File photo by Sam Hodgson
Congressman Bob Filner’s mayoral campaign has often aimed to portray him as a unifier and his competitor, City Councilman Carl DeMaio, as a divider. Filner argues he would be better than DeMaio at crossing party lines and solving problems at City Hall.
To bolster his argument, Filner has often pointed to his congressional record and specifically, his push to expand veterans’ benefits. He was chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs from 2007 to 2010 and remains the committee’s ranking Democratic member today.
Talking about his tenure as chairman at an Aug. 9 mayoral debate, Filner claimed his leadership had resulted in substantial budget increases for veterans’ benefits and won unanimous support from Congress. Here’s the full quote:
We raised the budget of the Veterans Administration when I was chairman over 65 percent for health care of our nation’s veterans. I got a unanimous Congress to do that. And we’re not talking about a few hundred thousand or a hundred million a year. We’re talking about from $30 billion to $50 billion. That’s a lot of money.
We decided to Fact Check the statement because Filner has repeatedly cited an increase in the budget for veterans’ health care to prop up his congressional record and in this case, also cited unanimous support from Congress, bolstering his campaign theme.
We’ve rated part of his claim Mostly True, the other part as Huckster Propaganda.
Our analysis below is broken down by each claim. First we’ll examine whether the budget increased by 65 percent while Filner was chairman of the House of Representatives committee, and then we’ll review whether Congress unanimously approved the additional funds.
Claim: A 65 percent increase while Filner was chairman.
Analysis: Budget documents back up Filner’s percentage.
But it’s important to understand how it was calculated. He was chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for four years, though the percentage describes how funding changed over six.
When Filner became committee chairman in January 2007, the federal government was four months into the 2007 fiscal year and Congress still hadn’t finalized a budget. It took another month to land on the president’s desk.
The delay set the 2007 budget as the first approved by Congress while Filner was chairman of the House committee. The baseline for comparing the budget over his tenure would be the previous budget — 2006 fiscal year.
The last budget approved while Filner was chairman included funding for both the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Congress had adopted a two-year budget cycle for veterans’ medical benefits in an effort to shield veterans from possible budget delays.
Whether you compare 2006 to 2011 or 2012, budget documents back up Filner’s description. Funding for veterans’ medical care increased by 64 percent between 2006 and 2011, and by 72 percent between 2006 and 2012.
For a broader picture of the budget, check out the chart below. It shows how much money Congress approved for veterans’ medical care since the 2002 fiscal year, according to budget documents from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
We have rated Filner’s statement Mostly True. His percentage accurately described how Congress increased the budget while he was chairman, but his involvement in the 2007 budget presents an important nuance to consider. Unlike other years, Filner wasn’t chairman throughout the entire 2007 budget process.
Claim: The budget increases had unanimous support from Congress.
Analysis: The historical record of Congress’ votes provides little backing for Filner’s conclusion.
It was unclear which votes Filner was talking about at the mayoral forum. Filner’s campaign staff did not respond to numerous requests for clarification in recent weeks, so we examined the results of dozens of major votes.
Congress’ role in the budget process involves many votes on resolutions and appropriations bills. In most cases, the bills must pass the House and Senate, a reconciliation process and then another round of votes by each chamber. (Most military-related bills are listed on this Army website.)
Since the budget for the 2007 fiscal year — Filner’s first as chairman — records from the Library of Congress show that major votes have rarely come back unanimous. Out of more than 30 votes between the two houses, we found just two unanimous results.
In the first case, Filner wasn’t committee chairman at the time of the vote. In June 2006, the House unanimously approved its version of the 2007 budget that included funding for veterans’ medical care. But the House and Senate later deadlocked over the budget, leading to months of delay and new legislation.
In the second case, the vote wasn’t final and didn’t occur in Filner’s chamber. The Senate unanimously approved its version of the 2011 fiscal year budget that included funding for veterans’ medical care. Later votes to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions were not unanimous.
In a brief interview, Filner said we weren’t looking at the same metric of unanimity he meant to describe at the mayoral forum.
Filner said he wasn’t talking about his colleagues’ votes on the budget. Instead, Filner said, he was talking about their general feelings toward veterans. He argued that all of Congress wanted to increase the budget for veterans but some members didn’t vote that way for different reasons.
Congress often consolidates budget bills, lumping funding for departments like Veterans Affairs with separate functions like military construction or defense contracts. Congress then votes on the entire package.
In these cases, Filner argued, legislators who opposed the budget bills must have done so because they didn’t like something unrelated to veterans in the package. “I know of no one who voted no on a budget because of the veterans part of it, so I assume unanimity,” Filner said.
But Filner didn’t claim their feelings had been united. He claimed a united Congress had acted unanimously to increase the budget for veterans’ health care.
If Filner indeed meant to describe feelings and not actions, none of the surrounding context indicated it. We decided to rate the statement’s accuracy based on the verifiable record of Congress’ support for the additional funds.
Ultimately, we found the statement best fits our definition of Huckster Propaganda. The definition says the statement is inaccurate and it’s reasonable to expect the person making it knew that and made the claim anyway to gain an advantage.
Though we found two major budget votes in recent years were unanimous, they alone did not result in the budget actions that Filner described at the mayoral debate. The breadth of the voting record shows Congress’ support was not unanimous, so Filner’s statement was not correct.
It’s also reasonable to expect Filner knew his statement was inaccurate. He was chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during the votes and participated in them. Congress seldom acted unanimously on the issue.
Furthermore, the surrounding context of Filner’s statement demonstrated the advantage he aimed to gain. Filner was trying to buttress a major theme of his campaign and cast himself as the unifier. But in fact, the financial actions he described were rarely united.
If you disagree with either of our ratings or analyses, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Be sure to explain your reasoning, too.
Liam Dillon contributed to this story.
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