Manipulating the bill counts
By Adriel Bettelheim
Published on Friday, March 28th, 2008 at 6:01 p.m.
Some of Sen. Barack Obama's supporters cite the number of bills he has sponsored as evidence he's a more active senator with a more substantive legislative record than his Democratic opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But they reach that conclusion using some bogus comparisons.
Americans may not have a high regard for Congress, but they still expect senators and representatives to work hard. For that reason, the number of bills a lawmaker sponsors has become a common measuring stick for effectiveness. But with three senators vying for the presidency, some of the number-crunching is beginning to test voters' credulity.
An anonymous e-mail making the rounds of the blogosphere claims Obama has been a far more active legislator than Clinton by making a comparison of sheer legislative volume, using data from the Library of Congress' public search engine of federal legislation, Thomas (named for Thomas Jefferson and found here ).
The e-mail begins with the statement, "Let's take a closer look at who's really qualified and who's really working for the good of all of us in the Senate: Obama or Clinton." It then asserts Clinton has managed to author and pass into law 20 mostly minor, noncontroversial bills in her first seven years in office. It goes on to list bills Clinton sponsored to name post offices and courthouses, as well as nonbinding resolutions she offered to support the goals of Better Hearing and Speech Month and to congratulate the Syracuse University and LeMoyne College men's lacrosse teams for winning NCAA championships.
The e-mail then moves to Obama's record in the U.S. Senate, stating that he authored 152 bills and co-sponsored another 427 in his first year alone. In all, the e-mail says, he sponsored 890 bills and co-sponsored another 1,096. The e-mail notes Obama was just as prolific "during his first eight years of public service" — presumably referring to his tenure in the Illinois state Senate.
"An impressive record for someone who supposedly has no record, according to some who would prefer this comparison not be made public," the e-mail reads, concluding, "He's not just a talker. He's a doer. Pass it on … it's impressive."
Readers of the e-mail have, indeed, been passing it on. The e-mail's points have been repeated verbatim in the comments sections of many mainstream Web blogs, usually in response to reports or comments that question Obama's experience or record of accomplishments. And the e-mail has an air of authenticity because its only attribution is the Library of Congress Web site and to what it terms "the Senate record."
But while you can get those bill counts and search results with the right query on Thomas, the e-mail is both inaccurate and misleading for a number of reasons.
First, in making the comparison, it gives Clinton credit only for bills she sponsored or co-sponsored that were actually signed into law by President Bush and for a series of mostly congratulatory resolutions that are nonbinding and don't need the president's signature. For Obama, the e-mail writers counted every bill – and amendment – he sponsored or co-sponsored, regardless of what became of it.
The distinction is hugely important because introducing legislation is a whole lot different than getting it passed into law and signed by the president – especially if the president is of another party. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House for most of Clinton's Senate tenure, making any serious Democratic effort to change policy on health care, taxation, the military or any other issue virtually impossible. The only bills Clinton could have gotten all the way to Bush's desk had to be written in consultation with the GOP or free of controversy.
Obama faced similar odds in his first two years in the Senate, before Democrats retook the chamber in the 2006 elections.
Beyond this misleading comparison, some of the e-mail's numbers are flat wrong. For example, if one examines all of the bills Clinton sponsored and co-sponsored during her first seven years in the Senate, the number that have become law is 54, not 20, as the e-mail contends.
And when the e-mail tries to show Obama did more in a single year than Clinton did in her whole tenure, it misses, too. The 152 bills Obama authored and 427 others he co-sponsored at the start of his U.S. Senate tenure that the e-mail cites actually were drafted during the first two years he served in the chamber, not his first year. The confusion might stem from the fact Congress works in two-year sessions.
Moreover, the e-mail fails to note that when it credits Obama with 890 measures sponsored and another 1,096 measures co-sponsored those counts include bills and amendments to bills. The Clinton count didn't include amendments. This too is a hugely misleading. Technically, amendments aren't really "bills," as the e-mail calls them. But more to the point, amendments, in which lawmakers seek to change some narrow part of legislation, can be the best way for members of a minority party to play a role in the legislative process.
A side-by-side tally of Clinton's and Obama's legislative output on Thomas, looking only at bills, shows Clinton has sponsored 635 bills and co-sponsored 2,441 more since she was elected in 2000, 54 of which became law. Obama has sponsored 272 and co-sponsored another 834 since he was elected in 2004, 16 of which became law. Not quite the conclusion the e-mail sought to reach.
PolitiFact could not address the claims about Obama's legislative record in the Illinois state Senate, because some of those records are only available in paper form in Springfield, Ill., and because the e-mail breaks the accomplishments down in broad categories (233 regarding health care reform, 125 on poverty and public assistance, etc.).
Separate from the matters of accuracy in the numbers is the question of how much they really mean. Congressional experts say the e-mail's general premise is flawed because it's difficult to use the number of bills a lawmaker sponsors to gauge his or her ability to get things done. Thousands of bills are introduced each year and the vast majority go nowhere, no matter how much politicians like touting new legislation as the answer to problems. The number of bills lawmakers co-sponsor is even more trivial, because in most cases they're piggybacking on the effort of a like-minded colleague who did most of the legwork.
"Introducing bills is a relatively cost-free activity because it doesn't involve much time or political capital," said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "If you think about political capital and how it's used, you need some way of measuring whether this or that senator made a difference and influenced an outcome. And it's sometimes difficult to evaluate what making a difference means; did the outcome of a debate really change because of this person's involvement?"
This is not to say Clinton and Obama haven't registered legitimate legislative successes. Clinton won a pediatric testing requirement for new drugs and helped military reservists and National Guard members gain access to the military's health care system. Some bills she sponsored also were incorporated into broader legislation dealing with primary and secondary education and how the government addresses public health emergencies.
A check on Thomas reveals that only four of the 20 minor measures the e-mail says Clinton got passed into law actually were signed by the president. Most were resolutions, which essentially are commemorative statements that don't have to go to the president and never become laws.
Obama worked with Republicans to enact laws that increased transparency of government contracting and to lift restrictions on the sale of nuclear material and technology to India. And he also played a leading role in the 2007 debate on overhauling congressional lobbying and ethics rules. We list Clinton's and Obama's more noteworthy successes in a Fact Sheet here.
But because the anonymous e-mail compared every bill and amendment Obama sponsored with the number of bills Clinton sponsored or co-sponsored that actually were enacted, and because it relied on a shaky and incomplete measurement of lawmakers' effectiveness, we rate it False.
Sources:Washington Post blog "The Trail, Anonymous comment posted on blog, Feb. 4, 2008
ABC News blog "Political Radar," Anonymous comment posted on blog, Feb. 20, 2008
NBC News blog "First Read," Anonymous comment posted on blog, Feb. 25, 2008
Talking Points Memo "Election Central," Anonymous comment posted on blog, Feb. 20, 2008
Library of Congress, Thomas legislative search engine, advanced bill summary & status search
CQ Weekly, "The Space Between Clinton and Obama," by David Nather, Jan. 14, 2008
Phone interview with Sarah Binder, Brookings Institution, March 19, 2008
Researchers: Nell Benton
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