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Even though Clay Aiken has never run for public office before, he’s no stranger to getting a lot of votes. Now, after announcing his run for a U.S. House seat in North Carolina, the Democrat will have to hope supporters are as eager to flock to the polls as they were to text in their American Idol votes a decade ago.
It won’t be an easy road to Washington for Aiken, who will face a Democratic primary. In his YouTube campaign kickoff, which Simon Cowell would probably call "pitchy," Aiken criticized his would-be general election opponent, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C.
"The district where I’m running is represented by a congresswoman who I believe went to Washington with good intentions. I’d like to think that people don’t go there with anything else," Aiken said. "When her party leaders told her to vote for the government shutdown, she did. Twenty-one times. Even though she said herself it would be a disaster for the economy."
We can’t know what party leaders told her about how to vote. But we wanted to know if Ellmers voted 21 times to shut down the government, as Aiken claimed.
Aiken’s office sent us a list of the 21 votes they counted. By contrast, Ellmers’ staff gave us a list of 24 votes she gave "to keep the federal government open." Interestingly, there was significant overlap.
How the votes stack up
We combed through congressional votes during the fall of 2013 and came up with our own list of 26 votes in the battle over funding President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, and how it related to the government shutdown.
To be clear, there was never a measure that was a straight up-or-down vote to dirctly shut down the government. Rather, it was a series of votes on measures that the House supported but that the Senate and President Obama opposed, that had the predictable effect of shutting down the government. In the House, Republicans controlled which measures get brought to the floor for a vote.
Here’s a breakdown of House votes from that time period:
Pre-shutdown, votes 478, 497, 498 and 504: These votes took place on the budget in late September and were in support of the House Republican budget, which fully funded the government but defunded Obamacare or delayed its individual mandate. While Ellmers’ votes were in favor of GOP budget proposals, they were made knowing that Obama had said he would veto the legislation if it hit his desk, increasing the likelihood of a shutdown.
Rule changes, vote 505: In the early hours of Oct. 1, as the shutdown began, House Republicans voted to alter the rules to make it impossible for an individual legislator to force a vote on reopening the government.
Piecemeal appropriations during shutdown, votes 506, 507, 508, 510, 513, 514, 516, 518, 520, 522, 524, 528, 530, 532, 537, 540, 542, 544 and 548: Ellmers and Republicans voted in favor of these measures during the shutdown to fund different parts of the government individually. That included everything from re-opening federal museums to funding Head Start to funding cancer research. This was a tactical move on both sides of the aisle. Most Democrats opposed these measures in order to continue their push to fund the government in its entirety. Meanwhile, the Republicans used these votes as leverage against the Democrats, saying the Democrats refused to fund a laundry list of federal programs.
Forming a working group, vote 534: Mid-shutdown, Ellmers and other House Republicans voted to form a bipartisan working group of senators and representatives to work out economic policy differences and reopen the government. But party leaders made it clear they didn’t want to compromise on a delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which was a sticking point for the Democrats.
Ending the shutdown, vote 550: Ellmers voted against this, along with a majority of House Republicans. It passed with support from Democrats and a block of 87 Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner. Once Obama signed off on it Oct. 17, this bill ended the shutdown and funded the government through Jan. 15 in place of an annual budget.
By pointing out how Ellmers and other House Republicans voted in September and October, we’re not trying to absolve the Democrats of any responsibility for the government shutdown. To be sure, both parties shoulder responsibility for building up partisan gridlock.
Here, though, we wanted to take a close look at how Ellmers voted during the shutdown. Her record shows she voted with other Republicans to take a hard line on withholding funding for the health care law, even to the point of shutting down the government, and she also voted against the final deal that re-opened the government.
Her remarks on the subject contradict those votes. Back in August, she said the shutdown wasn’t the right strategy. After it ended, she said, "I’m happy we are out of the government shutdown," even though she didn’t vote in favor of ending it.
It’s also worth noting that Republicans have maintained that their votes for piecemeal appropriations are easily framed as votes to fund the government.
Aiken said Ellmers "voted for the government shutdown" 21 times. After reviewing the legislation, we found 26 votes from before and during the shutdown that were related. Ellmers consistently voted with Republicans, who wanted to defund Obamacare even at the cost of not funding other government functions.
But not all of the votes contributed directly to a shutdown, and Aiken's 21-vote tally is inflated. The bulk of these votes are piecemeal appropriations votes, which were tactical maneuvers by Republicans to try to restart the more popular government functions without funding the health care law.
Overall, Aiken has a point that Ellmers repeatedly voted with those who took positions against compromise. Most significantly, she voted for budget measures that precipitated a shutdown and also against the final compromise measure that re-started the federal government. But to say she voted 21 times for a shutdown is an exaggerated number. So we rate Aiken’s claim Half True.
ABC, "GOP demands talks with Democrats but don’t call it a supercommittee," Oct. 8, 2013
Email interview with Donald Wolfensberger, Congress Project senior scholar, Feb. 11, 2014
Email interview with Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato’s Crystal Ball associate editor, Feb. 7, 2014
Email interview with Jessica Wood, Renee Ellmers spokeswoman, Feb. 6, 2014
Email interview with Karl Frisch, Clay Aiken spokesman, Feb. 6, 2014
Email interview with Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar, Feb. 11, 2014
Email interview with Roy Meyers, University of Maryland, Baltimore County public policy professor
The News & Observer, "Some constituents rethinking U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers," Oct. 21, 2013
NPR, "House nears vote to fund government, defund Obamacare," Sept. 20, 2013
NPR, "How we got here: a shutdown timeline," Oct. 17, 2013
PolitiFact, "Marco Rubio says he never favored a government shutdown and voted to fully fund the government," Oct. 23, 2013
PolitiFact, "Political parties play games with votes during government shutdown," Oct. 16, 2013
Washington Post, "As Democrats seethe over GOP tactics, video over rules change goes viral," Oct. 14, 2013
Washington Post, "Everything you need to know about the government shutdown," Sept. 24, 2013
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