Years ago, I attended the annual conference of the Electronic Retailing Association – the fancy name the infomercial people gave themselves – and learned that when you’ve got 30 seconds to work with, the most successful pitches often ask viewers a simple and direct question with an obvious answer.
Linda McMahon, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, is advertising something far more consequential than egg peelers and Ginsu knives, but she utilizes the same direct approach in her latest ad, which targets Democrat Chris Murphy’s attendance record at Congressional hearings.
“If you skipped 80 percent of the meetings for your job, would you get a promotion?” a narrator asks rhetorically at the very opening of the ad, in a reference to Murphy’s bid to move from the House of Representatives to the Senate.
“During America’s financial crisis, Chris Murphy served on two committees trying to avoid a financial meltdown,” the narrator continues. “But Murphy skipped nearly 80 percent of those urgent hearings.”
To drive home the point, the ad shows a hearing room with an empty chair behind a nameplate reading “Mr. Murphy.”
The ad then uses some pretty attention-grabbing language, musing over what Murphy might have been doing during those hearings, and declaring that “Chris Murphy didn’t show up for the job you paid him to do.”
Strong words, for sure. But the key factual assertion in the ad is that Murphy rarely attended his committee’s hearings, and that claim generally holds up.
The ad focuses on Murphy’s first term, when he was appointed to the House Committee on Financial Services and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. A review of transcripts for committee hearings (including subcommittees on which Murphy served) shows that during Murphy’s first term, there were 237 such meetings, and Murphy’s name does not appear on the attendance roster for 180 of them. That’s an absence rate of 76 percent. (The McMahon campaign found slightly different numbers – 170 missed meetings out of 218, or 78 percent.)
Murphy, through his campaign, did not dispute the figures, but said the important metric was his 98-percent record of voting on committee legislation, rather than his attendance at committee meetings. “Linda McMahon has enough Washington consultants around her to know that the work of committees is actually done in legislative markups, not hearings,” a campaign spokeswoman said.
Washington insiders may indeed be less shocked by Murphy’s attendance record than the average viewer of that ad. But that by itself would not make it inaccurate or unfair. There are plenty of things Washington politicians routinely do – hobnob with lobbyists, accept junkets from special interests – that political challengers are free to try to make an issue of. And if Murphy believes the focus on his attendance record is a red herring, he’s likewise free to strike back with ads of his own, defending his legislative record and explaining why he believes the attendance figures are irrelevant.
Where the ad is more subject to criticism is in areas less subject to pure fact-checking, including the assertion that Murphy’s committees were “trying to avoid a financial meltdown,” that the hearings he missed were “urgent,” and in particular, the leap that missing those hearings means Murphy “didn’t show up for the job you paid him to do.”
The ad gives something of an impression that Murphy’s subcommittees were involved in desperate efforts to save the teetering economy. But some of the hearings Murphy skipped would hardly be described as focused on avoiding a financial meltdown. On June 8, 2007, he passed on a hearing titled “Can Internet Gambling Be Effectively Regulated to Protect Consumers And The Payments System?” and on July 29, 2008, he didn’t make it to “Affordable Housing In West Virginia: Challenges In The Eastern Panhandle” – a hearing that not only concerned West Virginia, but was held in West Virginia.
But other missed meetings were more directly related to the nation’s broad fiscal problems, including hearings on monetary policy, mortgage foreclosures, risk in the financial markets, stabilization of the auto industry and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.
Were those meetings “urgent?” That’s a subjective word, and generally beyond the scope of fact-checking.
Similarly, the ad needles Murphy by suggesting that rather than attending meetings, “Maybe Chris was at the plush, secret Congressional health club which you pay for. Or maybe Murphy skipped work to raise money to keep his $170,000-a-year job.” There is, of course, no indication Murphy was doing either of those things, but that part of the ad reads more like a political jab than a specific accusation.
The ad comes closer to a direct accusation with the narrator’s final line: that Murphy “didn’t show up for the job you paid him to do.” Serving in Congress involves far more than showing up at committee hearings, and it is an extraordinarily broad statement to conclude that failing to attend those hearings is equivalent to not showing up for the job. But while Murphy’s supporters and some savvy Washingtonians may object to the McMahon camp’s conclusions regarding the significance of committee hearings, the main factual assertion here is on target. As such, we rate this ad Generally Accurate.