When it comes to signing onto legislation as cosponsors in Congress, liberals are more liberal with their pens.
Library of Congress records show wide disparities in how much legislation lawmakers choose to cosponsor. Some lawmakers have added their signatures to hundreds of their colleagues’ bills and amendments through the first seven months of this session, a National Journal Daily review has found. Others have been far more stingy.
Leading the way in the House is Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a 10-term Democrat who has attached his signature as a cosponsor to a whopping 435 bills or amendments — an average of almost two a day. In the Senate, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., leads the list with 248 cosponsorships.
“It’s got a little bit of activism to it,” said Grijalva, who cochairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, adding that he sees cosponsoring as an avenue for lawmakers in the minority party to show their support and connect with other Democrats on issues they agree on, but which likely “won’t see the light of day” in terms of a vote.
The top 10 cosigners in the House have each topped the 300-bill mark. Just one of them — Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina (310) — is a Republican.
In the Senate, the 10 most-prolific cosponsors have each signed onto at least 164 bills or amendments. All are Democrats, except GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine (187) and Roy Blunt of Missouri (185).
At the opposite end of the spectrum — not counting top House leaders, who do not typically cosponsor many bills — are two Southern Republicans. In the House, Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., in his second term, is the stingiest in cosponsoring, with just 32 measures. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., represents the low in the Senate, at 23.
For their parts, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have not cosponsored any bills or amendments yet this session, not a big departure from past practice (Boehner cosponsored three measures last session). Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has cosponsored 19 measures so far, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has cosponsored 27.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has cosponsored 38 bills and amendments, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has cosponsored 70.
Shelby’s office explained in a statement that he does not cosponsor much legislation for “procedural” reasons. “He rarely cosponsors bills upon introduction because they can change markedly in committee from what he signed onto. And if he’s not a member of the committee to which the bill is referred, he doesn’t have the ability to influence whether changes happen there,” the statement explained.
Woodall, in a statement, explained, “Since day one, purposeful cosponsorship has been my goal. Rather than signing every bill that comes across my desk, I focus on those select bills that I can be helpful pushing forward.”
Overall, records show that House Democrats averaged 146 cosponsorships in the first seven months of the session, compared with 97 for Republicans. Senate Democrats average 119 cosponsorships, compared with 94 for Republicans.
For a lawmaker proposing a bill, a high number of cosponsors — especially if those include members of both parties — is something concrete they can point to as evidence of support.
Yet the practice hasn’t always been common in both chambers, or even allowed. In fact, the House in 1909 actually banned the practice as a reform. But that was reconsidered in 1967 to allow up to 25 cosponsors per bill, and in 1978 that limit was removed.
What do cosponsorships say about a lawmaker?
There have been academic stabs at analyzing the motivations — social as well as political — behind the act of cosponsoring, resulting in a wide range of conclusions and interpretations as to why legislators publicly express support for a piece of legislation.
Some suggest lawmakers who are most active in cosponsoring tend to be less powerful legislators, often new to Congress and eager to jump on legislation offered by other lawmakers.
Other studies suggest more sophisticated underpinnings, positing that cosponsorship is one way for lawmakers to signal to those outside of Congress their degree of support on specific matters.
Some studies also go as far as to suggest there is a positive link between liberalism and frequent cosponsorship, or that prolific cosponsorship is a function of a preference for big government. Others suggest that it is, more than anything, a signal of which lawmakers are best connected within a legislative body.
“There tends to be a lot of reciprocity in cosponsorhip — you sign my bill and I’ll sign yours,” said James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California (San Diego) and the author of a 2006 study on the subject. “Thus, many of these individuals are also very likely to be ‘receiving’ cosponsorships as well. And both sending and receiving cosponsorships are signs that a legislator is socially well-connected within the chamber.”
Fowler said in an e-mail that his work showed that being well-connected in this way is important. It means a lawmaker is more likely to persuade colleagues; to take leadership roles in the party; or to seek and obtain higher office, he said.
“I think good legislators know this instinctively, that these small signs of support are baby steps towards forming the kinds of relationship one needs in order to be successful,” Fowler said. “But it is also possible that some people just mimic the strategy without having any of the other skills it would take to turn these small acts into legislative success. So it’s not always true that cosponsoring a lot is a sign of a good legislator, but most of the time it is.”
Grijalva concurs that cosponsoring often has a lot to do with personal relationships. He said he cosponsors a bill for two reasons: Either the legislation is something he supports, a statement of position to be seen both by constituents and fellow lawmakers, or it is a way to show support for and appreciation to colleagues, including newer lawmakers.
Grijalva, a Mexican-American, notes correctly that a number of the top cosponsors in the House are “people of color.” He adds, “This is a way to take some action, push back as a member of the minority party,” and help to create “placeholders” in terms of future agenda-setting.
Blumenthal, in a statement from his office, described his prolific cosponsoring as a sign of his eagerness to work with many of his colleagues on important issues, regardless of party.
“Dating back to my 20 years as Connecticut’s attorney general, my philosophy has been that I will seek to open any door to find positive solutions for the people of Connecticut,” the freshman senator said. “As a member of five oversight committees with broad jurisdiction, I have an opportunity to help veterans, consumers, seniors and students, and to lead legislative efforts on major defense and gun safety initiatives. I am proud to have worked with so many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on critical issues.”