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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Boehner’s ‘Bipartisan’ Bunk

House Speaker John Boehner exaggerates when he says “almost all” of the 46 “jobs bills” awaiting action in the Senate “passed the House on a bipartisan basis.” Exactly half of those bills got less than 20 Democratic votes, including two that got no votes and 12 others that got 10 or fewer votes. That’s out of 201 House Democrats.

Republicans, particularly House members, have been waging a #StuckInTheSenate campaign for months. They blame gridlock on Senate Democrats for failing to take up legislation passed by the House. The number of bills “sitting on Harry Reid’s desk,” as Republicans are fond of saying, varies from person to person, ranging from a low of 278 (Rep. Patrick Meehan) to a ballpark figure of 300-plus (Sen. Roy Blunt) to a high of 387 (Rep. Marsha Blackburn).

Now that the Republicans have won control the Senate, Boehner and other Republicans say the Senate will pass legislation that will get the country moving in the right direction. “We have a majority in the U.S. Senate, where we’ll move those 300 bills off Harry Reid’s desk finally and get a vote,” Sen.-elect David Perdue said on election night.

Bipartisan ‘Jobs Bills’?

We will get to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s cluttered desk in a minute, but let’s first deal with Boehner’s specific claim about the “46 jobs bills.” He made his statement on Nov. 6 during his weekly briefing with reporters (at about the 12 minute mark of the C-SPAN video).

Boehner, Nov. 6: [L]et’s take the 46 jobs bills that are sitting in the United States Senate that have been held up by the Democrat majority in the Senate. Almost all of those passed the House on a bipartisan basis. And I believe that almost all of them enjoy bipartisan support in the United States Senate.

Boehner has a very broad definition of “bipartisan.” He’s correct that almost all — 44 of the 46 — received at least 1 Democratic vote. But does that make a bill bipartisan?

Merriam-Webster defines “bipartisan” as cooperation and compromise between the two parties. It says bipartisan is “of, relating to, or involving members of two parties <a bipartisan commission>; specifically: marked by or involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties.”

Some high-profile examples of bipartisan legislation negotiated between the two parties during this period of gridlock would include:

By contrast, Boehner’s list of 46 bills includes 23 — exactly half — that received votes from less than 20 of the 201 House Democrats:

Boehner can call these bills bipartisan, but they are not. In fact, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued veto threats in 2013 and 2014 for 28 of the 45 bills on Boehner’s list that would have required Obama’s signature (the budget resolution does not). The OMB also issued statements opposing all or parts of four other bills and calling for negotiations on a fifth.

It takes a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto and all 33 of the bills that OMB objected to didn’t pass with veto-proof majorities in the House, so they likely would have gone nowhere even if the Republicans controlled the Senate — unless Republicans and the White House reached a compromise on true bipartisan bills.

We sent the list of 46 bills to Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, for his review. He told us that the “bipartisan game” is played by both parties.

“Both parties have played the ‘bipartisan’ game by picking off one or two strays from the other side and claiming the high ground, but it is a big stretch,” he said. “These are not bipartisan by any reasonable definition of the term. It may be an even bigger stretch to call most of those bills ‘jobs’ bills.”

Matthew J. Slaughter, a former member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, told the New York Times that some of the GOP bills on Boehner’s list may help, but they won’t create many jobs.

New York Times, Oct. 22: “Some of those things will help,” Matthew J. Slaughter, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, said after reviewing nearly four dozen measures that House Republicans have labeled “jobs bills.” He cited some business tax cuts, for example, even as he cautioned about the cost of such actions.

“But,” added Mr. Slaughter, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, “it just struck me as sort of a compendium of modest expectations. If you ask me, ‘What’s your ballpark guess for how many jobs are going to be created?,’ it’s just not many.”

Harry Reid’s Cluttered Desk

We’d like to make a few points about the other bills on Harry Reid’s desk.

Despite Republican complaints that Reid is the cause of gridlock, the Washington Post in August did an analysis of the past 20 congressional terms and found that the number of House-approved bills awaiting action in the Senate this session isn’t that unusual.

“In 11 of the past 19 Congresses — more than half — more than 300 bills were waiting for Senate action by the time the Congress completed its work,” Philip Bump wrote.

In fact, as Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler noted, the biggest backlog occurred in the 110th Congress in 2007-2008, when the Senate failed to act on more than 700 bills. And that was when the Democrats controlled both chambers.

GovTrack — a nonpartisan website that tracks legislation — also did an analysis and found that the percentage of Senate bills being ignored by the House isn’t that much better. It found that the Senate has passed 124 House bills, or 26 percent of all House bills, while the House has passed 40 Senate bills, or 37 percent.

“I know 37 is bigger than 26, but in the big picture these numbers are actually pretty close. I wouldn’t read much into the difference,” writes Josh Tauberer, founder of GovTrack.

One last thing: the number of bills sitting on Harry Reid’s desk that will have an impact on the direction of the country is not as large as the Republicans declare.

As we mentioned, Republicans give different figures for the number of bills “collecting dust” but the one we have seen most frequently is 387.

Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, used the 387 figure on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Oct. 19, when asked about the problem of congressional gridlock.

Blackburn, Oct. 19: Yes, you know, I think that what you have in the House is bipartisan frustration with Harry Reid in the Senate. You know, we have 387 House-passed bills, 98 percent of them bipartisan, 298 of those bills veto-proof. And they’re sitting on Harry Reid’s desk.

And we find it very frustrating that the Senate has not been able to get the work done. We wish they would come back and that they would do that. It would help the country and it would get some things passed that need to be passed.

In a Nov. 3 op-ed, Republican Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina wrote: “My colleagues and I have advanced countless solutions to grow our economy and create jobs, but 387 House-passed bills remain collecting dust on Sen. Harry Reid’s desk.”

Blackburn’s office referred us to a list of 387 bills on House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website. There are indeed 387 bills and resolutions on the list, but it is safe to say that that number is inflated.

The list contains dozens of ceremonial or parochial bills — including 31 bills to name or rename post offices or federal buildings, at least nine bills to authorize a study, such as whether Mill Springs Battlefield in Kentucky should be included in the National Park System, and at least 13 that deal with federal land (transferring or exchanging, or expanding boundaries, for example). There are also two bills to strike commemorative coins, and a third to award a gold medal to golfer Jack Nicklaus.

We also found 21 bills that actually became law through other vehicles, including 10 appropriations bills that became part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014.

The list also contains five concurrent resolutions, which are nonbinding and do not go to the president, and two bills (HR 4250 and HR 5161) that had Senate-approved versions waiting for action in the House.

We spent way too much time poring through the list, but the examples above add up to 84 bills and resolutions that either shouldn’t be on the list or would have little or no impact on the course of the nation.

We do not doubt that some of the 387 bills on McCarthy’s list are substantive and that some of the 46 bills on Boehner’s list may help the economy. But any suggestion that there are 387 bills being ignored that could “grow our economy” or even would “help the country” is an exaggeration, and so is the speaker’s statement that “almost all” of the 46 “jobs bills” are bipartisan.

— Eugene Kiely, with Zachary Piaker, Lauren Shapiro and Eden Everwine.