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Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias August 13, 2018

The facts behind Joe Donnelly's Senate effectiveness

Joe Donnelly, incumbent senator running for re-election in Indiana, touted his effective lawmaking during a seven-day campaign trip around the state.

"43 of Joe’s legislative proposals have become law, including 21 since President Trump took office," an Aug. 8 press release from the Donnelly campaign read.

The campaign has repeated this figure time and again, on the road and in campaign statements. It contradicts, however, what President Donald Trump said about Donnelly, whom he dubbed "Sleepin’ Joe" during a May 11 campaign rally for Republican challenger Mike Braun.

"The Center for Effective Lawmaking named Joe Donnelly the least effective Democrat lawmaker in the United States Senate," Trump said. "He's never sponsored a bill that has become a law."

So who’s right? In a way, both are correct.

The Center for Effective Lawmaking, a nonpartisan research project run by two political science professors, assigns credit based on who is the sponsor of a bill, as recorded by the Library of Congress. Based on that definition, Donnelly has never sponsored a bill that became a law during his first term in the Senate.

That doesn’t mean none of his legislative proposals in the Senate have become law.

Craig Volden, who co-directs the center, noted that the criteria for advancing a legislative proposal could be broadened.

A closer search of the Library of Congress database shows 28 bills that became law on which Donnelly was among the co-sponsors. He was an original co-sponsor, a higher bar, on five of these.

Language from Donnelly’s bills, and from amendments he proposed, have also made their way into law, mostly through annual budget acts. In all, these add up to 43 total and 17 under Trump.

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For example, Donnelly introduced a bill in 2013 to improve suicide prevention efforts in the military. The bill didn’t get far on its own, but Donnelly got the proposal passed in the National Defense Authorization Act in 2014 as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

More recently, Donnelly helped author Right to Try, a bill aimed at getting drugs that had not been FDA-approved to terminally ill patients. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was the sponsor of the bill, so Donnelly didn’t get that credit on — but Johnson gave it to him at a press conference.

"My primary co-sponsor, Sen. Donnelly, was a stalwart," Johnson said. "This would not have happened without Joe Donnelly."

Volden said that while valid measures of effectiveness, "there is no similar comprehensive measure of the other senators in this regard that would allow a systematic comparison and ranking of senators on these criteria."

Experts told us being in the minority in a divided Congress makes it harder for Donnelly to have gotten much passed anyway. Donnelly took office in 2013, and Democrats held the majority until 2015.

"As you can see, passing the version he sponsors would let him claim credit easily — incorporating it elsewhere would not," said Corrine McConnaughy, political science professor at George Washington University. "Partisans busy undermining each other absolutely may seek ways to prevent credit-claiming by the other party's members."

That said, Donnelly has demonstrated willingness to cross the aisle.

The Lugar Center's Bipartisan Index (named for former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.) measures the frequency with which a member gets co-sponsors for their bills from the other party and the frequency with which they co-sponsor bills introduced by the other party. They ranked Donnelly fourth among senators and first among Democratic senators. 

Our ruling

Donnelly’s campaign said, "43 of Joe’s legislative proposals have become law, including 21 since President Trump took office."

None of those were the bills he sponsored on his own that became law. But in a gridlocked Congress, that’s not unusual for a senator in the minority. Instead, Donnelly co-sponsored bills, wrote amendments and crafted language that made its way into 43 laws during his single Senate term.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

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Mostly True
"43 of Joe’s legislative proposals have become law, including 21 since President Trump took office."
In a press release
Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Our Sources

Email interview with Will Baskin-Gerwitz, spokesman for Donnelly campaign, Aug. 9, 2018

Email interview with Sarah Binder, political science professor at George Washington University, Aug. 9, 2018

Email interview with Corrine McConnaughy, political science professor at George Washington University, Aug. 9, 2018

Email interview with Craig Volden, public policy and politics professor at the University of Virginia and co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Aug. 9, 2018

Email interview with Gerald Wright, political science professor at Indiana University, Aug. 9, 2018

Email interview with Dan Diller, policy director at the Lugar Center, Aug. 9, 2018

The Lugar Center, Bipartisan Index, 2017, Joe Donnelly, accessed Aug. 9, 2018

Indy Star, Here's the truth about Sen. Joe Donnelly's effectiveness and Donald Trump's attacks against him, May 21, 2018

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The facts behind Joe Donnelly's Senate effectiveness

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