WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a straightforward question.
“Name three bills or amendments that you have gotten passed that are the most beneficial to the people of the 6th Congressional District,” GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann was asked by St. Cloud Times reporter Dave Aeikens.
The answer wasn’t.
“I was involved in a foster care amendment to support and encourage people in foster care. It is a very important issue. Sen. Mary Landrieu and I are working on the Haiti situation. We are trying to put together initiatives so that children can actually go into homes and not stay in institutions their whole life. I was able to pass this resolution honoring people in foster care. I am in the deep minority in Congress and a fairly new freshman, so I don’t have substantive bills that I have passed. I would love to. The very first bill I introduced was the Health Care Freedom of Choice Act.”
That third-to-last sentence — “I am in the deep minority in Congress and a fairly new freshman, so I don’t have substantive bills that I have passed” — has in just a few days become the center of the opposition against Bachmann this year. (It should be noted that Bachmann isn’t a freshman, she’s a legislative sophomore.)
“We’ve been saying all along in our campaign is that Michele Bachmann isn’t working for the people, and that she’s pursuing a national agenda and not working for the district,” said Trevor Willett, communications director for Maureen Reed.
“Michele has spent her time in Congress building her celebrity status, and she’s got some agenda, but it’s not what she’s elected to do,” agreed Zach Rodvold, campaign manager for state Sen. Tarryl Clark.
Since Bachmann didn’t exactly give it, here’s the answer to Aeikens’ question — the first part of it anyways.
In her first term in office, Bachmann worked with Democrat Tim Mahoney of Florida to pass the Credit and Debit Card Receipt Clarification Act, which spokesman Dave Dziok said aimed to “bring an end to frivolous lawsuits aimed chiefly at small businesses.” President Bush signed it into law in June, 2008.
According to the Library of Congress, Bachmann has succeeded in getting exactly zero bills passed so far this session. She’s had one resolution adopted by the House, “expressing support for designation of the month of September as ‘National Hydrocephalus Awareness Month.’“
She has had a few amendments passed, among the most famous of which aimed to prevent groups like ACORN from sitting on a proposed consumer advisory panel on financial protection and making them ineligible for certain federal grants.
But most of her legislation, like her health-care reform bill that would make all health care costs tax deductible and allow the purchase of insurance across state lines, has been introduced and referred to committee, never to be heard from again.
“Now if Democrats decide they’re not going to reach across the aisle and play ball, then what is she going to do?” Dziok asked. “But at least she’s out there and trying.”
Minnesota’s other Republicans have had similar success rates with original legislation this term. Freshman Republican Erik Paulsen has seen one piece of stand-alone legislation pass the House this year — though it has stalled in the Senate. Rep. John Kline has had no bills and just a single resolution pass, that one “Supporting the goals and ideals of Veterans of Foreign Wars Day.” [PDF]
Kathryn Pearson, political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said the Bachmann’s lack of a legislative footprint isn’t surprising.
“Obviously, if you’re a minority member it’s harder to get a bill passed,” Pearson said.
Lawmaking isn’t the only way to measure effectiveness, Pearson said. Another measure is how much money has been sent back to the district via appropriations earmarks.
“Members of Congress who don’t pursue earmarks for political purposes often face political consequences for not bringing federal dollars back to their district,” Pearson said, though noting that “she may score some political points” for not requesting any earmarks.
Bachmann makes it a point to not request appropriations earmarks — neither do Kline or Paulsen, for that matter.
“I don’t think she’s in it to see her name in the history books about what she can get named after her in Minnesota,” Dziok said.
Unlike, say, former Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, whose influence can still be seen every time someone flies to Alaska and lands at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Or Senate Democrat Robert Byrd, for whom much of the state of West Virginia seems to be named.
A change in campaign tactics
While she may have a thin legislative resume and doesn’t have much to show in the earmark department, Bachmann is without peer when it comes to being a spokeswoman for the issues she believes deeply in.
“I can’t think of another sophomore in Congress with as high of a national presence,” Pearson said. “Really, it’s hard to think of another rank and file member that has as high of a national profile as she does.”
Bachmann has emerged as a leader in the Tea Party movement, decrying federal deficit spending and launching herself full-throat into the health care debate. They’re not issues specific to the 6th District, but Dziok pointed out that “if they affect people throughout the country, they affect the residents of the 6th District as well.”
She’s a mainstay on conservative radio and television shows hosted by Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. She regularly gets asked to speak around the country — last weekend she taped a message for state Republican convention in Pennsylvania while personally attending an event in North Dakota. Perhaps most notably this year, Bachmann missed President Obama’s question time with House Republicans to head to California for a previously scheduled trip filled with rallies and fundraisers.
Officials with both the Clark and Reed campaigns said they plan to run against Bachmann on her celebrity status — specifically questioning how much time and energy she’s actually devoting to the 6th District.
That would represent a shift from the tactics of prior Democratic campaigns.
Twice now, Democrats have run against Bachmann on charges that she’s too conservative for the 6th District, a slightly right-of-center district that in 2008 gave 53 percent of its vote for president to Republican John McCain.
Democrats haven’t been able to win on that message yet. Bachmann pulled out a three-point win over Democrat El Tinklenberg last time despite a late gaffe suggesting members of Congress should be investigated for possibly being anti-American.
“All of her elections have been multi-million dollar elections, and we’re expecting this to be one as well,” Dziok said.
As to what the race will ultimately hinge on, Dziok said voters will ask themselves “what has my representative done to protect my wallet, protect my health care, things like that.”
But this time, with a campaign aimed squarely at her celebrity status and legislative record (and armed with Bachmann’s own quote), Democrats think they’re in with a chance.
“I think that people who have supported her in the past are going to take another look,” Rodvold said. “I think that she was elected to do a job, and people will look and see if she’s done it.
“If she wants to be some sort of a talking head or celebrity, that’s fine, but that’s not what she was elected to do,” Rodvold said.
“I think it’s definitely true that now you have it — in her own words — that she hasn’t delivered for her district,” Willett said. “It definitely is going to be something that’s going to be an issue in the campaign.”
Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.