Clinton’s bills frame ’09 agenda

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has already set a broad legislative agenda for her first year in the White House, even though the Iowa caucuses are still three months away.

Clinton has introduced more bills this year than any other senator, staking out her positions on an array of policy matters and insulating herself from criticism that she does not have a signature accomplishment after more than six years in Congress.

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Clinton has introduced 74 stand-alone bills that would have the force of law if passed by Congress and signed by the president. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, has introduced 46 such measures, despite the perception that he is more vulnerable to charges that he is not sufficiently experienced to become president. The totals were compiled from records kept by the Library of Congress.   

Even though the close of the first session of the 110th Congress may not come until mid-December, Clinton is close to matching her legislative output for the entire 109th Congress. From January of 2005 until December 2006, Clinton proposed 82 pieces of stand-alone legislation to change the law. During that same time, Obama introduced 61 such bills.

Clinton’s legislative proposals cover a broad range, touching on healthcare, education, Social Security and the healthcare of military veterans. She has also introduced proposals important to the Democratic base, such as strengthening the legal remedies available to victims of sex discrimination.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University’s Wagner School, said the catalogue of legislation would likely serve as an agenda during a second Clinton administration.

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said of Clinton’s broad agenda. “I think candidates should start to think about governing during the campaign.

“The key lessons she would have learned about governing from her husband is that you only have a certain amount of time at the beginning of your first year in the White House,” added Light. “You have to fashion an agenda well before the campaign begins in earnest. That’s when you have time to reflect.

“The entire Kennedy agenda when he first came to office was borrowed from the Senate,” he said. “The Senate used to be an incubator of ideas.”

Political experts say the blizzard of white paper will help Clinton on the campaign trail by staking out policy positions and shielding her from criticism.

One criticism of Clinton, who grew up in Illinois and lived for years in Arkansas and Washington before moving to New York to run for Senate, is that she has used her Senate seat as a steppingstone to the White House. This critique seizes on the views of some voters that Clinton is overly ambitious.

“She has to maintain her credibility as senator and at the same time make the case for becoming president,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “If somebody is running for president and has been in the Senate for one term, it strengthens the argument that she has done a lot, and that she didn’t use the Senate as a mere steppingstone to the White House.

“She took the job seriously,” said Baker. “As a consequence, I think she’s in a position to point to things that she’s done and to a very full legislative program as evidence of her energy and ingenuity.”

Clinton has used her Senate seat to advance policy proposals important to voters who would make up crucial constituencies in a general election, or even in the Democratic primary: rural voters and military veterans. Clinton’s representation of upstate New York, a predominantly rural and agricultural region, has given her the opportunity to advance policies that could well find favor with farmers in Iowa and South Carolina, the hosts of two early primary contests.

For example, on March 29, Clinton introduced two bills catering to the needs of rural voters. One would establish an office of rural broadband initiatives in the Department of Agriculture to give citizens in far-flung areas better Internet access. The other would create investment opportunities for rural families, access to credit for rural entrepreneurs, and support for rural regional investment.

On that same day in March, Clinton unveiled three bills to help military veterans, a constituency over which Republicans and Democrats are locked in a perpetual tug of war.

Clinton introduced legislation to improve death and survivor benefits for members of the armed forces. She also put forth a bill to improve the physical evaluation processes for military personnel and legislation purporting to improve the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury affecting members and former members of the armed forces.
None of those bills introduced in late March has even passed through the proper committees of jurisdiction, but experts say they are still important politically.  

“Bill introductions are frequently a vehicle for position-taking,” said Forrest Maltzman, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “It’s not uncommon to use bill introductions as a way to stake out ground. I have no doubt she’s using them in that respect.”

Indeed, Clinton appears less concerned with exploiting Senate procedure to change the law than staking out clear policy positions. The best opportunity for a relatively junior senator such as Clinton to get legislation passed is to amend bills that are likely to make it to the president’s desk and receive his signature.

While Clinton has introduced more stand-alone bills that would become binding laws than any other member of the Senate, several of her colleagues have introduced more amendments on the Senate floor.

Obama has introduced 49 amendments, in contrast to Clinton’s 43. Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), her other rival for the Democratic nomination, has proposed 44 amendments. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), widely considered one of the Senate’s most effective legislators, has introduced 54 amendments.