Washington – In an increasingly polarized Congress, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has figured out ways to get laws passed.
Since President Donald Trump took office, the candidate from Minnesota has been either the chief sponsor or the lead Democrat on 34 bills that he signed into law.
“OK, that’s a first up here,” Klobuchar said in the first presidential Democratic debate last month, contrasting her rate of success with that of her rivals. “I get things done.”
The Minnesota Democrat has made her ability to move legislation in Washington a major selling point in her campaign for president, even if few of her legislative achievements have grabbed big headlines on the national stage.
None of the Klobuchar legislation passed into law in the Trump era has become fodder in the presidential election, but it provides a good snapshot of where she’s focused as a lawmaker. It’s a record that has been largely aimed at good government, if largely bereft of controversy.
A leading example was a measure to create a position for a human trafficking prevention coordinator at the U.S. Department of Transportation. It was one of several Klobuchar proposals aimed at reducing sex trafficking.
A few other bills were aimed at helping crime victims, including a successful effort to require hotels and other large buildings to ensure that anyone dialing 911 from their internal phones don’t need to dial “9” to get an outside line.
On one high-profile issue, Klobuchar was the lead Democrat on the push to provide funds to break a nationwide backlog of rape kits for investigating sexual assaults.
Absent a signature piece of legislation that could help her break through the background buzz of a nationwide contest, Klobuchar has been looking for other ways to distinguish herself in the large field of competitors. A pile of bills passed is one way to sell herself to voters tired of the perpetually gridlocked government.
“I think it is one of the underrated things right now in our politics, and I think it does matter to Democratic voters,” Klobuchar said in an interview as she readies for the second Democratic debate on Tuesday. “When you have someone like Trump who really hasn’t been able to get much done, things he promised like infrastructure or lower prescription drug prices — that does matter. Voters want to put someone in there who knows what they’re doing.”
Political analysts note that given contemporary voter divisions on major issues such as immigration, health care and education, the odds are long for passage of any truly epoch-changing measures in the current Congress.
The Klobuchar campaign provided the list of 34 bills, which the Star Tribune checked against the Library of Congress website. Of those bills, she was the lead sponsor on six and the lead Democrat on 17. Klobuchar was lead sponsor of the other 11 bills, which were later folded into larger pieces of legislation.
Peter Hanson, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle and a political-science professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, reviewed the list of Klobuchar’s legislative wins since Trump took office. “It’s a very solid list of bills that I would describe as being at a mid-level of importance,” said Hanson, who has attended a Klobuchar campaign event in Iowa but is not yet supporting any candidate.
That points to what has been a frequent line of attack for Klobuchar’s critics: that her emphasis on issues around consumer protection, product safety and other narrowly focused, generally bipartisan initiatives has been at the expense of pursuing ambitious change. Among Minnesota Republicans, she’s been dubbed “the senator of small things.”
“She always tried to avoid anything controversial,” said Preya Samsundar, an Iowa-based spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “But if a dog dies on an airplane, she’s the first one to step up.”
That kind of criticism has not slowed Klobuchar’s success in Minnesota, where she has consistently been the most popular statewide politician over three statewide elections. First elected to the Senate in 2006, Klobuchar was reelected in 2012 and 2018. In that time, Klobuchar has sponsored 101 bills that were made into law.
That distinguishes her from many in the Democratic field: According to a March analysis by the business journalism website Quartz, Klobuchar had more bills that became law than any of the other Democratic candidates who are or were members of Congress — including fellow senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
It’s likely Klobuchar has since been displaced by former Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years and chaired several powerful committees.
A recent study by Vanderbilt University named Klobuchar the most effective Democratic senator in the 2017-18 congressional cycle.
“A lot of it is just looking at what people are talking about and what they want to get done,” Klobuchar said. “That is a big arrow to have when you go to other senators or the White House.”
Klobuchar’s first big lawmaking success was as lead Senate sponsor of federal legislation to respond after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, in Minneapolis. The bill ensured 100% federal responsibility for rebuilding costs and waived federal disaster relief spending limits to make that possible.
Other focuses include agriculture, veterans issues, consumer rights of air travelers and efforts to recruit more women into scientific fields. She took the lead on reforming how Congress deals with sexual harassment claims, putting more financial onus on the harassers. She worked to pass new money for school safety and helped shepherd federal dollars for states to guard against threats to election security and replace outdated voting systems.
“I think to the extent that her claim is, look, I’ve got my nose to the grindstone, I’m reaching across the aisle to make it happen — this is a track record that supports that claim,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank. “These are targeted, doable, plausible issues, and they will make a difference in the lives of people.”
That summons another of Klobuchar’s early successes: She led the effort in 2007 to ban the kinds of swimming pool drains that disemboweled a 6-year-old girl in Edina who later died.
“Since that bill passed, no kid has died from a pool-drain malfunction,” Klobuchar said.
Harder to find on Klobuchar’s list of accomplishments is the kind of sweeping legislation that remakes American society. As Binder said: “There’s no Medicare here. There’s no Affordable Care Act here.”
Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and former U.S. Senate aide, said that isn’t the best measure of a senator’s effectiveness.
“Appraising a senator’s performance by how much major legislation they sponsor is unrealistic and unfair given the polarized environment of the present-day Senate,” Baker said.
In other words, no one is passing many major bills these days.