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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 25, 2010

Florida Democrats say McCollum cost taxpayers billions

The 2010 Florida gubernatorial campaign intensified this week, as allies of Republican Bill McCollum and Democrat Alex Sink exchanged television ads designed to highlight aspects of their rival's record that voters might not be happy with.

On Feb. 23, 2010, we analyzed an anti-Sink ad placed by the Republican Governors Association. We ruled that the ad -- focusing on her tenure as a highly compensated bank executive during a time of job losses at her company -- was Mostly True.

Today we look at an anti-McCollum response ad aired by the Florida Democratic Party. The ad begins with footage of McCollum telling reporters, "I'm proud of my record of having been a congressman."

A voice-over continues, "Really? Well, Bill McCollum, you cost the rest of us billions. He voted four times to raise his own pay. $51,000. Our tax money pays his congressional pension. Over $75,000 dollars a year. The national debt skyrocketed. $4.7 trillion. McCollum voted for debt-limit increases five times. Bill McCollum. Just another Washington politician Florida can't afford."

We'll address the issues of congressional pay raises and pensions in a separate item. Here we'll tackle the debt questions.

Let's start with the details. The ad says that "the national debt skyrocketed" to "$4.7 trillion." Accompanying material provided by the campaign explains that this is the amount that the national debt rose during McCollum's tenure in Congress.

We checked historical debt figures from the Treasury Department and confirmed that during McCollum's tenure in Congress -- Jan. 3, 1981 to Jan. 3, 2001 -- the debt did indeed rise by $4.7 trillion.

The ad also claims that McCollum voted for debt-limit increases on five occasions. Before we analyze this, let's start with a primer on debt-limit votes. Their purpose is to raise the legal limit on how much debt the federal government can take on. Such votes are taken periodically as debt approaches the old limit, and if such a vote were to fail to pass by the deadline, the federal government would default on some of its obligations, potentially causing a financial panic. But while the votes are important, politicians hate taking such votes because they remind voters of how large the federal debt is.

When we looked at the five votes cited in the ad, we confirmed that McCollum voted yes in all cases. But we noticed that while this claim is technically true, three of these votes were taken on the same 1995 bill, and two were votes on the same 1996 bill. In these cases, multiple votes were required because the bill passed through the House in different versions before becoming law.

When we raised this discrepancy with the Florida Democratic Party, the party came back with additional documentation of 11 votes -- taken in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1989, in addition to 1995 and 1996 -- in which McCollum voted to increase the debt limit. If all of these citations are accurate -- and we were unable to check them independently because the new votes were all taken before congressional roll call votes were posted on the Internet -- then the Florida Democratic Party's ad actually undercounted by about half the number of occasions in which McCollum voted to raise the debt limit.

We asked the McCollum campaign whether it had any quibbles with the additional votes. Staffers said that by their tally, McCollum had indeed voted to the raise the debt limit on 17 occasions, but that he voted against raising the debt limit on 20 occasions.

So, according to the McCollum campaign, he voted against debt limit increases more times than he voted for them. Still, as far as the ad's language goes, it appears to be correct that McCollum "voted for debt-limit increases" at least five times, even if he also voted against them on other occasions.

What about the overall impression -- that McCollum "cost the rest of us billions"?

When we asked the Florida Democratic Party what it meant by that phrase. A spokesman answered that it referred to votes like one footnoted in the ad, in which McCollum voted for a $600 billion debt-limit increase in 1996.

But that raises some questions of its own. In that vote, the measure passed, 328-91 -- a broad, bipartisan victory. Even Democrats, then in the minority, voted for the bill by a 2-to-1 ratio -- including then-Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Fla., who now serves as chairwoman of the very same Florida Democratic Party that ran the attack ad against McCollum.

Indeed, the McCollum camp notes that in the seven debt limit votes held between 1993 and 2000 -- the period when McCollum and Thurman served together in the House -- Thurman voted to raise the debt limit seven times while McCollum voted to support such bills four times.

This leads to a larger point: It's not exactly fair to blame McCollum exclusively for all $4.7 trillion of accumulated debt during his tenure, especially given that he sometimes voted against the debt ceiling hikes. Using such a loose standard, the same blame could be laid at the feet of any House member who served during the same period as McCollum -- Republican or Democrat. All members of Congress vote on bills that "cost the rest of us billions." That is their job. Also, the statement doesn't address ways in which McCollum voted for policies intended to save taxpayer money, such as tax cuts.

Ultimately, then, the ad is worded carefully enough to be accurate in its details, but it paints a more sinister picture of McCollum's actions than he probably deserves -- both given his votes against raising the debt limit and relative to the voting patterns by Democratic lawmakers during the same period. So we rate this claim Half True.

Featured Fact-check

UPDATE: This item uses updated numbers on the debt limit votes that were provided to us by the McCollumn campaign after this item was published. It does not affect our Truth-O-Meter ruling.

Our Sources

Florida Democratic Party, "McCollum Cost Us" television ad, released Feb. 24, 2010

Bureau of the Public Debt, index page to historical U.S. debt tables, accessed Feb. 24, 2010

Congressional roll call vote, House Vote #102 (On Passage: H.R. 3136: Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996, Mar. 28, 1996

Interview with Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, Feb. 24, 2010

E-mail interview with Kristy Campbell, communications director for the Bill McCollum for Governor campaign, Feb. 24, 2010

E-mail interview with Eric Jotkoff, Florida Democratic Party Communications Director, Feb. 24, 2010

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Florida Democrats say McCollum cost taxpayers billions

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