Michael Riley, the Republican businessman who wants to end Democrat U.S. Rep. James Langevin’s six-term run as congressman from Rhode Island’s 2nd District, unleashed new television and radio commercials last week, ripping into Langevin as a ravenous devourer of taxpayer money.
The radio ad opens with the menacing music from the movie "Jaws" in the background, as the narrator says Langevin has "received almost $20 million from taxpayers and special interests while in office to use at his own discretion to supposedly champion Rhode Island’s needs. "
The ad recites a list of problems, from high gas prices to unemployment, and claims Langevin has few policy accomplishments to show for the money he’s received.
"Beware Rhode Island!" the narrator warns. "There’s a shark in the water, circling the Ocean State and looking to feast on your hard-earned tax dollars! That shark’s name is Jim Langevin."
We’ll pass on the value of Langevin’s policy achievements; one party’s success is another’s crime against the Constitution. But there is an objective element of Riley’s claim that can be examined: Has Langevin gotten nearly $20 million "from taxpayers and special interests ... to use at his own discretion" in his congressional career?
We called the Riley campaign for their backup. Spokesman Nicholas Tsimortos told us the number is the sum of three elements:
- The almost $2 million Langevin has been paid in salary during his 12 years in Congress.
- The more than $6 million that’s been donated to Langevin’s campaigns since he first ran in 2000.
- The $11 million spent to pay the staffers who have worked for him over those 12 years.
Add them up and they come to more than $18 million, hence "almost $20 million."
Step one is figuring out if Riley’s numbers are right.
For Langevin’s campaign contribution totals, we went to Opensecrets.org, a campaign-finance database compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
According to its records, Langevin has raised $6,253,061 over his six previous campaigns and in his current one, through Aug. 22. So Riley’s campaign got that number right.
How about the $2 million in cumulative salary? When Langevin took office in January 2001, U.S. representatives got $145,100 annually; it’s up to $174,000 now. Add up Langevin’s total salary over those years and it’s $1,965,700, close enough to call it almost "$2 million."
Last, and not least, is the $11 million that Riley’s campaign says Langevin has spent on staff salaries. For that, we went to Legistorm.com, which tracks congressional office spending. According to that site, $11,021,686 was paid to the 63 people who have worked on Langevin’s federally financed staff over his congressional career. That’s in line with Tsimortos’ $11-million estimate.
So the numbers add up.
But accurate information can be put in a misleading context. And the context of Riley’s claim -- portraying the congressman as a shark devouring taxpayer dollars -- is highly misleading.
The first course of this alleged fiscal buffet is Langevin’s nearly $2 million in congressional pay. Article I, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution requires that representatives be paid.
Langevin may have discretion on how he spends his salary, but there’s nothing sinister about his accepting the same compensation every other congressman receives -- and the same salary Riley would receive if he wins.
What about the $6 million in campaign contributions? Riley’s campaign says all that money comes from "special interests." Even if we were to agree with that characterization -- and most independent analysts don’t -- federal law limits what candidates can do with contributions. They can be used for commercials, polling and campaign staff, for example, but not a candidate’s personal expenses.
(According to his most recent filings, Riley has given $440,200 to his campaign and accepted $69,363 in contributions.)
Finally, what about the $11 million Langevin’s office has spent in staff salaries?
According to the U.S. House of Representatives’ House Administration Committee website, each congressman gets an annual allowance for office salaries and expenses. It fluctuates from year to year, but has hovered at about $1 million recently.
Staffers spend much of their time helping constituents having problems with, say the Social Security Administration or the Veterans Administration. And they research issues, providing representatives with the information they need to decide how to vote.
Maybe Langevin could have decided not to have a staff and saved the taxpayers $11 million, but it would have meant Rhode Island’s 2nd District constituents would be less efficiently represented.
Michael Riley’s campaign ad says Rep. James Langevin "has received almost $20 million from taxpayers and special interests to use at his own discretion to supposedly champion Rhode Island’s needs."
When you add Langevin’s salary, his staff salaries and his campaign contributions, you do get nearly $20 million.
But Riley’s claim -- and the ad’s portrayal of Langevin as a shark looking to "feast" on taxpayers’ dollars -- suggests he has a slush fund and has used it improperly.
That’s a gross distortion of very common practices allowed by law and the U.S. Constitution. We rule his statement Mostly False.