Alex Sink’s campaign for Pinellas County’s open U.S. House seat continues to pile on Republican rival David Jolly’s lobbyist past. The latest attack has been that the Dunedin native lobbied on radical changes to Medicare.
A campaign commercial released on Jan. 25, 2014, features a voiceover detailing Jolly’s financial windfall from his work in Washington. It goes on to say, "Jolly even lobbied for a group committed to privatizing Social Security and then lobbied on a plan to turn Medicare into a costly voucher program."
Did Jolly lobby on Medicare vouchers? This is a significant charge, since the district ranks eighth in the nation for population over 65 -- those eligible for Medicare. It’s also turning into a favored Democratic attack against Jolly, implying that he favored a plan to alter the program. We decided to investigate.
The Ryan budget
Jolly was a longtime aide and general counsel to the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, whose death triggered the March 11 special election. Later, Jolly worked as a lobbyist from 2007 to 2012, first for Van Scoyoc Associates Inc., then for his own firm, Three Bridges Advisors. One of his clients at both firms was Free Enterprise Nation, a pro-business, anti-regulation advocacy group founded by Jim MacDougald, who is now Jolly’s campaign finance co-chairman.
A Nov. 2009 lobbying disclosure form (with spelling errors) shows Jolly worked on behalf of Free Enterprise Nation for "Health Care reform, Social Security Reform, Paycheck Fairness Act and other labor related issues and initatives; Taxpayer proection, and Small business."
His campaign confirmed the disclosure referred to a meeting with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the former vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney. Ryan has written several budget proposals that support restructuring Social Security and Medicare.
Ryan’s plan was first submitted to the House as "The Roadmap for America’s Future" in 2008 and again in 2010. The proposal called for Medicare to be replaced with a government payment to beneficiaries to buy private insurance instead. These payouts were called subsidies or "premium support" by supporters and "vouchers" by detractors. The plan was reintroduced in 2011, 2012 and 2013, when they were passed by the Republican-led House but not the Democratic-controlled Senate. So the budget proposals have never been enacted.
PolitiFact has considered whether the Ryan version of Medicare was a voucher system, and found the claim was Mostly True, though a more expansive version of the Democratic claim -- that proposals like Ryan’s would "end Medicare" -- received PolitiFact’s 2011 Lie of the Year.
The Jolly campaign at first said Jolly didn’t actively lobby either way to get Ryan’s budget proposals passed. Then they said he opposed the part of the plan that would change Medicare.
Jolly was there to "advocate for transparency of the out-year obligations of Social Security and Medicare" and "transparency and protecting promises made to beneficiaries," said Jolly campaign spokesman Sarah Bascom.
On a Dec. 8, 2013, edition of Bay News 9’s Political Connections, Jolly himself said "there was a lot of good in the Ryan budget." But Jolly also said he believed the budget wasn’t the proper approach to some problems.
"I think we have to be careful on the Ryan budget for a couple of reasons," he said on the show. "Entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare — we know what that means to the community here. I have said from the very beginning, we have to protect the promises that have been made, to everybody."
Vouching for Jolly
None of Jolly’s disclosure forms for his work with Free Enterprise Nation list Medicare as a topic. Nonetheless, the Sink campaign inferred that if Jolly was discussing "Health Care reform" with Ryan, and Ryan’s budget proposal was a topic, then Jolly had lobbied on the voucher plan.
Experts we spoke to said the term "Health Care reform" was broad enough to include Medicare, since disclosure forms only require topics and not specifics. The caveat is that Sink’s attack would imply, to most reasonable people, that Jolly was in favor of the voucher plan, not against it.
Experts on lobbying said that if Jolly was at a meeting where the Ryan budget was discussed, that counts as lobbying.
Brett Kappel, an attorney for Washington, D.C., law firm Arent Fox who specializes in lobbying, said that according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, being paid for any discussion of a piece of legislation with a covered government official is an act of lobbying.
"It doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against it," Kappel said, adding that even though Ryan’s budget proposal was a not technically a piece of legislation -- budget resolutions do not get sent to the president to be signed, as normal bills do -- it qualified as an item covered under disclosure guidelines.
"There are a lot of gray areas in the rules," he said. "This isn’t one of them."
It also doesn’t matter if Jolly’s sentiments about the budget were his or those of his client, Free Enterprise Nation. "He’s representing his client," Kappel said. "If he didn’t know his client’s position, he shouldn’t have said anything."
Finally, Jolly himself said in a Feb. 3, 2014 interview with Tampa Bay TV station WFLA, that he had lobbied on the budget proposal.
"A federal lobbying registration filing for a client simply says that this bill was discussed, so yes, I met with Paul Ryan, at the time that he was writing the Ryan budget," Jolly said, again specifying the conversation was about projecting future costs of Social Security and Medicare.
"So what I talked to Paul Ryan about was transparency of the out-year debt, and as he’s wrestling with reforms, making sure that’s included. Now, all that appears on the filing is that I Iobbied on the Ryan budget, so they have taken that and they can play with it however they want."
One of Sink’s campaign commercials claims that Jolly "lobbied on a plan" by Ryan that would turn Medicare into a voucher program.
She’s suggesting that a meeting with would-be Medicare reformist Ryan on behalf of Free Enterprise Nation had to be advocating for the congressman’s plan to alter the face of the retiree health insurance program. Jolly’s campaign acknowledged that Jolly had attended a meeting on an overall budget proposal that included changes to Medicare, and under the law, that is enough to count as lobbying.
But Jolly’s camp says he didn’t support Ryan’s potential changes to Medicare, and we can’t contradict that. More importantly, neither can Sink.
Democrats used vague language that a reasonable person would assume meant Jolly was promoting the voucher portion of the proposal, when Jolly says he was critical of it. There’s a lack of evidence to tie Jolly specifically to that part of the Ryan budget plan, even though he did lobby on the legislation and was discussing Medicare.
Sink is leaving out important context as she tries to harness a hot-button issue. We rate her claim Half True.