Factcheck.org: Substance Abuse

A misleading e-mail has been making the rounds, alleging that Clinton has fewer legislative accomplishments than Obama, and that they are less substantive. We've had questions about it from a number of readers, and blogs have jumped into the fray. So what's the real story on the Senate careers of the Democratic presidential candidates?

We find that the e-mail is false in almost every particular:

It sets up a face-off between apples and, well, broccoli, comparing only the Clinton-sponsored bills that became law with all bills sponsored or cosponsored by Obama, whether they were signed into law or not.

It includes legislation Obama sponsored in the Illinois state Senate, a very different legislative body.

It tells us that Obama has sponsored more legislation than Clinton, when in fact he has sponsored less.

It implies that Obama has passed more bills into law than Clinton, when the opposite is true.
Contrary to the e-mail's assertions, Clinton's and Obama's contributions are not qualitatively different, and quantitatively, Clinton has the edge.

Several alert FactCheck.org readers have passed on the following e-mail, which purports to compare the legislative effectiveness of Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). We reprint it verbatim:

Just counting bills sponsored by a particular senator is a poor way to gauge legislative clout or effectiveness, in our judgment. For example, one of the accomplishments that Clinton often boasts about – expanding health coverage for National Guard and Reserve troops – came about as a result of an amendment, not a bill. And Obama claims credit for having helped "lead the Senate to pass" an ethics and lobbying bill that he never sponsored or even cosponsored, on grounds that it "drew key provisions" from a bill that he and two other senators cosponsored in 2007. The e-mail falsely claims that Obama sponsored the ethics legislation that became law, which he did not.

Nevertheless, we dug into the records and produced a true tally of the bills for which Sens. Obama and Clinton were in fact the sole, original sponsors. We take no position on which senator deserves credit for the most or best legislation overall. What we can demonstrate is that the numbers in this e-mail are all wrong.

Here's how FactCheck.org tallies the real breakdown of bills and resolutions sponsored by the candidates in the U.S. Senate.

We counted only bills for which Obama or Clinton was the sole, original sponsor. The e-mail inflates Obama's numbers by counting his cosponsored bills, but Sarah Binder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on legislative politics, tells FactCheck.org that often "cosponsorship does not require a commitment of time, energy or resources – let alone the political or policy ingenuity that might generate a bill idea in the first place." Tallying sponsored bills, says Binder, is "a better metric of a senator's agenda, efforts and interests."

Clinton has been in the Senate a little more than seven years; Obama, a little more than three. Using the numbers above, we calculate that Clinton has been the sole sponsor of a few more bills and resolutions per year – 51, to Obama's 43. And she has steered twice as many through the Senate and almost four times as many into law per year, on average, as Obama has.

Clinton's Real Numbers
Clinton's campaign claims that 22 of the senator's solely sponsored bills have become public law, and the e-mail claims 20. We counted 19, three fewer than the campaign because it included several Clinton-sponsored provisions that were part of other major bills. (The measures were substantive, having to do with such issues as improving treatment for wounded service members, but they didn't fit the rules of this tally.) Nine of her successful bills had to do with naming post offices or courthouses, but others involved building safety, unemployment assistance and support for family caregivers.

The list of her accomplishments in the e-mail, though, is not, as the author claims, a rundown of Clinton-sponsored bills that became law; it is in fact a mishmash of some that became law and others that were only passed by the Senate, without being a complete roster of her bills in either category. She actually sponsored, by herself, 32 bills and resolutions that passed the Senate, including all of those mentioned specifically in the e-mail plus 12 others. The omitted bills include a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of soldiers of Israel held captive by Hamas and Hezbollah, and a resolution condemning the murder of an American journalist. And she has been sole sponsor of a total of 358 bills in her seven-year Senate career.

Here's our list of bills solely sponsored by Clinton that became law (descriptions of each are verbatim from THOMAS.gov, the Library of Congress' database of legislative information):

110th Congress:
S. 694, A bill to direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations to reduce the incidence of child injury and death occurring inside or outside of light motor vehicles, and for other purposes.

109th Congress:
S. 272, A bill to designate certain National Forest System land in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as a component of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
S. 1283, A bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to establish a program to assist family caregivers in accessing affordable and high-quality respite care, and for other purposes.
S. 2376, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 80 Killian Road in Massapequa, New York, as the "Gerard A. Fiorenza Post Office Building."
S. 2722, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 170 East Main Street in Patchogue, New York, as the "Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy Post Office Building."
S. 3613, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2951 New York Highway 43 in Averill Park, New York, as the "Major George Quamo Post Office Building."
S. 3716, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 100 Pitcher Street in Utica, New York, as the "Captain George A. Wood Post Office Building."
S. 3910, A bill to direct the Joint Committee on the Library to accept the donation of a bust depicting Sojourner Truth and to display the bust in a suitable location in the Capitol.

108th Congress:
S. 1241, A bill to establish the Kate Mullany National Historic Site in the State of New York, and for other purposes.
S. 1266, A bill to award a congressional gold medal to Dr. Dorothy Height, in recognition of her many contributions to the Nation.
S. 1425, A bill to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to reauthorize the New York City Watershed Protection Program.
S. 2838, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 10 West Prospect Street in Nanuet, New York, as the "Anthony I. Lombardi Memorial Post Office Building."
S. 2839, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 555 West 180th Street in New York, New York, as the "Sergeant Riayan A. Tejeda Post Office."

107th Congress:
S. 584, A bill to designate the United States courthouse located at 40 Centre Street in New York, New York, as the "Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse."
S. 1422, A bill to provide for the expedited payment of certain benefits for a public safety officer who was killed or suffered a catastrophic injury as a direct and proximate result of a personal injury sustained in the line of duty in connection with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
S. 1622, A bill to extend the period of availability of unemployment assistance under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act in the case of victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
S. 1892, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 375 Carlls Path in Deer Park, New York, as the "Raymond M. Downey Post Office Building."
S. 2496, A bill to provide for the establishment of investigative teams to assess building performance and emergency response and evacuation procedures in the wake of any building failure that has resulted in substantial loss of life or that posed significant potential of substantial loss of life, and for other purposes.
S. 2918, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 380 Main Street in Farmingdale, New York, as the "Peter J. Ganci, Jr. Post Office Building."

A Legislative Powerhouse?
The e-mail claims that Obama "authored 152 bills and co-sponsored another 427" during "his first year in the U.S. Senate." According to THOMAS.gov, this number is an accurate count of bills and amendments that Obama sponsored during the 109th Congress, which actually covered his first two years in the Senate, not one. (Amendments are changes to bills that were spearheaded by other lawmakers.) Discounting amendments and cosponsorships, Obama sponsored 66 bills during those two years. Clinton sponsored 90 in the same period. In his three years in the Senate, Obama has been the sole original sponsor of 129 bills.

The e-mail says Obama sponsored "over 820 bills" in the first "eight years of his elected service," never mentioning that for most of that time, Obama was in the Illinois Senate. Since the rules and operations of that body are quite different from those of the U.S. Senate, we hardly think it's fair to include the proposed legislation to which his name was attached in Springfield in any tally that's being compared with Clinton's record.

An accurate comparison with the Clinton bills listed in the e-mail would have included only the bills Obama has sponsored that have been signed into law. This comparison favors Clinton heavily, since 19 of her bills in seven years have become law, while Obama has had just two in his three years:

S. 2125, A bill to promote relief, security, and democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
S. 3757, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 950 Missouri Avenue in East St. Louis, Illinois, as the "Katherine Dunham Post Office Building."

The Meaning of Fluff
The question of whether a bill is "substantive" is often subjective. But the Clinton bills that the e-mail seems to characterize as frivolous have to do with such goals as recognizing and establishing national observances, honoring individuals' memories, marking important events and congratulating sports teams. Five of the seven Obama-sponsored bills passed by the Senate have similar goals. So do more than 40 percent of all the bills that have been passed by the Senate since the beginning of 2008.

Surely we don't elect senators just to name post offices. But given the contention that meatier bills can prompt, it's much easier to push a seemingly frivolous bill through Congress. Every one of the Clinton and Obama bills that passed the Senate did so by unanimous consent. Bills that generate more opposition, meanwhile, can be struck down or left to languish. According to GovTrack.us, a legislative research site, 308 of 356 bills Clinton has sponsored haven't made it out of committee. In the current (110th) Congress, that includes several bills on foreign policy, nuclear safety, poverty, housing and education, not to mention 19 bills regarding public health and coverage, 13 benefiting the armed forces, and 12 addressing children's care and safety. Likewise, 120 of Obama's 129 sponsored bills haven't made it past the committee level – including, in the 110th Congress, nine bills on energy and environmental policy, nine on public health and eight benefiting the military and veterans, as well as multiple bills on education, foreign policy, product safety and voter access. These bills, being more substantive than, for instance, Clinton's regarding the men's lacrosse team or Obama's on National Summer Learning Day, are also more likely to die in committee.

Blog Showdown
Several blogs have picked up and repeated the idea that Obama has sponsored more, or more important, legislation than Clinton has. One writer on the political blog Daily Kos looked at the senator's record in detail but did not evaluate Clinton's legislation. Another went through legislation from each candidate, analyzing the impressiveness of each bill from her perspective. On the other side, noted blogger Ezra Klein wrote, in his blog for the liberal magazine The American Prospect, that the second Kos article was "not anything even approaching a fair comparison of [the candidates'] legislative records" and that Clinton had in fact proposed important bills.

Since the value of a piece of legislation is so often a matter of opinion, that's a blogspat we won't get into. We can say for sure, though, that Clinton has been the sole original sponsor of more bills than Obama at a slightly higher annual rate; that she's been more successful than Obama at passing bills through the Senate and into law; and that, while she has sponsored a number of seemingly frivolous bills that were signed into law, these are comparable to many of Obama's bills and common in the Senate generally.

One final thought: Recently we published a special report warning readers about the high level of inaccuracy in chain e-mails. This one is no exception. In fact, with its anonymous author and grammatical errors, not to mention a redundancy or two, it's a classic of the genre. If you find one of these e-mails in your in-box, our suggested course of action remains the same: Just hit delete.

Join the Discussion