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What do you do when you're a Republican running an uphill, some would say quixotic, campaign against Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in historically liberal San Francisco?
Trailing badly in the polls, John Dennis appears to be trying to raise his profile via the viral campaign video route.
Dennis has introduced a Wizard of Oz-themed ad, with Pelosi, of course, cast in the role of the Wicked Witch of the West.
"I will save you from those evil Republicans," the Pelosi character cackles. "But first, pay $18,000 a month for my downtown office."
She then talks about running up the debt and summons her "monkeys" (sporting IRS tags) "to make you pay for it all."
"Step back everyone," says Dennis, appearing in the frame. He pours a bucket of water (labeled "Freedom" -- we're not making this up) and melts the witch.
Hokey? You bet. But with 500,000 hits in its first few days online, we'd say, mission accomplished.
None of the actors is likely to get much Oscar buzz, but we're not here to review the ad's artistic merits.
We'll stick to a fact-check of the claim that taxpayers are on the hook for $18,000 a month for Pelosi's downtown San Francisco district office.
The rent for Pelosi's district office is actually $18,736 a month, as first reported in June 2010 in a Roll Call analysis of a database assembled by the Sunlight Foundation. Pelosi moved into the 3,075 square foot space in the new, 18-story federal building in downtown San Francisco in the fall of 2009. It was a significant upgrade, more than quadrupling the rent she paid for her previous district office, and is nearly double the next-highest rental paid by a member of the House.
According to the Roll Call analysis, the next highest monthly office rent, $10,600, belongs to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose district office is in a federal building in Manhattan. Democratic Reps. Jose Serrano (Bronx, N.Y.), Doris Matsui (Sacramento) Stephen Lynch (Boston) and Diane Watson (Los Angeles) all pay $9,000 to $10,000 a month for district offices.
This rental data comes courtesy of Pelosi, who allowed the release of the House's quarterly Statement of Disbursements online for the first time in November 2009.
Drew Hammill, Pelosi's press secretary, said the decision to move last fall was justified because after 20 years, "the old office was no longer able to meet the needs of San Franciscans in the existing space and the new office will expand office size by nearly a third, allowing better service for San Francisco constituents."
The office is more centrally located, Hammill said, allowing constituents better access via public transportation.
Better security was also a priority, he said.
"In the role as speaker of the House, the new federal building offers enhanced security features, a major factor in the decision to move offices," Hammill said.
"This move did not come without additional expense," Hammill said. "As every San Franciscan knows, the city is one of the most densely populated areas in the county and, of course, office space rents are among the highest, on average, in the country."
Hammill also noted that the rent is being paid back to the federal government, which owns the building, and that Pelosi pays the same cost per square foot as any other federal agency that is a tenant of the building.
By way of context, Roll Call reporter Paul Singer noted in his report that serving as speaker carries additional cost and that previous speakers have paid substantially more for their district offices than other nearby members of Congress.
One other piece of context is warranted. The expense for district office rent is paid out of set amount allotted to members called the Members' Representational Allowances (which typically range from about $1.4 million to $1.7 million for each office). Out of this account, members pay for their staff, travel, office rent, office art, flowers, bottles of water etc. The amount of the allowance varies based on factors such as the distance of a member's district to D.C. and the relative cost of office space in the member's home district. Pelosi's allowance is higher due to the travel distance to California and the high rents charged in San Francisco. In addition, because of the additional responsibilities, the speaker gets a higher allowance.
Members can decide for themselves how to spend their allowances. And Pelosi did not exceed hers. So one could argue that while Pelosi decided to prioritize spending for her office space, it didn't cost taxpayers any more, that she simply had less to spend on other things. Members can give back the unused part of their allowance, but in practice, very few ever do. They simply find other ways to spend it.
We're not going to weigh in on whether Pelosi's rent is justified. But the ad says the American public pays $18,000 a month for Pelosi's district office in downtown San Francisco, and its $18,736. We rate Dennis' ad corny, but True.
YouTube, John Dennis ad: Nancy Pelosi, Wicked Witch of the West, Sept. 12, 2010
John Dennis campaign website, "Click Play. Laugh. Defeat Pelosi"
Roll Call, "Pelosi Paying $18K a Month for New San Francisco Office," by Paul Singer, June 14, 2010
Sunlight Foundation, House Expenditure Reports Database
House of Representatives, Statement of Disbursements
Sunlight Foundation, "House Expenditures to go Online," by John Wonderlich, Nov. 30, 2009
New York Post, "Pelosi office fit for a queen," by Andy Soltis, June 16, 2010
San Francisco Chronicle, "Pelosi's new office is House's costliest by far," by Lilianna Oustinovskaya, June 15, 2010
Interview with Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Pelosi, Sept. 15, 2010
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