In an interview on CBS' Face the Nation on June 26, 2011, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann managed to turn a question about farm subsidies into an attack on President Barack Obama's administration for a "reprehensible" increase in the number of federal limousines.
"What about farm subsidies?" host Bob Schieffer asked Bachmann on the eve of her formal announcement of a 2012 presidential bid. "...Do you think we ought to think about cutting those back?"
"I think everything needs to be on the table right now, every part of government," Bachmann said. "I'll tell you one thing that should be on the table, under Barack Obama the last two years, the number of federal limousines for bureaucrats has increased 73 percent, in two years. I can’t think of anything more reprehensible than seeing bureaucrats on their cell phones in the backs...73 percent increase in the number of federal limousines in the last two years, for heaven's sake."
She made a similar statement during an appearance in New Hampshire on June 28: "In the last two years under the Obama administration, the number of federal limousines have increased 73 percent under President Obama. So if it isn't bad enough that we have all these czars, now they have limousines at their service and they can sit in their back seats and talk on their cell phones. This is the level of waste we've got in Washington, DC."
The claim is based on a May 31, 2011, story from iWatchNews.org, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, which ran under the headline, "Limousine liberals? Number of government-owned limos has soared under Obama."
The story, written by Joe Eaton, begins: "Limousines, the very symbol of wealth and excess, are usually the domain of corporate executives and the rich. But the number of limos owned by Uncle Sam increased by 73 percent during the first two years of the Obama administration, according to an analysis of records by iWatch News."
The statistic is based on annual fleet reports provided by the U.S. General Services Administration. According to the Fleet Report for Fiscal Year 2010 (Table 2-5 and 2-5T), the number of federal limousines by year went from 318 in 2006; to 217 in 2007; to 238 in 2008; to 349 in 2009; and to 412 in 2010. So the data suggests there was a 73 percent increase between 2008 and 2010.
But information in the iWatch News article itself casts doubt about whether this is a firm statistic and whether the increase is rightly pegged entirely to the Obama administration.
For starters, the GSA itself is not standing behind the numbers. Because of a loose definition of "limousines," GSA spokeswoman Sara Merriam told iWatch News that GSA "cannot say that its report accurately reflects the number of limousines."
"The categories in the Fleet Report are overly broad, and the term 'limousine' is not defined," Merriam told us via e-mail. "Vehicles represented as limousines can range from protective duty vehicles to common sedans, and many of these vehicles serve in a law enforcement or protective capacity. This is a flaw in the report that GSA will fix to ensure that the Fleet Report can serve as a useful tool to help agencies right-size their fleets to achieve cost and energy savings as directed by the Presidential Memorandum."
The iWatch News report noted that according to GSA, "law enforcement" limousines means the vehicles "are equipped with sirens or lights, high-performance drivetrains or are used for surveillance or undercover operations."
Indeed, the data shows that the number of "law enforcement" limousines went from 193 in 2008 to 288 in 2010. In other words, limos used for law enforcement accounted for 95 of the new limousines (more than half the entire increase).
Law enforcement vehicles with sirens and used for surveillance or undercover operations, didn't jibe with our concept of limousine. So we went to our Merriam-Webster dictionary, which defines limousine as "a large luxurious often chauffeur-driven sedan that usually has a glass partition separating the driver's seat from the passenger compartment."
It's also unclear how many of the new "limousines" can be tied to the Obama administration. The bulk of the limousine fleet increase occurred between the fiscal years of 2008 and 2009 (when the number jumped 47 percent -- from 238 to 349). When Obama took office in late January 2009, it was already nearly four months into the 2009 fiscal year. The GSA report doesn't note how many were ordered in the first four months as opposed to the final eight.
Moreover, the GSA's fleet acquisition data notes when vehicles were delivered, not when they were ordered. A bulk of the vehicles in the FY2009 report would have been ordered in 2008 under the prior Bush administration (and a Democrat-controlled Congress).
The iWatch News story also notes that much of the increase in the fleet of limousines was in the State Department.
"The State Department in a statement said its limos are deployed by overseas diplomats and in the United States by Secretary of State Clinton and 'distinguished foreign visitors,'" the story states. "Many of the limos in its fleet are armored to protect against attack. The department said its Obama-era increase in armored limos is 'both in proportion to the increased threat to diplomats serving overseas and is in proportion to the increase number of diplomats we have serving in high threat environments.' Appropriations documents indicate the State Department was engaged in a longer-term effort to increase the number of armored vehicles that would have stretched back to at least 2007."
In other words, some of the State Department increase has been in the works for at least two years prior to Obama taking office.
Accusing the Obama administration of significantly increasing the federal limousine fleet in the midst of a recession and spiraling deficits may make for a great red meat line on a Republican campaign stop. But Bachmann's claim that "under Barack Obama the last two years the number of federal limousines for bureaucrats has increased 73 percent," is based on squishy figures from the GSA (according to the GSA itself). And it's also impossible to tell from the numbers exactly how many of the new "limousines" were ordered by the Obama administration, and how many were ordered by his predecessor. Given those qualifiers, we rate it Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.