The Florida Democratic Party says Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, has targeted a sacred cow: Social Security.
In a Feb. 3 news release, the state party said that when he was in Congress, McCollum "voted to dismantle Social Security."
That's a major charge. The Democrats are not simply saying he voted to reduce the program that provides income for millions of senior citizens, but alleging that he sought to tear it apart.
To back up the claim, the Democrats cited nine votes McCollum took related to Social Security in the 1990s. The McCollum campaign doesn't dispute the individual votes but disagrees with how they're being interpreted.
"Bill McCollum was always a supporter of Social Security, despite the attempts of Democrats to portray him (and every other Republican) as its enemy,'' wrote McCollum campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell in an e-mail.
We examined those votes and showed them to experts on Social Security. We then concluded the Democrats are distorting McCollum's votes and making an incorrect claim based on flimsy evidence.
Patricia Dilley, a University of Florida law professor who helped write Social Security legislation in the 1980s, said it was a stretch to describe the votes in such stark terms. "There is not a vote in here directly to dismantle Social Security,'' she said.
The Democrats cite these votes by McCollum to support their claim:
• McCollum voted in May 1995 for a Republican budget resolution that would have used a lower rate of growth in the Consumer Price Index, which is used to calculate cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other programs. Henry Aaron, a senior fellow who studies health care for the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said the GOP proposal that McCollum supported would have reduced future benefits — and reduced the purchasing power of seniors who receive Social Security. But he said "it's not dismantling" the program.
• McCollum voted against using the surplus from the overall federal budget to bolster Social Security. The Florida Democratic Party said that, "In the late 1990s, when both the federal budget and Social Security were running surpluses, McCollum voted seven times against using those surpluses to secure Social Security."
The party is referring to an initiative by then-President Bill Clinton to set aside the surplus for Social Security — to put the money in the "lockbox" that became the subject of many jokes during the 2000 campaign. So the Democrats are alleging that because McCollum didn't want to put the money in their version of a lockbox that it's the equivalent of dismantling the program.
But McCollum and Republicans weren't against Social Security; just using the surplus for it. And we don't see evidence that the votes were to dismantle the program.
• The Democrats also cite McCollum's votes for $80 billion in tax cuts as "using the Social Security surplus." They contend that McCollum's support of the tax cuts effectively raided the surplus that could have been used for Social Security.
McCollum did vote for the tax cuts, but it's a huge leap of logic to equate that with "dismantling" Social Security. Congress tapped the surplus from the general fund, not directly from Social Security accounts.
Former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican from Fort Lauderdale who chaired the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, said by the Democrats' logic that "you could make the argument that anything is coming out of Social Security."
And contrary to the Democrats' overall point, we found a few articles that mention votes McCollum took to protect Social Security. McCollum even bucked his party to vote for an amendment by Democrat Rep. Barney Frank to protect the program, according to a Jan. 12, 1995, article in Newsday. Frank's amendment was to exempt the Social Security Trust Fund from an amendment to balance the budget.
The Democrats, meanwhile, cited a few news articles with McCollum's comments about George Bush's suggestions during the 2000 presidential campaign to create individual investment accounts for Social Security.
But they do not cite any votes because the proposal did not come before a vote of the full House.
So the Democrats have built a strong charge on flimsy evidence. Yes, McCollum opposed Democratic proposals to use the surplus for Social Security and he wanted to slow the growth in the Consumer Price Index for Social Security and he spoke in favor of Bush's proposal. But it's a ridiculous leap to equate those votes with "dismantling" the program. Pants on Fire!
For more rulings, go to PolitiFact.com/Florida.