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MoveOn.org: Caught Red-Handed Applying A Double Standard

The liberal group attacks 3 Republicans for voting for military spending bills, but endorses Democrats who voted the same way.

August 30, 2006

Modified: August 30, 2006

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Summary

MoveOn.org Political Action attacks three Republican House members in TV ads saying they were "caught red-handed" supporting money spent on Halliburton contracts and wasteful Iraq projects. But a majority of Democrats voted the same way on most of the same measures, usually overwhelmingly. MoveOn endorses one Democratic House member who voted the same way 10 out of 14 times, and two senators who voted for the same measures every time they reached a recorded vote in the Senate.

Another ad says the same three Republicans were "caught red-handed" taking donations from military contractors while failing to support penalties for contractors who overcharge. In fact the donations were relatively small and MoveOn offers no evidence the votes were influenced by money. Furthermore severe penalties already exist for fraud against the Pentagon. What the targeted Republicans opposed were Democratic proposals to increase penalties. 

Analysis

The two 30-second MoveOn TV ads "Dumping Billions" and "Red-Handed Defense" are running in the congressional districts of the three Republican incumbents they target, Reps. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, and John Sweeney and Randy Kuhl of New York. The ads are the third iteration of MoveOn's "Caught Red-Handed" series which we discussed before.

MoveOn.org ad:
"Dumping Billions/Sweeney"

(On Screen: Dump trucks driving through the Iraqi desert, dumping bags of money)
Announcer: What happened to the 300 billion dollars we sent to Iraq? Halliburton got 18 billion. Nine billion is just plain missing. And our Congressman John Sweeney has been caught Red Handed voting for all of it.
(On Screen: Black and white picture of John Sweeney, his right hand painted red)
Announcer: That's money we need for jobs and healthcare here in New York. Now John Sweeney is ready to dump billions more in Iraq. John Sweeney: another Republican caught red-handed.
Announcer: With 3.2 million members, MoveOn.org Political Action is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

A Double Standard

"Dumping Billions" shows dump trucks dropping bags of money in a desert while an announcer questions what happened to $300 billion Congress sent to Iraq – including $18 billion for Halliburton and $9 billion that's "just plain missing."  The ad then says that "our Congressman . . . has been caught red-handed voting for all of it," as a black-and-white picture appears with the Congressman's hand painted red.

To begin with, none of the three targeted Republicans voted specifically for money for Halliburton, and obviously there's no line item for "missing" money in appropriations bills either. The ad faults them for voting for "all of it," meaning all the money spent in Iraq. The problem here is that Democrats generally voted the same way. Even three lawmakers whom MoveOn is specifically endorsing often voted for the same bills being criticized here.

On its website  MoveOn lists 14 votes among the three ads – votes on defense appropriation bills and emergency supplementals for the war in Iraq.  By casting these votes, according to MoveOn.org, these Republicans have been "caught red-handed." However, Democrats usually voted the same way, overwhelmingly. On only 2 of the 14 votes did a majority of House Democrats vote in opposition, both votes on the $87 billion Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental approrpriation that came up in the heat of the 2004 presidential campaign.  Even these got 82 and 83 Democratic votes, respectively. On the rest, an average of 165 House Democrats – better than three out of four – voted the same way as the Republicans that MoveOn is attacking.

MoveOn endorses  three incumbent lawmakers, Democratic Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and and Bill Nelson of Florida, and Democratic Rep.Sherrod Brown of Ohio (who is running for the Senate this year). How do these lawmakers hold up against MoveOn's own standard? Not well.

Of the fourteen votes, Brown voted with Sweeney, Kuhl, and Bass ten times (and was listed as "not voting" once). Byrd and Nelson had six opportunities to cast recorded votes on identical conference reports, and voted in favor every time.  By MoveOn's own logic, their candidates have been "caught red-handed" too, just a bit less often than the three Republican targets.

MoveOn.org Ad: "Red-Handed Defense/Sweeney"


(On Screen: Black and white photo of John Sweeney, his right hand painted red)
Announcer: Caught Red-Handed again. Congressman Mike Sweeney accepted $30,000 from defense contractor PACs (On Screen: Photos of money changing hands)
Announcer: Then he missed votes to penalize defense contractors like Halliburton who overcharged the military in Iraq at a time when soldiers didn't have enough body armor.
(On Screen: Black and white pictures of Delay, Cheney, and Sweeney with hands painted red)
Announcer: Tom Delay, Dick Cheney, and now John Sweeney, another Republican caught red-handed.
Announcer: With 3.2 million members, MoveOn.org Political Action is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

Penalties for Contractors

The second ad, "Red-Handed Defense," attacks the three for accepting political donations from defense contractors and then failing to support "penalties for defense contractors like Halliburton who overcharged the military in Iraq." Bass and Kuhl are faulted for voting against the "penalties" while Sweeney is attacked for "missed votes to penalize contractors."

This implies that the votes were influenced by money, but MoveOn presents no evidence of that. And it's also a bit misleading to say the three "opposed penalties for contractors" when in fact severe penalties already exist. The ad would have been more accurate to say the three Republicans accepted a small fraction of their campaign support from military contractors, and also failed to support Democratic proposals to increase penalties.

MoveOn cites four House votes in its backup material for "Red-Handed Defense," all decided pretty much along party lines. Republicans argued that increasing penalties would be piling on. 

Indeed, under the False Claims Act , defense contractors already face monetary and other penalties for defrauding the Pentagon. Among the most severe is a firm's debarment or suspension from doing business with the federal government, a development that tends to play very badly on Wall Street. In addition, individuals convicted of crimes in connection with a Defense Department contract are barred from having much of anything to do with such contracts for a period of at least five years under Section 2408 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. And of course, individuals found guilty of fraud can be sentenced to prison and fined. In a case from earlier this year, for example, four men are accused of conspiring to defraud the US by inflating prices of items purchased for the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and face maximum prison terms of five years each, plus fines of up to $250,000 each on the fraud counts.

One of the four measures cited by MoveOn actually has nothing to do with penalties. It was offered by Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts and would have provided $5 million to create a committee to investigate reconstruction efforts and spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MoveOn makes a fairer point when it cites another amendment, offered by Democratric Rep. Henry Waxman of California, which would have prohibited the Secretary of the Army from awarding a contract "if the Defense Contract Audit Agency has determined that more than $100,000,000 of the contractor's costs for contracts involving work in Iraq under one or more Army contracts were unreasonable." The measure appears to be aimed straight at Halliburton Co. The Defense Contract Audit Agency, the Pentagon's internal audit division, identified tens of millions in questionable and unsupported costs charged by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root Inc. to the federal government in contracts to provide services in Iraq, although the Pentagon approved payment of most of the questioned costs. Earlier this year, the Comptroller General of the United States criticized the Pentagon's reluctance to police the spending of its contractors.  So Waxman's amendment, it could be argued, was an attempt to hold a problematic contractor to account when the Pentagon was failing to do so. It failed on a mostly party-line vote of 193-225 last April.

Political Donations

MoveOn criticizes the Republican trio for accepting money from defense contractors, implicitly linking the contributions and their votes. But these three are hardly big recipients of defense industry dollars.

  • Bass: MoveOn says Rep. Charlie Bass accepted $35,000 from defense contractor political actions committees (PACs), but doesn't specify what time period is covered. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), Bass actually accepted a total of $87,252 from the defense industry -- that's from PACs and individuals connected to corporations in the industry -- during all his eight House campaigns. Even the higher number, though, accounts for just under 2 per cent of the over $4.5 million Bass has raised in his House career. Defense comes in 20th among industries that have given money to Bass. 
  • Kuhl: MoveOn's ad says Kuhl accepted "thousands" from defense contractor PACS, and their website puts the figure at $8,000. That's a tiny fraction of the $1,887,683 Kuhl has raised in his two House races, according to CRP. Defense does not rank among Kuhl's top twenty donor industries.
  • Sweeney: MoveOn says  Sweeney accepted $29,973 from defense contractor PACs over an unspecified period. CRP puts  his career total from all defense donors at $55,250. This amounts to less than one per cent of the  $6,148,873 raised by Sweeney in his five House races.  As with Kuhl, defense doesn't rank among Sweeney's top twenty donor industries.

Like most industries, defense doesn't give exclusively to Republicans. It makes more business and political sense to spread the goodies around. Since 1998 Defense PACs have given approximately a third of their donations for federal candidates to Democrats.

-by James Ficaro & Viveca Novak

Sources

Mary Speck, "Rep. Shays Presses for Quick Hearings on Apparent Iraq Contracting Problems," Congressional Quarterly Today , 25 April 2006.

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No.  257

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No.  60

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No.  65

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No.  305

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  161

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  167

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No. 72

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  584

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  77

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  287

U.S. House of Representatives, 109th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  669

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No.  418

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. House Vote No.  284

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  601

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  562

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  108

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  513

U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, 1st Session. House Vote No.  335

U.S. Senate, 109th Congress, 2nd Session. Senate Vote  171

U.S. Senate, 109th Congress, 1st Session. Senate Vote  117

U.S. Senate, 109th Congress, 1st Session. Senate Vote  336

U.S. Senate, 109th Congress, 1st Session. Senate Vote  366

U.S. Senate, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. Senate Vote  163

U.S. Senate, 108th Congress, 1st Session. Senate Vote  364

 

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