D.C.'s favorite time-wasting scam: Cosponsoring bills

A former House aide explains why lawmakers spend so much time meaninglessly cosponsoring bills

Published August 2, 2013 7:26PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor                        (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
Eric Cantor (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

As your representatives in the least productive Congress in history head out on a five-week vacation, it’s worth considering what it is they do with their two-and-a-half day work weeks. They’re not funding the government. They’re not solving problems. They’re not passing legislation.

They do, however, spend a significant amount of time and effort on a well-known but not well-understood practice: bill co-sponsorships. And despite the inordinate attention given to rounding up co-sponsors, bragging about co-sponsors and arguing about co-sponsors, it turns out that co-sponsoring bills in Congress doesn’t matter. At least not legislatively.

Conventional wisdom says that the higher the number of co-sponsors, the greater the chance a bill has of becoming law – and that a bill with a low number of co-sponsors is doomed. These are both wrong.

My review of recent Congresses demonstrates that co-sponsorship is not a reliable indicator of a bill’s legislative success. While there may be non-legislative (read: political) reasons for co-sponsoring legislation, the effort spent on adding names to a bill in order to get it passed into law is wasted.

The House has only allowed members to co-sponsor bills since 1967, and permitted an unlimited number of co-sponsors only since 1978 (the Senate has allowed the practice since at least 1930). At any given moment, thousands of people – senators, representatives, former members, staffers, interns, organizers, activists, lobbyists, political operatives, advocates, constituents and concerned citizens – are engaged in the time-honored ritual of the search for co-sponsors.

Members buttonhole one another on the floor, in committee rooms and at events. Their staffs call, and email, and text. Activists tweet, and post, and share, and link and petition. Lobbyists ask, cajole and beg. Everyone distributes one-sheets, Dear Colleagues, buttons, posters and tchotchkes. They’re wasting their time: In the last three Congresses, an average of 78 percent of all non-commemorative bills enacted into law had 10 or fewer co-sponsors, and just over 21 percent had no co-sponsors at all. (For the purposes of this discussion, I have not included “commemorative” legislation with specific co-sponsor requirements – the renaming of post offices, courthouses and other federal buildings; bills producing ceremonial coins or medals; and other ceremonial designations such as scenic rivers, wildlife refuges, etc.)

This isn’t a little-known, back-room parliamentary practice. Lobbyists boast to their clients about how many co-sponsors they’ve snagged. Members heavily engage their constituents in the process. Whether or not a candidate has been a co-sponsor of a bill is a serious question in elections – particularly primaries. But it doesn’t get a bill passed.

This may come as a surprise to anyone who has ever organized, participated in or even simply followed with interest the process of rounding up co-sponsors. Even more surprising is the fact that the more co-sponsors a bill has, the less likely it is to be enacted. And it takes almost twice as long to enact bills with 100 or more co-sponsors than bills with none.

Depending on how one views the process, the effort isn’t always wasted; scoring a co-sponsor from the other side of the aisle can give a bill that most elusive of appearances: bipartisanship. Members who collect sponsors from the other party claim that they are proud to offer a “bipartisan” bill – even if the tally includes only a single Democrat or Republican. In this bitter, highly political climate, members welcome anything that removes – or even appears to remove – the charge of partisanship.

There are other advantages. A lesser-known member can raise his or her visibility by frequently co-sponsoring legislation – and thereby bank favors. Although, in my experience, a member who co-sponsors other legislators’ bills in the hopes of receiving reciprocal co-sponsorships shouldn’t hold their breath: While they may not mean much legislatively, so many people keep track of who’s “on” or “not on” a bill that co-sponsorships can’t simply be traded as quid pro quos.

And everyone increases their networking and communication. This is especially helpful with bills that are out of one’s area of expertise; I was introduced to organizations, advocates and lobbyists I would otherwise never have met if not for their requests for co-sponsorship.

In early June House Majority Leader Eric Cantor brought the public into the process with "Cosponsor.gov." This flashy new taxpayer-funded website allows citizens like you and me to “sign on” to legislation before Congress. The site, Cantor promised, would allow us to have “direct impact” on bills; while this site may add to his "techie" credentials, he won't promise it will “impact” his decision to bring any bill to the floor for a vote (and, so far, it hasn't).

Until I crunched the numbers, I wasn’t aware that co-sponsors had so little effect on legislative success; when I found out, though, I wasn’t shocked. When I was a legislative director, I often felt that co-sponsorships – both those that sought us and those we sought – were not a good use of our time. That they were for show. That they really only made it seem as if something was getting done, or that a member “supported” a bill, a cause, an ideal.

About a third of all emails I received as LD were requests to co-sponsor (or not co-sponsor) legislation. When lobbyists, advocates and activists weren’t calling to request a meeting, they were calling to talk about co-sponsoring a bill. The Dear Colleague service quickly and efficiently disperses hundreds of co-sponsorship requests a day to every member office.

More than whatever positive effects might be gained from co-sponsoring, Members and staff are more often motivated by the negative effects of not being a co-sponsor on an “important” bill than with whatever helpful legislative consequences could result from the addition of one more name. And not being on a “bad” bill is often as or even more important than being on the “good” ones.

A significant portion of our member office electronic mail and social media comments were questions about why we weren’t “on” a particular bill. Most – if not all – commenters had no idea that not only would the addition of a new co-sponsor not help the bill’s movement, but that simply putting one’s name on a bill means nothing. That, of course, didn’t matter: If we were asked to be on a bill, we at least had to investigate it. If we absolutely could not co-sponsor it, most of the time we had to provide a good reason – because most people who asked thought that it would move the bill along.

Just as there are members who habitually “drop” dozens – even hundreds – of bills each session, and then do little or nothing to advance them, there are members who habitually co-sponsor bills with no intention of doing anything further on them.

Some members and staffers truly do advocate for a bill they have co-sponsored by contacting the referred committees, helping to line up witnesses for hearings, tallying votes before a markup, and urging leadership to bring the bill to the floor. However, the “involvement” of the vast majority of co-sponsors on any given bill ends the moment they agree to co-sponsor it. And since the fact of the co-sponsorship does little or nothing to advance the bill, it turns out to be a kind of well-orchestrated scam.

As a professional staff member, charged with making decisions about which bills referred to the subcommittee should be considered, I found the number of co-sponsors had no bearing; if I believed the bill had merit, I would try to get it marked up. What was most surprising was that no original sponsors – and certainly no co-sponsors – of any bill referred to our subcommittee ever contacted us to push it along, urged us to consider it or even to inquire about its status.

As an LD, exactly as I was taught, every time I received a request to co-sponsor a bill I first looked at the list of current co-sponsors; not the bill summary or the status (nor, most times, even the subject). “Who’s on it already?” was, if not the dispositive question, certainly the first of several gates. If an intern or staffer presented me with a suggested bill to co-sponsor, the first page of the “coverage” they gave me had to be the list of co-sponsors.

Sometimes there are good reasons to be the only Democrat on a Republican bill, or the only member of a particular caucus, or the second – and lone – co-sponsor, but those aren’t the most important considerations. It is considered more essential to not be the odd person out or the one who seems to be against a bill by not being on it.

This practice creates tastemakers, who signal to others the “importance” of a bill by being on it or not. And the same groups of members tend to coalesce around the same original sponsors and issues. That, in turn, makes the omission of an expected name – or the addition of an unexpected one – newsworthy. But it doesn’t help to pass the bill.

That's because co-sponsoring bills is legislatively ineffective. An inordinate amount of time, money and effort is expended on something that is almost certain to fail. And yet, the custom plays out session after session, because, obviously, the participants find something worthwhile in it. After all that work and expense, however, what they don’t find is their bills getting passed into law.

By Anthony Clark

Anthony Clark is a former House staffer who writes about the legislative branch and presidential legacy. Follow @AnthonyJClark on Twitter and Facebook.

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