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2020 Democrats have thin legislative resumes

2020 Democrats have thin legislative resumes
© Stefani Reynolds/Anna Moneymaker/Greg Nash

Among 2020 Democrats who have worked in Congress, few have worked solo on meaningful legislation.

The Hill’s analysis of past legislative activity shows the vast majority of Democratic candidates who have served or still serve in the House and Senate have passed few pieces of legislation on their own.

In six years in the Senate, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (D-Mass.) has introduced more than 150 bills and dozens more amendments. More than a dozen of those measures are now the law of the land — but, in a reflection of the way Congress does business today, none of the bills that were signed actually carry her name as a chief sponsor.

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Warren is not alone. In a crowded presidential primary in which 16 candidates have a combined 181 years of legislative experience, Democratic candidates have thin legislative resumes. 

Neither Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTrump sued by Democrat over mob attack on Capitol Harris speaks with Netanyahu amid ICC probe Senate votes to take up COVID-19 relief bill MORE (D-Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls MORE (D-N.Y.) have ever seen one of their bills signed into law unaltered. Former Reps. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) left Congress without a single one of their bills signed into law.

Six other candidates — including Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersMcConnell makes failed bid to adjourn Senate after hours-long delay Senate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Democrats break COVID-19 impasse with deal on jobless benefits MORE (I-Vt.), who has served 28 years combined in the House and Senate — have managed to pass only one meaningful bill, not counting resolutions renaming Post Offices or honoring sports teams or local heroes.

But political scientists who study Congress say the thin legislative resumes are a reflection of the way the House and Senate function — or don’t function — today.

In a hyperpartisan atmosphere in which only the most essential legislation makes it through narrowly divided chambers, the vast majority of bills that reach a president’s desk are Christmas tree measures in which members add noncontroversial amendments to must-pass items.

“There are lots of ways that legislators can impact the legislative or policymaking process in ways that aren’t obvious. You can have a huge impact on a piece of legislation that gets completely folded into another piece of legislation by amendment or substitution,” said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies Congress.

In recent history, legislative effectiveness has not proven decisive in choosing a party’s presidential nominee.

Then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy is Joe Biden dodging the public and the press? Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Pentagon issues report revealing ex-White House doctor 'belittled' subordinates, violated alcohol policies MORE (D-Ill.) beat out four senators who had accomplished far more than he to win the 2008 Democratic nomination. The senator who won the most delegates in the 2016 race for the Republican nomination, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Democrats under pressure to deliver on labor's 'litmus test' bill Crenshaw pours cold water on 2024 White House bid: 'Something will emerge' MORE (R-Texas), had fewer bills passed than an also-ran like Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Biden helps broker Senate deal on unemployment benefits Senate braces for 'God-awful,' 'stupid' session ahead of COVID-19 relief vote MORE (R-S.C.).

"A lot of it is the institution of Congress doesn’t really lend itself to an individual having a record to show off on. So much of it is collective and complicated and behind the scenes,” said Hans Noel, a government professor at Georgetown University.

Party leaders who run for president have had only limited success.

Since World War II, only four candidates who have held leadership positions in Congress have won their party’s presidential nominations — Lyndon Johnson (D), Gerald Ford (R), Hubert Humphrey (D) and Bob Dole (R). Johnson and Ford ascended to the presidency through vacancies; Humphrey and Dole both lost.

The last two party leaders to run for president, Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R) in 2012 and Richard Gephardt (D) in 2004, both lost in their respective primaries.

Warren’s legislative record is illustrative of the way Congress works today. Of the 15 bills she has introduced that eventually became law, covering topics like combating the opioid epidemic or veterans' education, all were folded into other bills with other lead sponsors.

Three measures Warren introduced — a gambling addiction prevention bill, a measure funding treatment for those who have suffered sexual trauma and a bill to streamline promotions in the National Guard — were all included in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, sponsored by then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (R-Texas).

Members of Congress can also be effective in molding the shape of major legislation even if their name doesn’t appear on the final product.

Harris added provisions to the First Step Act — the criminal justice overhaul President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE signed into law last year — that reformed sentencing guidelines and required the Justice Department to publish risk assessments, even though Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanSenate GOP gets short-lived win on unemployment fight McConnell makes failed bid to adjourn Senate after hours-long delay Sullivan returns to Alaska for family funeral amid Senate debate MORE (R-Alaska) gets credit as the bill’s prime sponsor.

“Unless you’re a relatively senior member of the majority party on a key committee or chair a committee, you’re not going to have a particularly notable legislative record,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the government reform think tank New America.

Two Democrats running for president stand out for their legislative achievements, one for his effectiveness in passing major pieces of legislation as a senior member of a majority party and one for her ability to pass measures in a bipartisan manner, even in the midst of divided government.

The first is former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Ex-Trump appointee arrested in Capitol riot complains he won't be able to sleep in jail Biden helps broker Senate deal on unemployment benefits MORE, who served 36 years in the Senate before leaving to join Obama’s administration. Biden authored 20 meaningful bills during his time in the Senate, and another 189 amendments that became law.

His final two years in office, when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were notably active: In those two years, seven Biden-authored bills were signed into law and he passed 70 amendments to other legislation.

The second is Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction FDA signals plan to address toxic elements in baby food Sen. Tina Smith calls for eliminating filibuster MORE (D-Minn.), who authored 13 significant pieces of legislation that have become law during her 12 years in office, including five bills signed by Trump. Those measures were less controversial, including bills to combat human trafficking, improve phone coverage in rural areas, and a $10 billion investment in water infrastructure that Trump signed last year.

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Unlike more ambitious liberal policies that die partisan deaths, the bills Klobuchar has passed have focused on struggling rural areas in red and blue states, or noncontroversial area topics.

“If you’re in the most left-leaning part of the Democratic Party, the bills you introduce are less likely to be subject to compromise down the road,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a onetime domestic policy adviser to former President Clinton.

“This is why I don’t think Klobuchar’s productivity is an accident: She typically begins from a place where compromise is conceivable.”

An analysis of data provided by Quorum, the legislative tracking firm, and by Congress itself shows Biden and Klobuchar have passed more bills and amendments per year of service — 5.8 for Biden, 3.8 for Klobuchar — than any of their rivals for the Democratic nomination.

Sanders comes in third despite the paucity of bills that bear his name. As the senior Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee and a former chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Sanders has become adept at passing amendments to key bills. He has authored 92 amendments during his 28 years in office.

By contrast, O’Rourke and Reps. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Senate begins marathon vote-a-rama before .9T COVID-19 relief passage Trump sued by Democrat over mob attack on Capitol China has already infiltrated America's institutions MORE (D-Calif.), Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent Threats to lawmakers up 93.5 percent in last two months Tim Ryan: Prosecutors reviewing video of Capitol tours given by lawmakers before riot MORE (D-Ohio) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (D-Hawaii) have achieved the lowest number of legislative accomplishments during their time in the House. All four averaged fewer than one bill or amendment passed per year of service.

Another measure of legislative acumen, the Legislative Effectiveness Score compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Effective Lawmaking, also shows Biden and Klobuchar at the top of the heap. The group uses 15 indicators, including bills introduced and committee hearings on those bills, to measure a lawmaker’s influence.

“The score that we put forward captures the degree to which a member of Congress is able to advance his or her agenda items through the process of making law. It weights more heavily pieces of legislation that moves further through the process,” said Craig Volden, a political scientist who co-directs the center.

In the last Congress, Klobuchar was the most effective Democrat in the Senate; in the 110th Congress, the last in which Biden served, he was the fourth-most effective Democrat. His score over the 2007-2008 period was the highest he recorded in his 36 years in the Senate.

“It was quite a good last hurrah in his farewell term,” Volden said of the seven bills and 70 amendments Biden passed that year.

Sanders, Swalwell, Gabbard and Ryan all notched below-average scores in the last Congress. Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonLawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot House chairman endorses Michele Flournoy for Biden's Pentagon chief Trump critic: I am not afraid of Trump MORE (D-Mass.) scored better than the average lawmaker, while Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerIt's in America's best interest to lead global COVID-19 vaccine distribution ABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent NJ lawmakers ask Gannett to stop 'union-busting' efforts at 3 state newspapers MORE (D-N.J.) fell within average ranges.