Congress

How a handful of vulnerable incumbents got bills signed into law

Bipartisanship is key, according to Democrats who got bills through the Senate

From left, Democrats Tom O’Halleran, Antonio Delgado and Lucy McBath are in the DCCC’s Frontline program for vulnerable members. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)

House Democrats frequently complain about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking bills they’ve passed, but 30 of the 56 measures that have been signed into law so far this Congress have been theirs.

Some of those bills include bipartisan, bicameral spending agreements needed to keep the government operational or extensions of critical government programs, while others represent policy needs members have identified. 

Getting their bills signed into law is especially important for members from swing districts to demonstrate they can work across the aisle and across the Capitol to get things done.

So far this Congress only eight of the 56 enacted measures have been sponsored by members considered vulnerable for reelection in 2020, as identified by the party campaign committees. Four of those were bills to rename post offices.

All eight were House bills, as none of the 16 Senate measures signed into law this Congress had sponsors in either party considered vulnerable for reelection this cycle.

Of the 40 House bills signed into law, 30 were sponsored by Democrats, including five from members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents. The other 10 bills were sponsored by Republicans, including three from members of the House GOP’s Patriot Program for incumbents facing tough races.

If you don’t count the four post office-renaming bills — one each from Democratic Reps. Susie Lee of Nevada and Elaine Luria of Virginia and two from Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York — then there have been only four bills signed into law this year sponsored by vulnerable House incumbents. 

Those four were led by Democrats Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Antonio Delgado of New York and Lucy McBath of Georgia, and Republican Andy Barr of Kentucky.

How they did it

McBath and Barr were unavailable for interviews, but O’Halleran and Delgado spoke with CQ Roll Call about their efforts to get their bills enacted. 

O’Halleran got the entire Arizona congressional delegation, which is almost equally split between Democrats and Republicans, to sign on to his bill to add Flagstaff and Yuma to the list of locations where federal court proceedings can be held in Arizona.

His 1st District is the size of the entire state of Illinois, O’Halleran said, noting that his constituents — including members of several Native American tribes who often have to deal with matters in federal court — previously had to travel hundreds of miles for such proceedings.

O’Halleran’s bill passed through the House and Senate with bipartisan support.

“Most of the bills that have gone through, there’s a sense of bipartisanship to them,” he said. 

Delgado’s bill also originated from constituents’ needs. With roughly 5,000 farms in his rural New York district, Delgado formed an Agriculture Advisory Committee and had been hearing a lot of concerns from family farmers about the impacts tariffs and ongoing trade wars were having on their businesses. 

Through discussions with his colleagues on the House Agriculture Committee about ways in which Congress could help provide some relief to farmers, Delgado introduced a bill to raise the cap for debt that can be covered under Chapter 12 bankruptcy from $3 million to $10 million to account for increased inflation and land prices. 

Delgado cited House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, Wisconsin GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and several freshman members of both parties for helping get the bill through the chamber. Across the Capitol, he said he worked with Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who sponsored a companion bill, and his home-state senator, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, to secure its passage.

“It was a bipartisan bill. In a divisive partisan climate, you’ve got to start there,” Delgado said. “You’ve got to start in an area where you’re going to find some common ground. You’re going to find opportunities to build consensus. And we were able to do that early, and because of that we were able to build momentum. We worked hard to get it done.”

McBath’s office also touted bipartisanship as key to getting her measure, the Honoring American Veterans in Extreme Need, or HAVEN, Act, signed into law.

She worked closely with Florida Rep. Greg Steube, the lead Republican co-sponsor in the House, and across the Capitol with Sens. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, on her bill. It exempts veterans’ disability payments made by the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments  from bankruptcy means testing the way Social Security disability benefits are.

Barr’s bill to reduce credit hour requirements for a science, technology, engineering and math scholarship for veterans from 128 to 120 to better align with the structure of most undergraduate programs also had bipartisan support.

Perception vs reality

O’Halleran was a Republican when he served in the Arizona Legislature, but he switched parties before running for Congress. He said he’s sought to work across the aisle to create good public policy throughout his career. In his freshman and now his sophomore terms, O’Halleran has been part of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group devoted to crafting compromise legislation.

“There’s a perception out there that we all dislike each other,” he said. “The reality is, on a lot of issues, we can work together.”

Neither O’Halleran nor Delgado would say they had plans to tout their bills on the campaign trail, with the latter noting that he’s focused on addressing the needs of the community, not campaigning.

“I will probably not use this bill in a campaign process because we’ve had so many other things that we’ve been able to accomplish,” O’Halleran said, citing budget items and grant programs as examples. The Democrat has already drawn several primary and general election challengers. 

Although the bills — now laws — described above are not the type to get national media attention, they illustrate that behind all the public partisan rancor, there is still some bipartisan cooperation occurring in Congress.

The members who’ve seen some success getting their bills signed into law aren’t looking to stop there. 

Delgado, for example, said he is now working on getting through the Senate a House-passed bill that would create a one-stop shop website to help small-business owners comply with federal regulations.

He declined to offer specific advice for his House colleagues looking to do the same with their bills that have stalled, saying he can only speak to his approach of keeping the focus on the needs of his community. 

O’Halleran, however, had a simple prescription: “Work with people.”

“Try to find those commonalities that allow you to work in a way that is representative of what America is,” he said. “We’re all neighbors. We’re all in this together, and we have to find ways to move the process along.”

George LeVines contributed to this report.

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