Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 08/16/2011
Michele Bachmann’s too-good-to-be-true stat on federal workers
By Glenn Kessler
“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
By popular demand, we are going to vet a statement in the column that we had previously discussed in an online chat. We probably did not do it full justice then, and Bachmann continues to say it — including on the Sunday morning TV shows this past weekend. A number of readers sent e-mails curious to know the truth, so we are happy to oblige.
On the surface, the fact appears astonishing — a huge increase in big-paying government jobs under Obama. But this is one of those statements one has to unpack very carefully, because Bachmann uses what is essentially a correct statistic regarding government salaries in a very misleading way.
Note that although the GOP presidential aspirant starts out by talking about the “never-seen-before levels” of spending under Obama and then mentions “the trillion-dollar stimulus,” the example she cites — the number of Transportation Department employees making more than $170,000 — uses the metric of “the beginning of the recession.” There’s a reason for that phrase: The recession started in December 2007, 13 months before Obama became president.
In other words, Bachmann gives the impression that she is talking about something that Obama did, but in fact, the big increase in government pay that she denounces started under Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
In fact, the apparent source of Bachmann’s claim, a 2009 article in USA Today, made it clear that Bush recommended across-the-board raises that, after they got through Congress, resulted in boosts of 3 percent in January 2008 and 3.9 percent in January 2009. By contrast, Obama in 2010 recommended the smallest federal pay raise since 1975 — 2 percent — and then froze salaries in 2011. USA Today also noted that civil servants are generally prevented from earning more than their agency’s leader, so when the salary of the Federal Aviation Administration chief was raised, nearly 1,700 employees had their salaries lifted as well.
The fact that these salary shifts occurred before Obama became president is easily confirmed by fiddling with the data displayed on the Web site of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. If you check the data before Obama became president, it is clear that the bulk of the new salaries were instituted before he took office.
The Pinocchio Test
Bachmann’s use of the phrase “beginning of the recession” suggests she knows full well that the pay raises did not occur under Obama, and yet she persists in leaving the impression that Obama is directly responsible for boosting the number of employees making more than $170,000.
That makes her statistic, while technically correct, deliberately misleading, especially since Obama has actually frozen federal salaries.