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 Ann WarrenBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument 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 Devi HarrisBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE (D-Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDefense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR MORE (D-N.Y.) have ever seen one of their bills signed into law unaltered. Former Reps. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyKrystal Ball: Reality debunks Biden's 'Medicare for all' smear 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Bennet launches first TV ads in Iowa 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 SandersBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi set to unveil drug price plan | Abortion rate in US hits lowest level since Roe v. Wade | Dems threaten to subpoena Juul 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 ObamaMost voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Warren picks up key endorsement from Iowa state treasurer 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 CruzGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' Barr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks MORE (R-Texas), had fewer bills passed than an also-ran like Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Overnight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4K at Trump's Scotland resort GOP's Kennedy sends warning shot to Trump nominee Menashi 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 ThornberryDefense bill talks set to start amid wall fight House rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall Republicans pour cold water on Trump's term limit idea 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 John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report 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 SullivanExclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan Republicans grumble over Trump shifting military funds to wall Overnight Defense: Esper sworn in as Pentagon chief | Confirmed in 90-8 vote | Takes helm as Trump juggles foreign policy challenges | Senators meet with woman accusing defense nominee of sexual assault 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 BidenBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument Budowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat 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 Jean KlobucharBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity 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 SwalwellYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate 5 takeaways from fiery Democratic debate MORE (D-Calif.), Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanOvernight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on 'attempts to politicize' NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks Five top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum Progressive tax-the-rich push gains momentum MORE (D-Ohio) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTrump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Beto needs to revive talk about his 'war tax' proposal Gabbard: 'Debate or no debate we are driving forward' 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 MoultonYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Wall Street ends volatile month in major test for Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Hurricane headed for Florida changes Trump's travel plans MORE (D-Mass.) scored better than the average lawmaker, while Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity CNN announces details for LGBTQ town hall MORE (D-N.J.) fell within average ranges.