How Seeds of Truth Can Sometimes Take Root
Many newspapers, including The Post, profiled Mark Sanford last week after the married South Carolina Republican governor revealed that he had been having an affair with a woman in Argentina.
The Post’s story said that during his six years in Congress during the 1990s, Sanford had “turned down his housing allowance and slept on a cot in his Capitol Hill office” as a symbolic way of showing his commitment to frugality with tax dollars. Many other news organizations reported the same thing, and have been doing so for years.
But James Currie, a professor at the National Defense University who has taught a course on Congress for 18 years, wasn’t aware of lawmakers being entitled to a housing allowance. When he read this in The Post, he checked with the House Administration committee, which oversees member benefits, and was told it doesn’t exist. I also checked with the committee and was told by press director Kyle Anderson: “There is not a separate housing allowance” and one did not exist during Sanford’s three terms in the House.
The question of the housing allowance is a mere footnote when compared to the blockbuster disclosure that has thrown Sanford’s political future into question. But it’s a good example of how the seeds of truth can sometimes take root and grow into firmly established “facts.” In this case, Sanford’s refusal to accept a “housing allowance” has become folklore and often has been cited to support his image of a tight-fisted fiscal conservative.
“I think the guy shouldn’t be allowed to make such a claim without being challenged,” Currie told me in an e-mail, and he chastised The Post for not checking its facts. “How hard would it have been, I ask, to have called the House of Representatives and asked whether this was true?”
Philip Rucker, who co-authored The Post story with Manuel Roig-Franzia, said they were on deadline and added the housing allowance reference to “fill out the profile” after spotting it in previous stories supplied by the research department.
It’s not uncommon for reporters to repeat information from other news organizations. When it appears frequently, by reputable reporters in trusted publications, there is less inclination to make independent verification – especially under intense deadline pressure.
In this case, it appears that Sanford may have started the “housing allowance” characterization with a letter to The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., during his first term in Congress. “I have refused to take the typical $3,000 housing allowance and instead sleep on the floor in my office,” he said, making the point that he had gone to “extreme lengths to avoid the trappings of the office” of a member of Congress.
Soon, stories began repeating the “housing allowance” reference.
It may be that Sanford was referring to a $3,000 tax deduction that members of Congress could apply for as a way of mitigating the cost of maintaining a home away from home while the House was in session. Unlike a $3,000 grant -- much like a per diem -- a deduction would reduce overall tax liability. The true savings to taxpayers would depend on whether Sanford actually claimed it on a tax return. And the actual benefit to Sanford would have depended on his overall tax burden.
| June 29, 2009; 4:53 PM ET
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