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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. April 20, 2016

Bernie Sanders ad ignores fact that members of Congress can't be paid for speeches

A new television ad by Sen. Bernie Sanders describes a very lucrative method for making money if you're a politician in Washington.

"Wall Street banks shower Washington politicians with campaign contributions and speaking fees," the ad says. "And what do they get for it? A rigged economy, tax breaks and bailouts, all held in place by a corrupt campaign finance system. And while Washington politicians are paid over $200,000 an hour for speeches, they oppose raising the living wage to $15 an hour. $200,000 an hour for them, but not even 15 bucks an hour for all Americans. Enough is enough."

The ad was played in New York in the days leading to the state’s April 19 primary.   

The ad was clearly going after Sanders' Democratic opponent, former U.S. Sen. and ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made lots of money giving speeches after leaving government in 2013. Sanders has argued that Clinton can't effectively regulate Wall Street when she has taken so much money from the big banks.

But the language of the ad is much broader than that, making three references to Washington politicians in general and twice linking them to a $200,000 per hour payment.

In addition, four of the 11 camera shots in the 30-second ad show the United States Capitol building, the headquarters of Congress. There are no shots of the White House or institutions such as the Federal Reserve or the State Department.

The clear impression is that Sanders is talking — exclusively or not — about members of Congress, the premiere political class of Washington. Can they really accept more than $200,000 an hour for speeches?

The ad is very misleading.

Senators and representatives have been prohibited from accepting money for speeches since 1991. Before then, members of Congress would often accept speaking fees from the industries they oversaw, which critics characterized as a form of bribery.

And it's not just members of Congress. In the House, for example, even senior staff can't be paid for speeches, appearances or writing an article. Junior staff also can't do it if the topic relates to their official duties.

The executive branch has a similar ban.

But once a person leaves government service, those rules no longer apply, and they're free to charge for speeches.

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As we reported a year ago, Clinton was typically earning honorariums of about $225,000 per speech and, in some instances, over $300,000 each. Again, these happened after she left office.

When we asked the Sanders campaign about the ad's claim, they sent along a list of links reporting on what some former federal government employees were getting for their speeches. They included:

* $100,000-$175,000 for George W. Bush, who insists on a non-disclosure agreement so the sponsors can't say what they paid the former president (Politico).

* At least $250,000 for a speech in Abu Dhabi by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. His predecessor, Alan Greenspan, reportedly received comparable pay to speak at the private Lehman Brothers dinner after he left the Fed (Reuters).

But the Sanders camp also sent links to stories about Mitt Romney making $68,000 for a speech (USA Today) and Jeb Bush commanding about $50,000 per talk (New York Times). That's far less than $200,000, and neither has held any significant elected or appointed office in Washington.

And none of these people listed by Sanders had any kind of vote in the recent debate over the $15 minimum wage (which also sounds like a veiled shot at Clinton).

Finally, we should note that it's a stretch to say that someone who earns $200,000 for a speech is earning $200,000 an hour. Most speeches require some preparation, research and travel time. It's akin to saying that a pastor paid $30,000 a year is earning $577 an hour because that's how long a Sunday service lasts.

Our ruling

Sanders said in an ad that uses repeated shots of the U.S. Capitol that "Washington politicians are paid over $200,000 an hour for speeches."

His ad is disingenuous on many levels.

Politicians trying to get to Washington, or those who have come from Washington, certainly can earn such fees, but members of the House and Senate and top officials in the executive branch are not permitted to accept payment for speeches.

And Sanders' campaign is including politicians who have never served in Washington in any significant capacity.

Because the statement contains a small element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, we rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources, "$200,000," Bernie 2016 channel, April 15, 2016

Congressional Research Service, "Congressional Salaries and Allowances," Jan. 4, 2012

House Committee on Ethics, "Laws, Rules, and Standards of Conduct Governing the Outside Employment of Members and All Staff," accessed April 18, 2016

United States Office of Government Ethics, "Outside Employment and Activities," and "Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch," Section 2635.807, accessed April 18, 2016, "Glenn Beck says Hillary Clinton makes more at one speech than average CEO in a year," May 28, 2016

Email, Warren Gunnels, policy director, Bernie Sanders campaign, April 18, 2016

Politico, "On talk circuit, George W. Bush makes millions but few waves," June 7, 2015

Reuters, "Bernanke enjoys 'fruits of free market' with first post-Fed speech," March 4, 2014

USA Today, "Mitt Romney earned more than $362,000 in speaking fees," Aug. 13, 2011

New York Times, "Jeb Bush's Rush to Make Money May Be a Hurdle," April 20, 2014

ABC News, "In Demand: Washington's Highest (and Lowest) Speaking Fees," July 14, 2014

Los Angeles Times, "Senators Vote to Cut Off Honorariums for Speeches," May 22, 1991

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Bernie Sanders ad ignores fact that members of Congress can't be paid for speeches

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