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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Kerry Exaggerates Role in Some Key Legislative Battles

He says he "led the fight" on several fronts, but few bills bear his name.


John Kerry is fond of saying “I led the fight” on a lot of things — against Arctic drilling, against Bush’s Medicare prescription drug legislation, for federal grants for 100,000 new police officers, against Newt Gingrich’s attempts to lessen environmental regulations.

But reporters who cover Congress often gave others credit for the leading roles in some of those fights — with scant mention of Kerry.

And The Associated Press last July found that only eight laws had Kerry as their lead sponsor, five of them “ceremonial,” two relating to the fishing industry, and one providing federal grants to support small businesses owned by women.


A sampler of the many fights Kerry says he’s led:

At the Democratic Presidential Debate in Durham, NH, December 9, 2003 :

I led the fight to stop Newt Gingrich from undoing the Clean Air and Clean Water Act.

At the Democratic Presidential Debate in Iowa , January 4, 2004 :

I led the fight to put 100,000 cops on the streets of America .

At the Democratic Presidential Radio Debate January 6:

I led the fight to stop the drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

On CBS News’ Face the Nation program, January 25:

I have led the fight for deficit reduction in 1985 with Fritz Hollings and Senator Gramm of Texas.

On “Fox On the Record with Greta Van Susteren,” January 19:

I personally led the fight to hold Oliver North accountable for what I believe were unconstitutional activities.

And from a Kerry TV ad that aired in Iowa in December, 2003:

There is a special interest feeding frenzy going on in Washington. A $130 billion dollar giveaway to the drug companies. John Kerry led in the fight against it.

Some of Kerry’s claims have a sound basis: he has been among the outspoken opponents of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and he did take a lead role with his fellow Vietnam combat veteran John McCain in pushing to normalize US relations with Hanoi. But Kerry also overstates his role on some other matters.

Balanced-budget Puffery

For example, in the 1985 balanced-budget fight Kerry can justly claim credit for being an early supporter of what became the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendment. The amendment sought to cut then-chronic federal deficits to zero by setting targets for spending levels enforced by mandatory across-the-board cuts if necessary.

However, claiming to have “led the fight” for the balanced-budget measure is political puffery.

The measure was actually drafted by two Republicans, Sens. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire and Phil Gramm of Texas. Kerry became one of about 40 co-sponsors.

At a 1985 news conference Kerry actually followed behind another Democrat, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who spoke in favor of it. The Washington Post described what happened next:

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) entered the room as the news conference broke up, saying he supports the measure now that he has been assured Social Security would not be cut.

Who Really Bottled Clean Water?

Similarly, in 1995 when the Clean Water Act amendments moved out of Newt Gingrich’s Republican-controlled House and came to the Senate, Kerry and other Democrats were opposed. But it wasn’t Kerry who was given chief credit for blocking the Gingrich amendments. Kerry’s own hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, said environmentalists saw their best hope elsewhere:

Today’s scheduled debate on changes in the Clean Water Act, including reduced protection of fragile wetlands, follows four major bills that already passed the House this year over environmental activists’ protests. Environmentalists now say that, short of a presidential veto, “green” Republicans in the Senate, led by Rhode Island ‘s John Chafee, are their best chance to stem the tide. (Emphasis added by FactCheck.org)

The Gingrich amendments died not because of Kerry but because Chafee refused to move them out of the Environment and Public Works Committee which he chaired.

Missing the Medicare Battle

Kerry’s TV ad claims he “led the fight againt” President Bush’s Medicare prescription drug bill, which Kerry and other Democrats characterize as a “giveaway” to drug companies because the bill forbids the federal government to bargain for lower prices.

But the Washington Post and others said the leader in that fight was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy — not Kerry:

“It is the beginning . . . of privatizing Medicare, make no mistake about it,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass. ), who led the fight against the measure. “Next is Social Security.” (Emphasis added by FactCheck.org)

Kerry did participate in a filibuster against the measure — but so did other presidential candidates. However the Post said the filibuster was “led by Kennedy and supported by Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards (N.C.), John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.)” (Emphasis added by FactCheck.org)

And when the final battle came, Kerry was one of only two Senators who were absent for the final vote. His vote would not have made a difference: the measure passed 76 to 21. Kerry was in California.

Why did the “leader” miss the battle? “He opposed the legislation in the Finance Committee,” a campaign spokeswoman said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “It was clear the final tally wasn’t going to be close.”

AP: More Investigator than Legislator

Kerry’s campaign Web site contains a long list of bills Kerry has either sponsored or co-sponsored over the years.

But in July 2003 The Associated Press reviewed Kerry’s legislative record and concluded that he “is known for using his investigative powers to shine a light on problems and corruption, but not as someone steeped in the process of making bills into law.”

The AP story said:

Kerry has been the lead sponsor of eight bills that have become law. Two are related to his work on the Senate panel on oceans and fisheries – a 1994 law to protect marine mammals from being taken during commercial fishing and a 1991 measure for the National Sea Grant College Program Act, which finances marine research.
In 1999, President Clinton signed his bill providing grants to support small businesses owned by women.
The rest of the laws he saw passed were ceremonial – renaming a federal building, designating Vietnam Veterans Memorial 10th Anniversary Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day and World Population Awareness Week in two separate years.

Leading From the Shadows?

In the most recent Democratic candidates debate, January 29 in South Carolina,  Howard Dean confronted Kerry directly by accusing him of having a poor legislative record on health care:

Dean: Senator Kerry is the front-runner, and I mean him no insult, but in 19 years in the Senate, Senator Kerry sponsored nine — 11 bills that had anything to do with health care, and not one of them passed.

Kerry didn’t dispute Dean’s statistics. Instead, he painted himself as working effectively behind the scenes:

Kerry: Well, one of the things that you need to know as a president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done.

And one of the things that happens in Congress is, you can in fact write a bill, but if you’re smart about it, you can get your bill passed on someone else’s bill and it doesn’t carry your name.

Maybe Kerry was indeed an invisible playmaker or maybe not. But would that count as “leading the fight?” You decide.


Nedra Pickler, “Kerry’s Senate career marked by investigations, not legislation,” The Associated Press 21 July 2003.

Scott Allen, “Chafee key figure in pollution battles,” Boston Globe, 10 May 1995: 1.

Helen Dewar, “Balanced-Budget Plan Gets Senate Attention; Passage of Debt-Ceiling Bill May Depend on Addition Of Deficit-Cut Proposal,” The Washington Post 3 Oct. 1985: A4.

Wayne Washington, “‘Full Court Press’ By Bush Plays Part in Medicare Victory,” Boston Globe 28 June 2003: A3.

John H. Cushman, Jr., “Congressional Republicans Take Aim at Extensive List of Environmental Statutes,” The New York Times 22 Feb. 1995: A14.

Senator John Kerry, Democratic presidential candidate, discusses domestic issues, the war on terrorism and his preparations for Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Face the Nation, CBS, 25 Jan. 2004 .

Interview with John Kerry, Fox News Sunday, Fox News Network, 25 Jan. 2004 .

Michael Meehan, Kerry campaign spokesman, and Jamal Simmons, Clark  campaign press secretary, discuss their primary strategies, Capitol Report, CNBC, 23 Jan. 2004 .

Adam C. Smith, “Kerry Battles to Dispel the Myths,” St. Petersburg Times 7 Sept. 2003 : 1A.

Ted Bunker, “Weld and Kerry Miss the Real Issues,” The Boston Herald 8 July 1996: 26.

Bob Hohler, “Kerry Defining Voice, Vision While Looking Ahead to 1996,” The Boston Globe 11 Dec. 1994 : 1.

Steve Marantz, “As Opponent Keeps up Salvos, Kerry Grapples with Image,” The Boston Globe 18 Oct. 1990: 1.

Jonathan Yenkin, “Kerry Faces Fight for Survival,” The Associated Press 1 Oct. 1990 .

Ed Hayward, “Kerry Seen Backing Vouchers – Reportedly Ready to Compromise on School Funding,” The Boston Herald 27 April 1998: 3.

Michael Rezendes and Frank Phillips, “Well-heeled Kerry Offers Deal on Campaign Funds,” The Boston Globe 20 Aug. 1995: 1.

Carol Goar, “Environmentally Friendly Dismayed at Congressional Efforts to Roll Back Environmental Legislation, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Took His Case to the People – and They Responded,” The Toronto Star 17 Dec. 1995 : F7.

Bruce Alpert, “GOP Suffers Setbacks on Ecology; Reform Drive Hits Snags as Agenda Called Extreme,” Times-Picayune 4 Dec. 1995 : A1.

Bill Lambrecht, “Make Cents; Young ‘Earth Force’ Environmentalists Send Pennies, and Message, to Capitol,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 7 June 1995 : 2A.

Democratic Candidates Debate, Greenville,SC 29 Jan. 2004.

US Senate, Vote on HR 1, Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug bill 25 Nov. 2003.