Blumenthal brings high-energy style to Senate

Washington – Sen. Richard Blumenthal has signed on to more bills than anyone in the U.S. Senate, records from the library of Congress show.

That’s just one indicator of how Blumenthal functions in office.

Since the beginning of this Congress in January, Blumenthal has co-sponsored 248 bills. He’s also introduced 49 bills and amendments on his own. (In contrast, fellow Connecticut Democrat, Sen. Chris Murphy, has co-sponsored 105 bills and introduced six.)

Blumenthal's style is to embrace all the issues he thinks need to be addressed, rather than focus heavily on a few pet projects. Other signs of just how busy the senator keeps himself and his staff include the flood of press releases from his office and a schedule that seems overbooked with public events.

This is not new behavior. Blumenthal’s willingness to sign on to dozens of bills,  ranging from gun control to energy drink regulation, is an extension of how he worked as Connecticut’s attorney general for nearly 20 years, said Ron Schurin, associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. That was the last job Blumenthal held before his election to the Senate.

“He was a very high-energy guy,” Schurin said.

“No one should be surprised that I’m an activist senator given my active record as attorney general,” Blumenthal says.

Blumenthal's bill output is more than twice the average number of bills co-sponsored in the Senate in this Congress -- 116. (House members are more prolific -- the record-holder currently being Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who has attached his signature as a cosponsor to 435 bills and amendments.)

In the Senate, the top 10 co-sponsors are all Democrats like Blumenthal, except Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine (187) and Roy Blunt of Missouri (185).

Blumenthal said his jobs on five Senate committees, including the Judiciary, Armed Services, Commerce and Veteran’s Affairs panels, lead to the co-sponsorship of many bills.

Besides a slew of gun control legislation, Blumenthal has signed on to bills this year that would allow consumers to purchase cable channels “a la carte,” reform veterans’ health care, prohibit the closing of air traffic control towers, require greater disclosure of genetically engineered food, cut excise taxes on domestically produced beer, end racial profiling, clean up Long Island Sound and dozens of other issues -- including awarding songstress Lena Horne a posthumous medal for her civil rights work.

Yet immersion in so many things could have a drawback.

“The downside to sponsoring or co-sponsoring so much legislation is that you leave yourself open to criticism that you've been ineffective because so few bills actually passed,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report.

“I am under no illusion," Blumenthal says, "about how difficult it is to get action on these measures.”

But he said he often gets a bill approved as an amendment to another bill.   

“What I try to do is identify a train that might make it to the station and attach my legislation as a car to that train,” he said.

Using this technique, Blumenthal was able to win approval of a human trafficking amendment in the Senate’s immigration bill; and, in a U.S. Food and Drug Administration reauthorization bill, work in legislation that would give pharmaceutical companies incentive to develop antibiotics that would combat resistant strains of bacteria. 

And even if most of the bills that Blumenthal supports won’t become law, there are other advantages to signing on to a bill.

Co-sponsoring legislation makes other senators more likely to support your bill, said Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Staffs can get to know each other, possibly paving the way for future cooperative efforts on other legislative fronts,” Skelley said. “Co-sponsoring bills can also build bipartisan credentials for a senator. Even if it's a doomed bill, by co-sponsoring the bill of a senator from the other party, a senator can make a stronger claim to be pursuing a bipartisan agenda.”

Blumenthal agrees.

“Co-sponsoring legislation is a means of building coalitions and relationships,” he said.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said there are several senators with hectic agendas, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“But Blumenthal is probably more peripatetic than most,” he said.

Yet Ornstein said Blumenthal’s colleagues don’t view him as a “dilettante,” but as someone whose help is much appreciated. That includes Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who is pushing legislation, with Blumenthal’s help, that would change the way rape is prosecuted by the military, Ornstein said.

“Democratic colleagues like him,” Ornstein said. ”He just doesn’t sign his name and go onto something else.”

Because of his many interests, Blumenthal’s office is busy churning our press releases. He has issued more than 200 since January.

The horrible massacre at Newtown, where 20 first graders and six school employees were gunned down, accounts for some of the explosion of press releases, but not all.

There are dozens, often more than one issued each day, on the senator’s support for legislation, announcement of public events or reaction to a vote in Congress or a major event.

But he’s not the most prolific when it comes to press releases. Schumer, for example, has issued more than 300 this year.

UConn’s Schurin said Blumenthal was an effective attorney general because he focused public attention on issues “that were ripe for public attention,” even when he could do little about them.

“It’s a way to educate people,” Blumenthal said. “When I was an attorney general, people would ask, ‘Why  are you issuing a press release on energy drinks?’ It was a way to educate parents about the dangers of drinking too many energy drinks.”  

Blumenthal said he returns to Connecticut every weekend, to hold as many as 10 to 15 events.

That frenetic pace continues when Congress is on break, as it is now for the month of August.

No event seems to be too modest for the senator to show up. For example, on Wednesday he attended an event in West Haven with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, to hand over a $110,000 federal grant to the local fire department so it could donate smoke detectors to area residents.

“On Memorial Day I’ll do nine or 10 parades,” Blumenthal said. “I learn about what’s really happening in people’s lives by going back and listening to them.”

Blumenthal has also been busy hiring staffers that help him keep up his racer-fast pace.

He’s hired 73 people since he was elected in 2010.  That’s for about 30 or so office positions, a staff turnover rate that’s more than 100 percent. Blumenthal has had three legislative directors and four communications directors.

But that high turnover rate puts Blumenthal in the middle of the pack when it comes to the other 12 senators who were also first elected to office in 2010.

Six of them had a higher staff turnover rate than Blumenthal and six had lower turnover.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a conservative firebrand, had the highest numbers of hires, 125. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., had the lowest, 48.

Ornstein predicts Blumenthal will “narrow his interest in the future,” as the senator moves up in seniority in committees and perhaps heads a subcommittee.

“With time, senators tend to be more focused,” Ornstein said.

 

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