By Max Diamond
Many top Democratic presidential candidates share big ideas about how to transform the country, including free college and “Medicare for all,” but the prominent ones who serve (or have served) in Congress share something else in common: little or no legislation passed.
And it’s not for lack of proposing.
Using data extending through the last completed congressional term, RealClearInvestigations found:
- Sen. Cory Booker, in office since 2013, sponsored 118 bills and two became law.
- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, in office since 2009, sponsored 302 bills and one became law.
- Sen. Kamala Harris, in office since 2017, sponsored 45 bills and none became law.
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar, in office since 2007, sponsored 365 bills and 14 became law.
- Sen. Bernie Sanders, in office since 2007, sponsored 214 bills and two became law.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in office since 2013, sponsored 105 bills and none became law.
- Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, in office 2013-2019, sponsored 65 bills, and one – naming a post office – became law.
- Newly announced candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009, sponsored 351 bills and 20 became law.
Those are success rates of less than 2% or worse, with the exceptions of Klobuchar’s 3.8% and Biden’s 5.7%. And even though the latter is the top legislative achiever in this group, few would be apt to call him Joltin’ Joe if he were playing baseball with a career batting average below .060.
Granted, tallying bills passed into law is an imperfect gauge of congressional effectiveness given the variables involved, not least the particulars of the specific legislation and the control and makeup of a lawmaker’s chamber, especially considering recent Republican control of the Senate. Members of Congress also can be judged on other factors for effectiveness, such as investigating, oversight, fundraising power and even thwarting bills they oppose.
And though the passage numbers may sound low, some political scientists say few people care. “Voters are not much impressed by legislative records,” said William Schneider, professor of policy, government and international affairs at George Mason University.
Unless there is some dramatic breakthrough like Medicare for all, legislative achievement generally involves “all sorts of little bills; it often includes deal-making,” said Schneider. The kinds of compromises and small changes that usually characterize the legislative process may please narrow interests and constituencies but do not impress voters at large.
And maybe that’s a good thing for the current lawmakers under discussion, because while the average senator in the last Congress sponsored about seven bills that were passed, the average among the presidential candidates was about three. Senators serving in the last congressional term have on average passed 3.4% of the bills they’ve sponsored in their Senate careers; of those sponsored by the current senators seeking the Democratic nod for president, only 1.1% became law.
But the candidates may deserve a pass given the current partisan climate in which they participate. The era of outsized wheeling-and-dealing by back-scratching, arm-twisting politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson is gone, said David Brady, a political scientist at Stanford University. Now, “it’s just too partisan,” he said.
And in a partisan era, being an “effective” legislator can actually hurt a lawmaker in a presidential race, especially with others in the crowded Democratic field unburdened by such records, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; former tech executive Andrew Yang; and “A Course in Miracles” popularizer Marianne Williamson. (The records of less prominent candidates from the House can be found here.)
“If you work to get something done, you have to work with people in the other party, so you’re viewed as a compromiser,” said Brady. “You’re a sellout.”
“Klobuchar is going to get a lot of criticism,” added Brady. “She’s too much in the center.”
Neither Klobuchar nor the other current senators in this article responded to requests for comment. Attempts to reach O’Rourke through his campaign and Biden through his foundation were unsuccessful.
Among the laws the current Senators did pass, it is unclear how many relate to their campaign messages. For example, in the 2016 presidential race, Sanders ran on a platform stressing health care, education, and economic equality. One of the laws he got passed increased the rates of disability compensation for veterans. The other was a commemorative bill that designated a Vermont post office as the Thaddeus Stevens Post Office — named for an 1860s radical Republican not known for compromise during or after the Civil War.
After all his years in the Senate, Sanders “renamed a damn post office,” said Brady. “He’s always been known as ineffective.”
Similarly, Gillibrand – whose 2020 campaign website emphasizes her commitment to paid family leave and banishing big money from politics – has only been able to pass a single law, also naming a post office.
Many political scientists defend measuring legislative effectiveness by bills passed. “It’s a really clean, simple, easy-to-interpret measure that says exactly what it means,” said Jeffrey Lazarus, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.
But what tends to get overlooked is when a party is in the minority, as Senate Democrats have been since the 114th Congress in 2015. Then of course it’s much more difficult to get legislation passed, said Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a professor of political science at Northwestern University.
Plus, many of a senator’s legislative contributions are undetectable. Sometimes if a bill’s chances are slim because the would-be sponsor’s party is in the minority, or the lawmaker is not on a relevant committee, he or she will have another more influential member sponsor the bill, said Craig Volden, a professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia.
But even if many laws don’t pass, sponsoring bills remains an important messaging tactic, said Richard F. Bensel, a professor of government at Cornell University. If constituents criticize a lawmaker for not doing anything to control spending, for example, he can say, “But I introduced a bill that balances the budget,” said Bensel.
New research indicates that voters’ preferences may change if they get better information about legislative effectiveness. Volden and other political scientists have shown that if voters are presented with objective information about the candidates, then they “seemed to care quite a bit,” said Volden.
In the 2020 race, though, it may be best for the congressional Democrats to keep their lawmaking records on the Q.T.
© 2019 RealClearInvestigations.com. Reprinted with permission.