For Rubio and others, turning ideas into law is a daunting task

Florida’s junior senator, a Republican from West Miami, is in his fifth year as a U.S. senator and has sponsored 63 bills and joint resolutions. So far, none has been made into law.
Florida’s junior senator, a Republican from West Miami, is in his fifth year as a U.S. senator and has sponsored 63 bills and joint resolutions. So far, none has been made into law. AP

Sen. Marco Rubio offered a tax-overhaul plan two weeks ago, winning plaudits for articulating the kind of vision that could be part of his possible 2016 presidential run.

But turning that plan into law is going to be difficult. For evidence, there’s no need to look further than … Marco Rubio.

Florida’s junior senator, a Republican from West Miami, is in his fifth year as a U.S. senator and has sponsored 63 bills and joint resolutions.

So far, none has been made into law.

He’s listed as a co-sponsor on another 464, of which 16 became law, according to congressional data. Some are substantial pieces of legislation, while others are more minor matters – the bill, for example, that gave four more years of life to the Postal Service’s stamp for breast cancer research.

He’s far from alone, of course.

Rubio’s success — or lack of it — reflects the overwhelming odds against any piece of legislation making it through Congress. It also illustrates the particular dysfunction that’s beset Congress in recent years, and the fact that until January the Senate was controlled by Democrats.

Using data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Washington, McClatchy reviewed legislative offerings by 71 senators in the body the same years as Rubio. On the measure of sponsored bills enacted into law, Rubio is tied for last, joining 16 other senators with legislative goose eggs.

Of co-sponsored bills made into law, Rubio’s 16 would rank far higher — tied for seventh.

Measuring legislative effectiveness is a tricky business. By raw numbers of co-sponsored bills enacted into law, for example, Rubio outranks Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who dominated the Senate with a fierce grip as majority leader during Rubio’s first four years.

But what the numbers clearly show is the scant chance that anybody will get something through Congress. That’s one reason Rubio’s much-discussed tax proposal faces long odds.

“It’s like asking how good people are farming during a drought,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform group at New America, a Washington research center. “Back to back, you’ve had the two most unproductive Congresses in a long, long time. So it’s really hard to measure who is productive because nobody is.”

Researchers examine Congress in two-year increments, marked by the election cycle. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center said in December that the 113th Congress (2013-14) “just barely avoided the dubious title of ‘least productive Congress in modern history.’”

The Congress holding that title is the 112th.

A total of 579 laws were enacted during those two Congresses; Pew Research considered about two-thirds of those to be substantive and the rest ceremonial — renaming buildings and the like.

During those two Congresses, a total of 19,709 bills were introduced. So the overall bill-success rate was less than 3 percent, according to the data.

Ranked by sponsored bills enacted into law during Rubio’s time in office, Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont (14), Barbara Boxer of California (six) and Robert Menendez of New Jersey (five) had the most in the Senate. The top Republican senators were Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Rob Portman of Ohio and John Thune of South Dakota, with three each.

In an interview, Rubio detailed four years of frustration in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“Harry Reid largely paralyzed the place,” Rubio said. “So no matter how hard you worked, you couldn’t even get an amendment heard, much less a bill.”

There are other vital functions senators perform, from direct constituent service to questioning witnesses in committee hearings. But for members of the minority party, it can be difficult to exert – let alone calculate – influence.

“Very few things that one does in Congress lend themselves to a quantitative measure,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama came from the Senate without major legislative triumphs, but they were able to establish credentials with the voting public in other ways.

Legislative scores haven’t been “a major selling point for presidential candidates,” Jamieson added. (Obama, as a senator from Illinois, was listed as sponsor of 121 bills and resolutions; two were enacted into law.)

For Rubio, legislative successes came other ways. A bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, didn’t pass on its own but became part of a much-larger VA bill that did pass; Rubio played a vital role on a special committee that finalized that legislation.

Many successes came as a co-sponsor to bills sponsored by Democrats. Of Rubio’s 16 co-sponsored bills that made it into law, 10 were offered by Democrats.

Consider the bill urging U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan officials for cracking down on political protests.

The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 was introduced by Menendez, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time. Rubio joined three others as co-sponsors.

Rubio played a pivotal role in prodding the Obama administration on the matter — in a hearing, in multiple letters, in Senate speeches. After being hamstrung for months by legislative maneuvers, the bill passed in December.

Last week, the White House slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials.

Given the reality of Senate control, Rubio said, “It always helped to have a Democrat as the lead sponsor.”

He added: “Now obviously we worked closely with Menendez on a bunch of things and he deserves tremendous credit for it. But it was an issue that we first raised and had largely taken the lead on.”

Such is life in the minority, said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“As a Republican serving in a Democrat-controlled body, his bills always would be at a disadvantage,” West said of Rubio. “A better measure would be going forward. Now that Republicans have a majority in the Senate, the percentage of his bills that are enacted is a better gauge of legislative effectiveness.”

Rubio’s tax plan, unveiled two weeks ago with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was greeted as a significant event; it would slash corporate tax rates, eliminate capital gains taxes and simplify individual tax brackets.

But Rubio and Lee have yet to turn their idea into tax legislation. Rubio concedes it would be “incredibly difficult” to pass the measure in a comprehensive fashion in this Congress.

“Ultimately, all these big reforms start somewhere,” he said. “And sometimes they take years to implement, unfortunately. But that’s the nature of the process.”

When Rubio and Lee do put pen to paper, any bill will face opposition from Democrats, a tight legislative calendar and the reality that neither senator sits on the main tax-related committee.

The Senate Finance Committee is led by Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. And, Brookings’ West said, it’s “hard for people from outside the committee to get their ideas considered. Lawmaking is driven by the relevant committee.”

Added Drutman of New America: “Nobody seriously thinks this bill is going to pass, but it’s a useful messaging bill if he wants to run for president. There are a lot of different reasons people introduce bills, and it’s not always because they expect them to be passed.”