized by Congress (and requested by Bush). 

You've repeatedly referred to next year's expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Hello? They expired by their terms last year. The current and 2012 rates were signed into law by Obama.

Not sure what the complaint is. It is fair to call these the Bush tax cuts because they were passed into law under Bush (just as I would refer to the Clinton tax increases to refer to the rate he imposed on higher-income Americans.) Yes, Obama and the Congress extended them, but they expire next year. Hence, the Bush tax cuts expire next year. They are not Obama's cuts; in fact, he has repeatedly said he wants to end them for people making more than $250,000. 

In your Sunday print column you called out Gov. Pawlenty for saying that the President had not produced a detailed plan to reform entitlements - you gave the President credit for putting SS and Medicare reform on the table during closed door negotiations. Do you happen to know how the CBO scored the President's proposed reform plans? So when school starts and my son says he's thought about the outline for his term paper, but has not actually put it on paper or turned it in, I should argue with his teacher that he still deserves credit for producing a detailed plan, even though no one can see it, evaluate it, or grade it? Should I refer his teacher to your grading scale - he thought about it, and may have discussed it in private with classmates, therefore it is.

Here's a link to the specific Medicare reforms that were contained in the helath care law. (Click here.) You may argue about whether they will be effective or not but one cannot argue he did not have a plan. In fact. Republicans repeatedly complain about the Independent Payment Advisory Board which is designed to reduce Medicare spending if certain targets are not met.

Re Social Security, he made proposals during the campiagn (specifically raising payroll taxes for people making more than $250,000) but it is correct to say he has not formally submitted them for consideration by Congress. 

I s what Mrs. Bachmann and the rest of the Republicans doing racially motivated?

No, I don't think so. There is a strong disagreement over policy. And sometimes they use rhetoric suggesting he is different from "ordinary Americans". But I have not detected overt racism. 

As always thanks for what you do. This bit clearly falls into the anti-govt worker screeds that pass as fact for the Republicans. My question is when is somebody gonna start complaining about those who are making $170 million ? You know, the bankers and mortgage brokers who took us for a ride a few years ago.

Thanks for the compliment. 

I'm glad someone is trying to correct the ridiculous claims, but we've seen politicians like Bachmann simple double down on their misinformation. If enough people like what she has to say, does it matter if she's lying?

This is a good question. I hope that through my column, politicians think twice about what they say. I have noticed that sometimes Bachmann has adjusted her language after I called her out. 

But for some voters, personality and conviction appears to be more important than getting the facts wrong. 

Please stick to checking facts and not trying to read the mind or determine the intent of what someone says -- what Ms. Bachman said was factually accurate. that is where you should stop. Leave the misleading suppostions to her opponents and the OP-ED pages. Like Dragnet - just stick to the facts!

I do try to stick to the facts. I agree that the statistic she used was factually accurate. But she cast it in a misleading way by suggesting this happened under Obama. She should have made clear that this happened under Bush. 

(I have not had a chance to check, but I wonder if Bachmann voted for those pay raises that pushed the workers over $170,000. If that's the case, then she really has no cause to complain about it.) 

In a word YES. Why do we allow politians to distourt the facts?  Can reporters do a better job in calling her out? Make sure she know that people are checking her facts?

I hope that via my column we shed light on the assertions that sometimes end up in news stories. I used to cover political campaigns, and I know how hard it is check a fact when a candiadte makes it in a speech. As soon as the speech is over, you have to jump in the vans and head to the airport. But if we can show these facts are dubious or misleading, then maybe they will not get reported in news stories--and politicians will stopping saying them. 

You wrote: " Let's look at the dictionary definition of 'lie:' a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive." But in today's column you had a factually accurate statement - thus it did not fit the above definition. How can you go inside the mind of the speaker to determine intent to deceive and thus award Pinocchios?

Factually accurate, yes, but couched in a way to make people think that Obama was responsible. 

Look at her full quote:

“Well, I think the one thing we have to do is reject the new normal level of spending under the Obama administration, because President Obama amped up spending to never-seen-before levels. . . . I mean, one example I'll give you is, we had one employee at the federal Department of Transportation that made $170,000 a year at the beginning of the recession. We had the trillion-dollar stimulus, and 18 months into the recession, we had 1,690 employees making over $170,000. Government has really been growing at — a lot of largesse, but the people in the real world aren’t. And that’s what has to change. Government has no conformity at all with the real world.”

Notice how she slipped the "trillion dollar stimulus" in there? That's pretty misleading.

I would have had no issue if she had said this:

"During the Bush administration, we had one employee at the federal Department of Transportation that made $170,000 a year at the beginning of the recession. But then Preisdent Bush proposed an increase in federal salaries which Congress approved. Suddenly we had 1,690 employees making over $170,000."

 


Yes, Michelle Bachmans is misleading Americans. I'm a federal employee who is SICK AND TIRED of being used as a Republican punching bag -- accused of being overpaid and not working hard. As for Bachmann's hysterics about some Senior Executive Service person making $170,000 a year, so what? She is either exploiting the ignorance of the American people who don't understand pay grades in DC, or is ignorant herself. What does this fictional DOT person do? Did they find a way to SAVE a couple million? If so, that person EARNED their salary.

Posting this as a comment from a reader....

I just want to say I love your column. It is clearly the best researched article in the paper. Please don't stop!

Thank you so much! I am enjoying writing it!

"So suddenly you had a whole bunch of people who were now above $170,000. If the figure looked at was above $160,000, there would have been little change." This is something that I think would have been valuable to focus on in the original piece. It's not just the the raises occured primarily under Bush, but rather that it was really just a bunch of raises in the first place--with $170K being a threshold for a particular group of employees. DOT wasn't adding new, highly payed employees, it was giving out raises. Of course, it would be perfectly reasonable for Bachmann to question whether the Federal government should be giving out raises, but her statement doesn't do that. Instead the careful selection of $170K is used to create an impression of dramatic growth at the top tier of the Federal workforce that just isn't supported by the facts.

Yes, I agree. If you look at the original USA Today article, you will see they set this arbitrary threshold. No idea why they did that! 

This is time worn phrase used to keep up rhetoric that the opponent is different and needs to be defeated and at the same time I'm just like you so you should vote for me. As a tactic, it is one that is used in every election and probably will be forever. The key part that many candidates forget is that people go home and think about what was said. if upon reflection it no longer makes sense they don't get the vote. That is what happens to a lot of fringe candidates. People realize everything is emotional and has no substance.

posting this reader comment....

From the bus tour, how about fact checking the president's claim that he had the recession beat and down for the count until that pesky tsunami and Arab spring messed everything up. The Summer of Recovery redux, perhaps?

I don't think he quite put it like that, but I will look more closely at that section. Thanks!

At a town hall yesterday one Tea Party supporter complained to Pres. Obama about VP Biden calling the Tea Party members of congress and thier supporters "terrorists" during a meeting with Democratic members of Congress. The President says this did not happen - who is telling the truth?

Oh, good issue to research. Thanks!

Is allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire the same thing as "raising taxes" or imposing "new taxes?"

Ah, it comes down to semantics. I don't think they would be new taxes. One could certainly say that taxes will be raised for some small percentage of the country. (Obama does not want the pre-Bush rates imposed for people making less than $250,00.) 

The important thing to remember is that the Republican in charge of Congress deliberately set the tax cuts to expire. It was a cynical decision that allowed them to fit a bigger tax cut into the bill than permitted under Senate rules. They could have made the tax cuts permament at the time, but it would have meant reducing the overall size a bit. It was really bad tax policy and we are still living with the consequences today. 

If you want to know more, I discussed this sordid tax history in this column

Wasn't there another questionable statement by Bachmann that the number of Motorcades skyrocketed under Obama, but it turned out to be she was counting an SUV as a morotrcade?

Yes, I explored that in this column

There's a law against companies publishing false financial data, or false health claims - isn't this just as egregious? What can be done to stop people from misleading voters? I know you make a valiant effort to draw the public's attention to this, and one might say that it's a responsibility of reporters, but just last week I saw a completely false, widely reported statement by another politician that the reporters just failed to uncover because, I think, it requires some time to do so, and I know you all are under some serious time pressures (let me know if you're interested in knowing what it was). So reporters can't be our only line of defense. Sorry for the rambling :)

Sure, send me the statement via the email address for the column:

factchecker@washpost.com

Glenn, it's called a dog whistle for a reason -- you've got to be tuned into it. Hence, you get phrases like "Obama's not like the rest of us" or "He's not a real American". If you need further proof of the teabaggers' racism, I suggest you find some photos from a teabagger protest, and check back with us.

The question was about the GOP candidates. I agree that some of the signs at Tea Party rallys are objectionable. 

I didn't watch, but why don't the Sunday morning etc talk shows stop her and ask for her reference when she and others spout this stuff?

That's a good question. I wish they did more of that, but they are often looking to generate news, not play gotcha on facts. But it would be fun to see them pull out my column, and say wait a minute--you got three Pinocchios for that! :-)

I read somewhere that Bachmann received a federal subsidy through Fannie Mae to purchase one of her homes. Is this true? Because she has been vigorously campaigning against these type of federal programs,

Hmm, had not heard about a Fannie loan but she did get federal farm subsidies. 

Why not call this out more strongly? Deliberate phrasing designed to mislead the public is far more egregious conduct than a simple mistatement of a statistic. Bauchman's phrasing is specifically designed to mislead people! If ever there was a need for 5 Pinocchios... this is it!

I tried to decided between two and three pinocchios, and settled on two because the actual "fact"--trivial though it may be--was correct.  Here's the difference in our rating scale:

Two Pinocchios

Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.

Three Pinocchios

Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.

 

Speaking as one of those living under a pay freeze for the forseeable future, would she mind just taking a nice long walk off of a short pier?

posting a reader comment...clearly she hit a nerve here in DC!

I know it is a popular meme to say that people who oppose Obama's policy are racist, and cite unattributed comments like "he's not like us" to Republicans. Perhaps if the poster chose to spend less time spouting derogatory comments about Republicans, he or she would remember that it was OBAMA who said he doesn't look like the guys on our currency.

posting this reader comment. 

There have been plenty of "man on the street" interviews at Tea Party rallies that quote "regular" white folks as saying things "It's just not right that someone like him is president" or "I can't believe that someone like him is president." This isn't even especially coded language, and the references to "not one of us," etc., seems to encourage the racist bent of more than a few Tea Party supporters. While I believe you're right that no candidate has said anything explicitly racist, some of these implicit statements seem to be getting pretty close.

another reader comment...

Thanks for all of the great questions. I need to get back to work now. Till next week....

In This Chat
Glenn Kessler
Glenn Kessler is an acclaimed diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and has been recipient of numerous awards, including two shared Pulitzer Prizes. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he has reported from dozens of countries and also has covered the White House and Congress. Kessler is the author of The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and lives in McLean, Virginia.
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