Florida Republicans unveiled a website that portrays U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as a do-nothing career politician.
"Out of 860 bills he’s introduced in Congress, only 10 have passed," said the website No More Nelson, sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida.
The Republican attack coincided with Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement that he would take on Nelson in November.
It’s a common strategy to attack incumbents for not having many of their bills signed into law.
Our review found that Nelson has not sponsored many bills that became law. But the simple pass-fail ratio omits other ways in which members of Congress can influence legislation, and there are significant problems with the GOP’s choice of words and numbers.
It is not surprising that these figures, easily extracted from Congress.gov, found their way into a soundbite. But they are a trap. It is difficult to extract quantitative takeaways from the qualitative work of legislating.
But the Republicans’ comparison is flawed.
While they referred to the 860 count as "bills," less than half were bills. The remainder were amendments or resolutions, including a designation of National Tourism Week (which passed) and a more meaty action to help Medicare users pay for prescription drugs (which never reached a vote). Narrowing the data to only sponsored bills shows about 360 results.
The larger GOP tally also includes dozens of duplicates for when Nelson introduced the same or similar bill more than once. For example, Nelson introduced the Truth in Caller ID Act three times in 2006, 2007 and 2009 before it became law in 2010.
The Republicans should have been more precise in the second half of the claim, too: The party said only 10 bills from Nelson "have passed."
Those were actually the 10 measures that made it into law.
There’s a broader category of legislation that "passed" one chamber even if it didn’t become law. By that count, Nelson had 77 measures that passed the Senate and seven that passed the House. The broader view includes minor measures such as naming a courthouse, recognizing the Negro Baseball League and commending the Marlins for winning the World Series.
When a bill passes one chamber, it is largely out of the member's control whether that bill passes the second chamber. Most major bills are worked out between committee chairs and members in leadership.
The problems with the 10/860 ratio don’t end there. The Republicans stuffed the pot to include 860 Nelson’s bills, resolutions and hundreds of amendments. But their tally does not address the outcome of Nelson’s hundreds of amendments at all, focusing only on the 10 enacted bills or resolutions.
Nelson’s Congress.gov profile shows that dozens of amendments were approved in the Senate by unanimous consent or voice vote — a sign that they weren’t controversial — and a handful were approved in roll call votes. But the 10/860 comparison doesn’t capture that success.
Bottom line: If the Republicans wanted to make an apples-and-apples case, then they should have only looked at bills sponsored.
"The Republican claim appears to be a jumbled mess," said Steven Smith, a Washington University in St. Louis political scientist. "Legislative provisions that are counted for the 860 tally also should be counted among the provisions approved by the Senate or both houses of Congress. They are not, and so (it) understates the success of the senator’s efforts."
The Republicans have been more careful about describing bills "passed" versus "enacted into law" in other places. On Twitter, for instance, the Republicans said Nelson’s "batting average = .012 bills signed into law."
We can see their math (10/860). But congressional experts said aside from being misleading, it’s also meaningless.
"Members introduce bills for many reasons — to lay out markers, to set the stage for something that has to incubate for a long time, to make a statement," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "Conflating bills, amendments and resolutions is not fair. And getting something through one house is a big step — especially if the other party controls the other house. I wonder what the same standard would show for Marco Rubio or the other Republicans in the Senate."
We did, too. Following the same formula as the GOP, we looked at Rubio’s 476 pieces of sponsored measures and found three bills that became law. Remember, using the Republicans’ methodology, we should count Rubio’s hundreds of amendments in that 476-measure total but exclude the outcome of the amendments.
Rubio’s "batting average" would be .006 for sponsored legislation signed into law. Pointing this out isn’t to pick on Rubio, but to show that the attack is a lousy way to evaluate any lawmaker’s record.
The numbers also don’t show the many other ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a member. Members can lobby colleagues to include language in other bills, hold hearings, negotiate agreements or provide constituent service (for example, help with getting Social Security benefits).
A member may enact a single bill, but it could be an incredibly important law. Or a member might enact a lot of bills that are minor, such as renaming post offices.
"Measuring the number of laws per member, or the ratio of laws to bills, is a terrible way to assess his/her success as a member of Congress," said University of Miami political science professor Gregory Koger.
Nelson’s office pointed to several examples in which he played a role in legislation even if he didn’t sponsor a bill that passed.
Nelson worked with former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., to enact legislation to ban oil drilling off much of Florida’s Gulf Coast through 2022. Nelson was the cosponsor of a bill by Martinez, but a few months later it evolved into a separate bill that included a buffer off Florida’s coasts until 2022 — without Nelson’s name.
Nelson’s office also showed PolitiFact about a dozen examples of bills Nelson sponsored in the Senate but a similar version, often in the House, was signed into law. For example, Nelson sponsored a bill to extend the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 for one year. The House version to extend the act for 10 years became law in 2013.
Smith said that the Republicans failed to acknowledge the reality of being a legislator in the minority.
"It is difficult for a minority party member to get credit for legislative activity when the majority party wants to deny him a high success rate," he said. "I find the Republican claim to be virtually meaningless."
Nelson enjoyed majority Democratic control in the House from 1979-91. He has been in the U.S. Senate since 2001, including stretches when Democrats were in the minority and majority.
The Republican Party of Florida said out of 860 bills Nelson has introduced in Congress "only 10 have passed."
The Republicans have boiled down Nelson’s legislative record into a sound bite that has several holes.
Those 860 measures are not all bills, but also amendments and resolutions. While the Republicans said Nelson only had 10 bills that "passed," that number refers to bills and resolutions enacted into law. Nelson "passed" more bills than that during his time in both chambers. What’s more, the GOP’s math did not factor in the outcome of Nelson’s successful amendments.
The Republicans omit ways in which Nelson — or any other member — can exert influence on legislation, or when a similar idea is that he didn’t sponsor is signed by the president.
We see how any politician’s legislative scorecard invites a mathematical analysis. But this takeaway of Nelson’s time is woefully flawed. We rate this claim Mostly False.