Candidates' votes can paint murky picture of their record

Ehrlich-Townsend debate illustrates the complexity

Election 2002

September 28, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

During Thursday night's gubernatorial debate, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend rattled off a litany of past votes meant to dress Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as a staunch conservative who only lately has put on a moderate outfit.

"The fact is you have a very conservative record," Townsend, the Democratic nominee, told him. "It doesn't make you a bad person. It just makes you a bad governor of Maryland."

Ehrlich countered that Townsend was slippery with the facts. "You know how easy it is to take a vote out of context," he said. "It may be confusing to you, but I feel really comfortable running on this record after 16 years in office in this state, my state."

The fact is, congressional votes are easy to distort, embedded as they so often are inside mammoth bills of dizzying complexity. Unlike city council members or state legislators, who might vote yea or nay on a single-item bill banning pit bulls or increasing drunken-driving penalties, members of Congress can vote dozens of times on one measure that can contain dozens of provisions - some of which they support, and some of which they don't.

In any campaign involving a member of Congress, certain votes are apt to haunt. "There are wonky rules, and there are procedural, wonky kinds of votes," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat supporting Townsend.

But, she added, the votes Townsend tried to use to her advantage in the debate were fair game. "There is nothing out of context when you voted to eliminate a department of education. There is nothing out of context when you talk about a budget vote. It is not a single vote. It is a pattern."

But Ehrlich's campaign charges that Townsend deliberately highlighted individual votes that, taken alone, paint an inaccurate picture of his record and beliefs.

"Saying, for example, that Bob is anti-education by talking about one vote out of 25,000 is an absolute distortion," said his spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "Using half-sentences instead of a complete sentence is also an outright distortion."

So who is right? An analysis of several votes Townsend referenced during the debate shows how murky votes can be.

Townsend said Ehrlich "voted to slash student loans by $4 billion dollars."

In 1996, Ehrlich did vote in favor of a proposed budget guideline - more like a wish-list - that would have included student loan cuts. The measure never made it to the president.

In 1995, however, Ehrlich voted to decrease Pell Grant funding from $6.1 billion in fiscal year 1995 to $5.6 billion in fiscal year 1996. His office says the cut was a necessary part of a "successful effort to balance the federal budget."

Since then, his office points out, from 1996 through this year, Ehrlich has voted for an overall increase of $4.7 billion in federal Pell Grant funding. This summer, he also voted in favor of an emergency $1 billion increase in the program to offset an impending shortfall.

"You voted to cut $207 billion out of Medicaid and $117 billion out of Medicare," Townsend said.

Townsend might have misspoken on this one - and Ehrlich leapt at the opportunity to "educate" her on the differences between the programs during the debate. However, in past references to Ehrlich's votes on Medicare and Medicaid, Townsend has based her comments on a July 1995 nonbinding budget resolution that Democrats said would have cut $270 billion from Medicare and $182 billion from Medicaid.

A vote on a binding bill related to Medicare occurred in October 1995. The bill did not contain the Medicare increase that Democrats sought, but it contained no actual cuts. In fact, it increased Medicare spending from $177 billion in 1995 to $294 billion in fiscal year 2002. It passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Townsend repeatedly mentioned that Ehrlich voted to eliminate the Department of Education and to cut Head Start funding.

Ehrlich voted for a 1996 House Budget resolution that did call for scrapping the Department of Education. Ehrlich's explanation for this vote was that he wanted to use the $1.3 billion that the department costs and redirect that money to classrooms. The bill included a provision to send $11 billion back to the states through two block grants. The bill failed.

In 1995, Ehrlich did support an unsuccessful appropriations bill that would have included $137 million less than what Democrats wanted for Head Start funding. However Ehrlich's office points out that between 1996 and 2002, he has voted in favor of an overall increase of approximately $3 billion in Head Start funding.

Ehrlich said during the debate, "I have never voted ... with regard to affirmative action. I'm an affirmative action kid." Townsend reminded him: "You did vote to ban affirmative action at U.S. colleges."

Townsend was right. In 1998, he voted in favor of a bill that prohibited colleges and universities that receive federal funding from admitting students on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. It was rejected by the House.

Finally, Townsend said, "Congressman Ehrlich voted against increasing the minimum wage again and again and again and again."

Townsend was referring to votes in 1996 and 2000. In 1996, he voted three times against 90-cent minimum-wage increases, but all of those votes were essentially on the same bill. In 2000, he voted against increasing the minimum wage by $1 an hour over two years.

Ehrlich's office says that he believes a federal wage increase would hurt businesses and force them to lay off workers. But he believes that states should be able to raise the minimum wage - and evidently has spoken to President Bush about this.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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