Washington – Only one other senator co-sponsored more legislation than U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal in the outgoing Congress — just one indication of the Connecticut Democrat’s energy and broad reach on Capitol Hill.
Blumenthal, 68, has used his position as a member of the majority party in the Senate, leverage he’ll lose when the new Congress is gavelled in on Jan. 6, limiting his political clout on key committees.
Over the past two years he’s hounded automakers over defective ignition switches and airbags, the NFL over sports blackouts and domestic assaults, and electronic cigarette makers over their advertising to teenagers. He has plunged into dozens of other consumer issues.
“Aggressive advocacy for me has been an important part of my job,” Blumenthal said.
He’s sometimes been the scourge of the Obama administration too, pressing federal agencies on purchases of Russian helicopters, proposed changes to federal Indian tribe acknowledgement rules, veterans’ care reforms and railroad regulations, just to name a few things.
“He’s taken the same approach as he did as [Connecticut’s] attorney general, which was to be a consumer crusader, said Scott McLean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University.
Blumenthal was elected to the Senate in 2010. Before that, he served as Connecticut’s attorney general for 10 years, pursuing cases against tobacco companies, polluters, health insurers and banks. The work earned him the nickname “Sue ‘Em All Blumenthal” from detractors.
McLean said Blumenthal’s consumer activism will serve him well when the GOP takes over the Senate next week, especially since he must run for re-election in 2016.
“He can’t point to traditional things,” like passing legislation or steering money to Connecticut, which pays more in federal taxes than it receives in federal funds, McLean said. “But he can say he’s been active for consumers.”
Blumenthal said, “One lesson to me is that legislation is only one lever to fight for benefits for the people of Connecticut.”
“I can use my position to shine a light on problems,” he said.
And shine he does. Blumenthal lists among his accomplishments in this Congress his push for a compensation fund for victims of defective ignition switches in General Motors cars, the decision of the Federal Communications Commission to change its sports blackout rules (a move the senator said was influenced by a sports blackout bill he introduced with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,) and his pressuring of the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt new regulations after a series of Metro-North accidents.
He also held a hearing on domestic violence in the NFL that resulted in a commitment from league officials to donate $25 million to a domestic violence hotline.
“My friends at the hotline say it was a $25 million hearing,” Blumenthal said.
But this session of Congress also brought challenges and disappointment.
Blumenthal was unable to convince several balky moderate Democrats to vote for a modest gun control bill that would have expanded FBI background checks of gun purchasers — priority legislation after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Blumenthal said he hopes the bill will be re-introduced in the new Congress, with perhaps mental health and school safety measures included to help attract GOP support.
“I think there’s hope for that kind of measure,” he said.
Blumenthal and the entire Connecticut political establishment were able to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs to modify proposed new rules on the Indian recognition process to make it difficult for Connecticut tribes to gain federal acknowledgment, a battle Blumenthal has waged against the tribes for years. But Indian country has pushed back on that stumbling block to Connecticut tribes, and it may not be included in the BIA’s final tribal recognition overhaul expected to be released in the next few weeks or months.
Blumenthal also said he was disappointed that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in the final days of the session blocked approval of a bill that would overhaul the way the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs provide mental health care.
Of the 113th Congress, Blumenthal said: “It has had moments that were highly frustrating and even infuriating.”
Stopping bad things
Only Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who lost his bid for re-election this year, co-sponsored more bills than Blumenthal in the outgoing Congress. Blumenthal signed on to 398 bills. Begich co-sponsored 449.
But according to Govtrack.us, only about 13 percent of the bills the senator sponsored in 2013 were introduced by Republicans, placing Blumenthal among the least bipartisan members of the Senate.
Of the 63 bills he introduced in the 113th Congress, five became law and parts of others also were approved by Congress in other legislation. The latest was a bill called the “Death in Custody Reporting Act,” which was approved by voice vote in the House and Senate in the final hours of the session.
Co-sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the bill was passed in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and requires states that receive certain criminal justice assistance grants to report quarterly to the Justice Department certain information regarding the death of any person who is in police custody.
“The stark, staggering fact is that the nation has no reliable idea how many Americans die during arrests or police custody each year,” Blumenthal said. “This legislation will fix that unacceptable factual gap.”
Despite his propensity to seize upon a universe of issues, Blumenthal had an almost perfect voting attendance record, the best in the Connecticut congressional delegation. He missed only 0.25 percent of the 658 votes cast in the Senate in the last session.
The New Year kicks off the beginning of campaign season for Blumenthal and other senators who face re-election in 2016. That means Blumenthal, who has raised little more than $500,000 in the last two years, must juggle fundraising and campaigning with his legislative duties in the new Congress.
And he expects to continue to serve on four very active Senate panels.
He said he’s likely to keep his seats on the Judiciary Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee after the Senate changes hands next week and is reorganized. He will also be the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
But he’ll lose much of his ability to use his committee seats to go on the offensive against bad products or policies – although he may have some bipartisan successes in the Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs panels, where members of both parties often work jointly toward common goals.
Blumenthal said he knows things will be different in the minority.
“On some issues, we’ll need to play defense and stop bad things,” he said.
|Party loyalty ranking ….97 percent|
|Co-sponsored bills approved….13|
|Missed votes……0.25 percent|
|Campaign funds raised………$519,000*|
|*As of Nov. 24, 2014|