Connecticut lawmakers sponsor bills that go nowhere

Washington — When Sen. Chris Murphy returns from his Thanksgiving break, he hopes to introduce a bill that would pressure colleges to keep tuition rates down.

It will be the 14th bill Murphy, D-Conn., has introduced since he was sworn into the Senate in January. His co-sponsor is someone with nearly as little seniority, Brian Schatz, a Democrat who was appointed to represent Hawaii in the Senate last December.

Murphy admitted it may be hard to win approval of his bill in the 113th Congress, but he said he’s looking at the long term.

“We’re a long way before these ideas will become standard,” he said.

The fact that most legislation introduced by members of Congress will never become law doesn’t faze lawmakers who introduce thousands of bills, resolutions and amendments every year. Only about 200 of the nearly 12,000 bills introduced in the last Congress made it to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

There are plenty of good reasons that otherwise accomplished people have adopted a behavior that seems doomed to failure, analysts say. The biggest reason is to please constituents, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“Over the years, I have come to realize that a good portion of the public doesn’t know the difference between introducing a bill and passing a bill — or at least they seem to give legislators about equal credit for simply trying, as opposed to actually achieving,“ Sabato said. “Introducing a bill means a lawmaker can air a TV ad that breathlessly declares Congressman X is ‘fighting for [insert popular issue].’”

In the Connecticut congressional delegation, there’s a wide variety in the number of bill introductions and the focus of legislation.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., leads the delegation with his introduction of 68 bills, resolutions and amendments so far this year.

Himes is dead last with the introduction of one piece of legislation — a resolution that would recognize May 2013 as the “National Pediatric Stroke Awareness Month.” It failed to pass.

But Himes spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr pointed out that he won approval in the Intelligence Committee of an amendment to an intelligence bill aimed at protecting personal information amid the nation’s cyber wars.

Like other members of Connecticut’s House delegation, Himes is stymied because he’s a Democrat in a GOP-led chamber. That means it’s highly unlikely any of their bills will make it out of the committees they are languishing in.

Kerr said her boss may not introduce many bills, but he co-sponsors a lot of them.

“You’ll notice he is the lead Democrat on a number of bipartisan bills,” she said. “He often works with a Republican colleague to introduce bills since they are in the majority.”

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, a freshman lawmaker like Murphy, had her first bill approved in the House about a month after taking office. Esty’s bill would re-license two dams on the Farmington River, bypassing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission procedure, so the town of Canton could develop new hydropower sources.

Murphy, who had Esty’s House seat before his election to the Senate, was able to win approval for a similar bill in the last two Congresses. But the Senate failed to act.

Nine other bills Esty introduced are stalled in committee. One, a measure to thwart the permitting of the Keystone pipeline, failed on the House floor.

Although her bills have few or no sponsors, Esty said, “I’m committed to doing everything I can to gain support for these bills from colleagues in both parties, break through the gridlock as much as possible and get more commonsense measures passed by the House.”  

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Esty and her colleagues introduce bills that appear to be dead-enders for a number of good reasons.

“Legislators introduce legislation for many reasons other than expecting their bill to become a law,” Mann said. “It’s a good way of developing expertise on a policy, helps build a reputation among constituents and advocates for caring about the particular policy and signals to other lawmakers their knowledge and interest.”

Veteran Rep. DeLauro

But some lawmakers, like longtime Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, fight hard to win approval of favored legislation. DeLauro has introduced 20 bills and amendments this year, many of which are co-sponsored by dozens of fellow Democrats.

She won approval of two amendments that prohibit the Pentagon from purchasing Russian-made helicopters for Afghan forces. The amendments, aimed at helping Sikorsky, a company in DeLauro’s district, made it into a final defense appropriations bill and became law.

Initially, the Pentagon made an end run around DeLauro’s legislation. But the U.S. standoff with Syria prompted a change of heart. The Russian-owned company, Rosoboronexport, sells weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, so the Pentagon finally agreed with DeLauro that doing business with the Russian helicopter maker was a bad idea.

DeLauro has also won 206 co-sponsors for her Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would enhance penalties and enforcement of federal equal pay laws designed to protect women. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would be forced to hold a vote on the bill if DeLauro can muster 218 votes on a “discharge petition.”

Reps. Larson, Courtney

None of the nine bills and amendments Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, introduced this year passed the House. But Courtney had a big win when the House and Senate agreed to extend reduced rates for Stafford loans in a bill that is similar to one Courtney has promoted for years. Courtney was also chosen by House Democratic leaders as the point person on the issue.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, introduced seven bills and resolutions this year. Most are sitting in GOP-led committees with no action expected. But Larson’s bill to turn Hartford’s Coltsville neighborhood into a national park received a hearing.

The senators

Unlike Connecticut’s House members, Murphy and Blumenthal are in the majority in their chamber.

But the Senate runs on seniority, of which Connecticut’s senators have little. Former Connecticut Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, in contrast, rose through the ranks over time and were able to marshal significant legislation through Congress, including the Dodd-Frank Act that ushered in sweeping financial reforms.

Even so, several of Blumenthal’s bills have had hearings, and a bill aimed at keeping air traffic controllers on the job amid federal spending cuts won Senate approval. Blumenthal’s legislation to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves wiretaps and other surveillance, has received a lot of attention.

Blumenthal has also won approval of several resolutions, one commemorating July 13 as “World Elder Abuse Awareness Day,” and another honoring the Mystic Seaport Museum, home to the 172-year-old Charles M. Morgan whaling ship, as the Museum of America and the Sea.

A big setback for both Blumenthal and Murphy this year was the failure of Congress to approve any of the gun control legislation they co-sponsored in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.

But the Connecticut lawmakers’ high-profile push for gun control has helped shape their image in Congress.

Ron Schurin, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, say lawmakers sometimes sponsor bills with the view that doing so might make colleagues consider them experts in the field. And sometimes, eventually, a bill is approved.

Schurin cites as an example Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving House member.

Dingell introduced a bill to reform the nation’s health care system in 1954, his first year in Congress, and in every Congress since then.

“Finally, he saw passage of the Affordable Care Act,” Schurin said. “You never know for certain that a bill will never pass.”

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