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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bush on Senate Opponents’ Records

Jeb Bush derided the legislative accomplishments of three of his Republican rivals, Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, saying they “have a combined two bills that became law that they’ve sponsored.” Although Bush’s statement is accurate, it ignores the way things work in the Senate.

The Senate system makes it difficult for those with little seniority to sponsor meaningful legislation that has a chance to pass. All three are freshman senators.

The system is also stacked against those in the minority party, and Republicans only regained control of the Senate in January 2015.

Although such attacks are a campaign staple, experts in Senate protocol say it’s misleading to cite such statistics as a measure of a freshman senator’s performance. Generally, only those with seniority, especially those who have risen to committee chair or ranking minority member of a committee, are given the opportunity to sponsor substantive legislation that is likely to be voted upon by the full Senate.

In fact, the 17 freshman senators who took office in January 2013 — including Cruz — have collectively sponsored just eight bills that became law (excluding a handful of bills that renamed post offices or other federal buildings), according to data on the Library of Congress’ Congress.gov website. One of them was from Cruz.

The 13-member 2013 freshman senatorial class — which included Paul and Rubio — has collectively sponsored eight bills that were enacted into law (again, excluding those bills that renamed post offices or other federal buildings). One of them was from Rubio; Paul had none.

Bush’s attack came during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Bush argued that, as a two-term governor of Florida, he has “proven leadership skills” and was able to “accomplish big things.” The same is not true for his opponents in the Senate, he said.

Bush, Nov. 1: This is about public service, about solving problems. If you look at the three people on the stage from the United States Senate, all three of them have a combined two bills that became law that they’ve sponsored.

If you look at Hillary Clinton, in 10 years, three bills she sponsored that became law. This is the gridlock that I’m running to try to break up. I can change the culture in Washington.

Bush limited his attack on his primary opponents to “the three people on the [debate] stage from the United States Senate.” That means Cruz, Paul and Rubio.

Among the senators running for president, Cruz has the shortest time in office. He was sworn into the Senate on Jan. 3, 2013. Since then, he has sponsored 102 amendments and 45 bills, only one of which was ever enacted into law. The law was S.2195, a bill to deny admission to the United States to any representative to the United Nations who has been found to have been engaged in espionage activities or a terrorist activity against the United States and poses a threat to United States national security interests. It passed the Senate with unanimous consent.

Cruz also co-sponsored another 172 bills, three of which become law.

Rand Paul and Marco Rubio both took office on Jan. 3, 2011. Since that time, Paul has sponsored 290 amendments and 115 bills, none of which have been enacted into law. Paul also co-sponsored 247 bills, four of which were enacted into law (with another two that were vetoed by Obama).

Rubio has sponsored 168 amendments, and 76 bills. Only one bill passed, S.802, the Girls Count Act of 2015, which advocates developing countries to register and provide official documentation, such as birth certificates, to newborn girls. Rubio also co-sponsored 509 bills, 18 of which went on to be enacted into law (and two that were vetoed by Obama).

So Bush is technically accurate. The three senators have sponsored a total of two bills that have been enacted into law.

But legislative experts warn not to put much stock in that number.

When a similar attack was lodged against Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon in August 2014, American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein told us that measuring a first-term senator’s record based solely on a count of sponsored legislation that became law is fundamentally flawed.

Most bills that pass are sponsored by committee chairs or the committee’s ranking member of the minority party, Ornstein explained, or sometimes subcommittee chairs. Those positions are largely based on seniority. The statistics back him up. According to our analysis of the 96 bills that passed the Senate since January 2013, 57 percent were sponsored by either a committee chair or the ranking minority member of a committee.

A National Journal analysis in 2014 found that when it comes to sponsoring bills that get enacted into law, seniority is a major factor. It ranked the senators by the number of bills they sponsored and each of the top 10 senators had served more than 30 years in Congress. In other words, the authors concluded, “it’s skewed against rook­ie sen­at­ors be­cause they’ve had less time and don’t have the seni­or­ity to see their bills be­come law.”

It also helps to be a senator when your party is in the majority, the National Journal analysis found. And, we should note, Republicans have held a majority in the Senate only since January 2015, meaning Democrats were in control for most of the time served by Rubio and Paul.

National Journal, May 16, 2014: If you wanted to struc­ture your en­tire le­gis­lat­ive ca­reer in or­der to get in this Top 10 list (and who wouldn’t?), a good guide would look like this: 1) Serve in Con­gress for a really long time. 2) Serve dur­ing a time when your party has the ma­jor­ity and is able to pass al­most whatever le­gis­la­tion it wants. 3) Serve on a com­mit­tee — such as Fin­ance or Ap­pro­pri­ations — that, by its nature, au­thors a lot of le­gis­la­tion. 4) Be prag­mat­ic about which bills you sup­port, and con­sider wheth­er they’re likely to pass.

Bush limited his attack to “the three people on the [debate] stage from the United States Senate,” which excluded Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Sen. Rick Santorum, both of whom participated in the early debate before the main event.

For the record, here are their stats:

  • Graham, who entered the Senate in 2003 and has served the longest among the presidential candidates, has sponsored 171 amendments and 154 bills. Just one of his 154 bills became law, S.2061, a 2012 law that swapped land from a former South Carolina naval base for land owned by the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
  • Santorum served two full six-year terms from 1995 to 2007. Santorum sponsored 299 amendments and 348 bills. Seven of the bills became law. That includes two to name post offices, but also included the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003.

Bush also noted that in Hillary Clinton’s years in the Senate only “three bills she sponsored that became law.” (Clinton served eight years, although Bush mistakenly said 10.) Bush did not mention, though he could have, that none of the three were particularly significant bills. One was to designate a portion of U.S. Route 20A in New York as the “Timothy J. Russert Highway.” Another named a New York post office. And the third established the “Kate Mullany National Historic Site” in New York.

The only other senator in the race is Bernie Sanders, who has served in the Senate since 2007.  Sanders has sponsored 328 amendments and 180 bills. Only two of those bills became a law, one to name a post office, and S.893, the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013. The latter bill was passed and signed into law when Sanders served as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Sanders also was chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee when Obama signed legislation that overhauled the VA system in response to the wait-time controversy. That bill is a good example of  the folly of using bill sponsorship as a measure of effectiveness.

In that case, HR 3230, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, was sponsored by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, so the credit would go to the House sponsor. But Sanders sponsored a Senate bill called Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, and that bill shows up in the Library of Congress as a related bill. Sanders and McCain, who also had a Senate bill called the “Veterans Choice Act,” were given credit for negotiating a bipartisan agreement to get the bill passed. The Hill reports, “Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, brokered the nearly $2 billion measure last week.”

So the records don’t credit Sanders or McCain as sponsors of the bill that became law, but it did become law and they were two of the main architects.

Ornstein warns that these types of quantitative measures can be misleading. Sometimes, for example, amendments are wrapped into laws. Other times, senators advocate for issues and inject them into the national discourse in a way that inspires legislation by others.

“This is in no way an effective way to measure the effectiveness of a senator,” Ornstein said. Having only a small number of laws with your name on them “doesn’t mean you are not having an impact on legislation or the legislative process.”

Again, Bush’s statistic is accurate. But it tells us little about the legislative effectiveness of the senators he targeted.