WASHINGTON — Just hours after Rep. Michele Bachmann announced her retirement from Congress last week, her political opponents were taking their parting shots against her, and repeating one of their favorite refrains — her legislative accomplishments, DFL Chairman Ken Martin said in a stinging statement, were “slim to none.”
Looking to prove just that, the Huffington Post cataloged Bachmann’s legislative scorecard: 58 bills introduced, House passage of one bill (the Affordable Care Act repeal in May) and three ceremonial resolutions, and zero bills signed into law.
Bachmann opponents have long packaged that record into an election year sound bite: The congresswoman, they say, is more about promoting herself than getting things done on the legislative end of things.
“There isn’t a heck of a lot to talk about,” 6th District DFL Chairman Bill Usher said in an interview. “She was, in my opinion, all about national prominence and the spiritual side of politics more than actually nuts and bolts of crafting legislation.”
Three main accomplishments for the 6th
Her supporters, of course, sing a different tune.
During her 2012 re-election campaign, Bachmann plugged three main accomplishments during her time in the House: Securing a $750,000 grant for the regional airport in St. Cloud, advocating for a new veterans clinic in Ramsey and winning House passage of a bill authorizing a new bridge over the St. Croix River.
“I paid attention and listened to the people of the district, and I delivered for them and led on those issues,” Bachmann said during an October debate with Democrat Jim Graves.
Beyond that, the House passing her Affordable Care Act repeal bill — the 37th such vote — was such a momentous moment for Bachmann that she bought nearly $80,000 in ad time promoting the vote.
Bachmann confidants say judging legislative accomplishments should be a nuanced exercise. They note she spent the first half of her House tenure in the minority, where lawmakers struggle to get much of anything done. And they say her biggest accomplishments aren’t reflected in terms of how many bills got signed into law: Her constituent services operation is heralded, for example, and she was one of the loudest voices in Congress calling for a more conservative Republican Party.
“She shows she’s a leader,” former chief of staff Andy Parrish said. “She’s never been a ball hog, she’s always been a team player.”
St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce President Teresa Bohnan said Bachmann was always a reliable vote for business-focused causes as well (she secured the national chamber’s endorsement in 2012). She was awarded a “B” by the conservative Americans For Prosperity during the 112th Congress (tied for the top grade in the Minnesota delegation) and has voted with Republicans 97 percent of the time this session, according to the Washington Post.
“As much as people like to criticize her and like to criticize what she has to say, her votes were generally with the business community, and that’s where the rubber meets the road,” Bohnan said.
Fame outweighs accomplishments
Still, so many of the bills Bachmann tried to get through had no chance of going anywhere. Even with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, she’s undertaken quixotic attempts to repeal the whole Dodd-Frank financial reform law, for example, and she’s thrice introduced measures meant to undo the Affordable Care Act. But when the House voted on her current version of the legislation this year, it was the first time the chamber had taken up a Bachmann-introduced bill outside of three ceremonial resolutions.
Relative to her fame, Bachmann’s slate of legislative achievements is light, congressional scholar and University of Minnesota professor Kathryn Pearson said.
The number of bills she’s introduced and those she’s managed to get through Congress are just below the mean for a four-term member of Congress, Pearson said. But Bachmann has managed to develop a brand out of sync with what she’s gotten done.
“She has an extraordinarily high profile for a lawmaker who has not produced significant legislative accomplishments,” Pearson said. There are other, lower-key lawmakers with similar résumés, she said, “but the difference is, we’re not talking about them when they retire.”
After Republicans won the House in 2010, Bachmann sought, but did not secure, leadership positions on the Hill, primarily the GOP conference chairmanship, the number-four position in the House. By mid-2011, she had handcuffed her effectiveness further by launching a presidential campaign, which forced her to miss much of the work the House did that summer and fall (she did not cast a single vote during September 2011, for example). Critics say that’s indicative of her ineffectiveness as a whole.
“She never made it into any important committee leadership posts,” the DFL’s Udhal said. “She didn’t have the power to bring things forward to help citizens.”
Early Tea Party champion
But her supporters say what set her apart has been her ability to galvanize the Tea Party.
Sal Russo, the policy director for the Tea Party Express, said Bachmann was one of the first lawmakers to recognize that the Tea Party should be more than a protest movement, that in order to win in Washington, it needed to send like-minded lawmakers there first.
Bachmann delivered the first Tea Party State of the Union response in 2011, the year after she launched the Tea Party Caucus to much fanfare. But the group’s influence and activity eventually waned — it didn’t hold a single meeting between July 2012 and April 2013, and diminished so quickly that before Bachmann revived it this spring, one lawmaker was planning to launch one on his own. On “This Week” Sunday, Republican uber-strategist Karl Rove said Bachmann’s retirement “will be an opening for the Tea Party” because someone else will lead the caucus.
Active or not, Russo said the formation of the caucus was “more of a psychological step,” meant to ”show that there were members of Congress that were committed to bring down the size and cost and intrusiveness of the federal government.” And Bachmann spokesman Dan Kotman defended the caucus, saying a recent Bachmann-organized press conference on IRS targeting of conservative groups proves it’s “alive and well.”
“The most vivid example of how wildly successful the Tea Party movement as a whole has been is the fact that many of its top priorities — repealing Obamacare, balancing the budget, spending within our means — have dominated the debate in Washington,” he said.
Bachmann on Hannity
Bachmann defended her legacy a bit in an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Thursday night. (She declined an interview for this story).
“I was a strong voice: Taking on my own party, I pushed back on the bailout, I was the champion of repealing Obamacare,” she said. “On issue after issue, in dealing with the rise of Islamic jihad, I’ve been there.”
Bachmann didn’t rule out a future run for president or any other office, and in fact said it could happen. For now, though, she said that she’s only comfortable serving eight years in the House and that, “I will continue to be a very strong voice. People won’t see me go away, it’s just where will I be weighing in from, and that’s what I’m looking at now.”
She added: “I’m not going away, I’m not leaving Washington, I’m not leaving the national scene. It’s just, bringing a positive solution from a different perch. … I’m in the game for the long haul.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry