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Effective Measure

Is Number of Bills Passed a Sign of a Member’s Ability?

What makes a Member of Congress effective?

The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s recent attack on the legislative record of Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) begs the question of how to objectively measure a House Member’s effectiveness.

The NRSC called Sanders “an ineffective extremist and extremely ineffective” in announcing that just one bill he sponsored since coming to the House in 1991 has become law. But a comparison with his 19 Congressional classmates who entered the House when he did and are still serving there shows that no one looks like a legislative lion under that criterion.

When amendments or any of the other ways one’s ideas can become law are not counted, the class of ’90’s legislative accomplishments could be considered pretty sparse.

If symbolic legislation, such as the naming of post offices, were not included, the numbers would drop considerably.

Within the group, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), a subcommittee chairman, has passed the most bills with nine, according to a Roll Call analysis using THOMAS, the service that tracks Congressional legislation. Two Members, both Democrats, have passed no bills.

When focusing on Congressmen who want to become Senators, like Sanders, the records become even thinner. House Members running or considering running for the Senate averaged passing just one bill apiece.

And of the nine sitting Congressmen who sought to become Senators last cycle, then-Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) passed the most, with four, followed by then-Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) with three. Four had passed no bills, including now-Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

Burr and Nethercutt each had a post office naming in their totals, as did then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Two of three bills passed by Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), who hopes to ascend to the Senate, are also post offices.

Burr and Nethercutt each had served five terms in the House while Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) is in his third term and Harris is in her second. Sanders is in his eighth.

The NRSC would not discuss whether the number of bills passed by its candidates makes them effective House Members.

“Looking at any Member of Congress, the sort of legislation and the amount is scrutinized by the committee,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick.

The NRSC initially did not focus on amendments but now says it will seek to point out that Sanders is ineffective as well as extreme by showing how little support some of his initiatives have garnered.

“In the case of Sanders, we absolutely believe he is an ineffective extremist and one example of this ineffective extremism is that Sanders has sponsored seven different amendments to cut the intelligence budget and each has lost by a minimum of 250 votes,” Nick said.

How effective the NRSC’s charges against Sanders will be remains to be seen, but one Vermont observer doubts the NRSC’s scathing news releases will hurt Sanders.

“There’s more to a legislative record than just the number of bills passed,” said Eric Davis, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. “I don’t think this is is an issue that’s going to go very far.”

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed.

“It’s a natural attack point for your adversaries to use and it comes up all the time but I can’t think of an instance where it worked. If you use that as a measure of the effectiveness of a lawmaker, it is a very, very imperfect measure; it tells you next to nothing.”

Ornstein, who is also a Roll Call contributing writer, used retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) as a good example of why this kind of charge usually falls flat.

Sarbanes’ opponents would say he was a legislative lightweight and point out that his name was on very few pieces of legislation. But his constituents never seemed to think that mattered, Ornstein said.

“He would work on the details, his name was not there but his fingerprints were all over them; it’s just a matter of legislative style,” Ornstein said.

Ironically, Sarbanes’ name will forever be remembered now as it is attached to the historical 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Ornstein said.

“That’s not to say Bernie Sanders is like Paul Sarbanes … but your effectiveness can come in others ways like being a gadfly or pushing the envelope and getting issues onto the agenda or making members sensitive to groups of people, such as poor people … all are significant functions,” he added.

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief of staff, said no one can get the full picture just by looking at the number of bills passed.

“This is one piece of a Member of Congress’s role in the House,” Weaver said. “Congressman Sanders has been a leader in the Congress at raising issues that other Members have subsequently come on board with,” such as taking senior citizens to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs or protecting pensions.

Looking at other measures, such as the number of amendments passed, Sanders “destroys” the Republican House members seeking to become Senators as well as those who moved up to the Senate last year, Weaver said.

Republicans have controlled the House since 1995, making it very difficult for Democrats to pass legislation, Ornstein said.

“You’re not going to find very many Democrats that by the NRSC standard are very effective because in the House of Representatives, they’re not going to put a Democrat’s name on anything,” he said.

Weaver said the NRSC’s entire campaign about Sanders’ record is one of distortion.

“What they want to do is change the subject to some kind of inside baseball debate,” he said. “We’re going to make the campaign about issues that are important to people. They’ve seen the polls that show him way ahead; this is part of a campaign of personal destruction.”

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