An Act of Congress for a Sailboat Race: Fact Check - Voice of San Diego

Fact Check

An Act of Congress for a Sailboat Race: Fact Check

Statement: “It took an act of Congress just to hold a sailboat race in San Diego,” Congressman Brian Bilbray said during a candidates’ debate on KPBS March 14. Determination: Huckster Propaganda


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Statement: “It took an act of Congress just to hold a sailboat race in San Diego,” Congressman Brian Bilbray said during a March 14 candidates’ debate on KPBS.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

Analysis: Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray is up for re-election this year but two Democratic challengers, Port Commissioner Scott Peters and former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, are vying to unseat him.

At a debate hosted by KPBS two weeks ago, the candidates sparred on international affairs, economic policy and social reforms. But a claim by Bilbray during a discussion about the value of bipartisanship caught our attention.

Each of the three candidates claimed an ability to collaborate on projects with politicians from both sides of the aisle and pointed to several examples to back it up. Here’s an excerpt from Bilbray’s comments (emphasis added):

Even the Port District, when they needed to get a bill to allow the America’s Cup to come here, they asked me to work with Nancy Pelosi to be able to bring in a bill. If you think Congress doesn’t have enough to control, think about this: It took an act of Congress just to hold a sailboat race in San Diego. That shows you how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction. But yes, the bipartisanship is something you’ve got to do if you want to be successful and represent this community appropriately, and I’ve proved I can do that.

Events for the America’s Cup, an international sailing competition, were held in San Diego last November. Bilbray claimed to have worked on legislation with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the chamber’s top Democratic official, to allow the race here.

The story sounded unusual and Bilbray cited it to bolster his credentials as a bipartisan legislator, so we decided to figure out what happened.

In October, a month before the competition began in San Diego, he introduced a bill to exempt an estimated 60 boats from a federal maritime law. Several California Democrats, including Pelosi, co-sponsored the legislation.

The maritime law basically says only U.S.-flagged ships can transport passengers and cargo near the coast, where the race was scheduled to take place. Race organizers wanted an exemption from the law so organizers and competitors could use their own foreign-flagged ships to position equipment, transport crews and provide other support.

When Bilbray introduced the legislation, he argued that supporting the exemption would keep the competition in San Diego and bring more than $20 million in economic benefits for local businesses. Mayor Jerry Sanders and the Port of San Diego supported the bill, too.

On Nov. 12, the competition began in San Diego. Thousands of spectators filled the downtown shoreline and watched the boats whiz past buoys. On Nov. 20, bottles of champagne showered the team Oracle Racing, which won the competition’s final event.

But back in Washington, Bilbray’s bill hadn’t moved.

Several Pennsylvania lawmakers had stalled the issue and demanded Congress also exempt three foreign-flagged tankers from the same maritime law. Sunoco Inc. wanted the tankers for shipping liquid natural gas from the Philadelphia area to the Gulf Coast and had been working with the lawmakers on an exemption.

Bilbray’s bill never made it past committee. Congressman Walter Herger, a Republican from Chico, introduced a compromise bill that included exemptions for the America’s Cup and the three tankers. Congress passed that bill Nov. 18 and President Obama’s signature made it law Nov. 29 — more than a week after the competition ended in San Diego.

So contrary to Bilbray’s claim, it didn’t take an act of Congress to host the America’s Cup in San Diego. The event still happened. Organizers said the maritime law just caused more inconveniences because they had to jump through more security procedures, and cost them thousands of more dollars because they had to rent U.S.-flagged ships to ferry passengers and equipment.

“We have some serious impediments to the race and we’re definitely at a tremendous financial burden now that we’ve had to go to this plan B,” America’s Cup spokeswoman Stephanie Martin told the Huffington Post.

Congress did act in time for an America’s Cup competition this summer in Newport, R.I. and another race in San Francisco next year, but too late for the event in San Diego — the one Bilbray cited during KPBS’ debate.

Our definition of Huckster Propaganda says the statement is inaccurate and it’s reasonable to expect the person making it knew that and made the claim anyway to gain an advantage. It fits Bilbray’s statement.

He said it took an act of Congress to make the sailboat race happen. It didn’t. The legislation wasn’t passed before the competition and the races proceeded anyway.

It’s reasonable to expect Bilbray knew that when he made the claim. He sponsored the original proposal and pushed for its passage in Congress. During the debate on KPBS, he cited the America’s Cup bill as a bipartisan accomplishment to bolster his legislative record.

In response to this Fact Check, Bilbray spokesman Fred Tayco emphasized the bipartisan support that the legislation received and the difficulty it still took to approve. He did not dispute our findings.

“When Congressman Bilbray made the statement that ‘it took an act of Congress just to hold a sailboat race in San Diego,’ it was in disgust to an absurd regulatory requirement where we, and other coastal communities, were placed in a position to have to ask Washington for permission to hold a boat race in our own harbors and bays,” Tayco wrote in an email. “This kind of overreach exemplifies the overregulation killing business.”

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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