By Adriel Bettelheim March 28, 2008

Distorted and unfair comparison

Fighting perceptions that their candidate has a thin legislative record, supporters of Sen. Barack Obama say he has written and co-sponsored more bills in three years in the Senate than Democratic opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton has in her seven years.

A chain e-mail widely reproduced on Web blogs says Obama authored 890 bills and co-sponsored nearly 1,100 more, and contrasts that output with the record of Clinton, noting she got 20 mostly inconsequential bills passed during her first seven years in the chamber. The numbers use data retrieved on the Library of Congress' legislative search engine, Thomas (named for Thomas Jefferson and found here ).

"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."

But while you can obtain those search results with the right query, the e-mail is misleading for several reasons.

First, it compares apples to oranges by contrasting every bill and amendment to a bill that Obama sponsored or co-sponsored, regardless of whether each advanced or languished, to those measures Clinton sponsored or co-sponsored that were signed into law. That guarantees a low count for Clinton, because Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White House for most of her seven years in the Senate. The e-mail does not reveal how many of Obama's legislative attempts never got considered.

Plus, including amendments in Obama's total but not in Clinton's total unfairly distorts the difference even more. 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.

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And then there's this: Experts say it's misleading to use the number of bills a lawmaker sponsors to gauge his or her ability to get things done, anyway. Most of the thousands of measures that senators and representatives introduce each year never get acted on, fond as politicians may be of talking about them. The number of bills they co-sponsor is even more insignificant, because in many of those cases the lawmakers are piggybacking on the efforts 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."

A side-by-side tally of Clinton's and Obama's legislative output on Thomas 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.

So in an apples-to-apples comparison of bills written and co-sponsored, it's Clinton: 3,076; Obama: 1,106. Not quite the conclusion the e-mail sought to reach.

We don't need to rule on whether counting pieces of legislation is a legitimate way of measuring the effectiveness of lawmakers, though experts make clear that it's not. For us, it's enough to look at the facts in the e-mail, the actual numbers being used to make the comparison, and when we look we find manipulation and mistakes. We find a clear False.

Our 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

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Distorted and unfair comparison

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