WASHINGTON — If a lawmaker fails to make laws, have they failed to fulfill their defining purpose?

This is not a tree-falls-in-the-forest or one-hand-clapping philosophical thought experiment. Instead, it’s a question of what, exactly, Mazie Hirono has been up to the last six years.

No bill sponsored by the three-term Democratic congresswoman has ever become law, and just one of the 49 measures she’s introduced has even passed the House of Representatives, according to GovTrack.us, a legislative research site.

Now Hirono is running for U.S. Senate, and her Republican opponent, former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, has criticized her as “ineffective.” Here’s a Web video Lingle’s campaign put out a couple of weeks ago:

But is the simple number of bills passed — in this case, zero — really a fair way to measure the effectiveness of a lawmaker? Hirono’s campaign says no, and points to local projects she’s helped secure federal funding for as just one example of how a representative can represent her constituents without passing legislation.

Before we try to answer the big question at the top of the page, here are the objective facts of Hirono’s record, according to GovTrack.

  • Hirono has been the primary sponsor on 57 measures since taking office. Of those, 49 were House bills and eight were resolutions that don’t carry the force of law.
  • All eight of those resolutions were passed — five by the House and three by both the House and Senate. Examples include one 2007 statement “Honoring the University of Hawaii for its 100 years of commitment to public higher education” and another 2010 agreement “Authorizing the use of Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center for an event to celebrate the birthday of King Kamehameha.”
  • Of the 49 actual bills Hirono proposed, 47 were referred to committee and never re-emerged. One — an effort to improve early education — was reported by the committee but made it no further. And one — the Kalaupapa Memorial Act of 2008 — passed the House of Representatives but then died.

On its face, that batting average (.000) sounds somewhat unimpressive. But how does it compare to Hirono’s peer group — the other representatives who have been in Congress for six years with her?

Including Hirono, a total of 33 current representatives were sworn in to their seats in 2007. Civil Beat analyzed those members’ GovTrack profiles and found that almost half — 16, including Hirono — have yet to see a bill they sponsored become law.

District Member Party Bills Passed
(Excluding resolutions)
Bills Introduced
(Excluding resolutions)
Georgia 4 Hank Johnson (D) 5 49
Tennessee 9 Steve Cohen (D) 4 89
Pennsylvania 4 Jason Altmire (D) 4 53
Vermont At Large Peter Welch (D) 2 83
Maryland 3 John Sarbanes (D) 2 45
Virginia 1 Rob Wittman (R) 2 27
Iowa 1 Bruce Braley (D) 1 72
Connecticut 2 Joe Courtney (D) 1 60
Kentucky 3 John Yarmuth (D) 1 36
Minnesota 1 Tim Walz (D) 1 36
North Carolina 11 Heath Shuler (D) 1 34
Massachusetts 5 Niki Tsongas (D) 1 31
Illinois 6 Peter Roskam (R) 1 27
California 22 Kevin McCarthy (R) 1 26
Ohio 13 Betty Sutton (D) 1 26
Colorado 7 Ed Perlmutter (D) 1 24
Florida 11 Kathy Castor (D) 1 18
Minnesota 5 Keith Ellison (D) 0 88
Florida 9 Gus Bilirakis (R) 0 60
Connecticut 5 Chris Murphy (D) 0 51
Hawaii 2 Mazie Hirono (D) 0 49
Georgia 10 Paul Broun (R) 0 45
Colorado 5 Doug Lamborn (R) 0 41
California 11 Jerry McNerney (D) 0 40
Minnesota 6 Michele Bachmann (R) 0 40
California 37 Laura Richardson (D) 0 37
Iowa 2 David Loebsack (D) 0 35
Ohio 5 Bob Latta (R) 0 33
Indiana 2 Joe Donnelly (D) 0 31
New York 11 Yvette Clarke (D) 0 29
Florida 13 Vern Buchanan (R) 0 26
Nebraska 3 Adrian Smith (R) 0 18
Ohio 4 Jim Jordan (R) 0 17
TOTAL 30 1,376

Source: Civil Beat analysis of GovTrack.us data

The data shows how difficult it’s been for any representatives in Hirono’s class to get legislation through a very divided and unproductive Congress. The 33 reps remaining from the Class of 2007 were able to pass only 30 bills combined in nearly six years out of nearly 1,400 those members introduced collectively. That’s less than one per representative.

Even Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who as House Majority Whip is the third-ranking Republican in the chamber, has passed just one bill in six years, and that was to name a Bakersfield, Calif., post office after famed country-western bandleader Buck Owens. That was a popular measure for other representatives; Ed Perlmutter, Joe Courtney, Kathy Castor and John Yarmuth were each only able to pass a single bill naming a post office in their district.

By and large, the most productive remaining members of Hirono’s class have been Democrats who benefited from the party’s control of the House from 2007 until 2011. For part of that time, Democrats also controlled the Senate and the White House, making it much easier to push legislation through. Hirono is one of only eight remaining Democrats in her class to fail to pass a bill; 14 remaining Democratic classmates got at least one law passed.

One interesting pattern that emerges from the data is that some of the more productive members in terms of getting bills passed have been those who are most vulnerable to election challenges. House leadership in both parties often helps shore up those vulnerable members’ re-election chances by giving them favorable bills on a silver platter. Because Hirono hasn’t faced stiff competition in blue Hawaii, party leaders haven’t gone out of their way to help her build a record.

The strategy doesn’t always work. Some Blue Dog Democrats who came to Congress with Hirono in 2007, for example, were voted out of office in the Republican wave in 2010 even after passing a law or two. Those former members don’t appear in our database of still-active representatives.

While Hirono was unable to get a bill signed into law, she was one of the more active members of her class in terms of introducing legislation. Just eight of her 32 remaining classmates proposed more than her 49 non-resolution bills over the last six years. Hirono also affixed her name to more than 1,200 measures introduced by colleagues. She’s listed as a cosponsor on 1,245 bills, 60 of which were signed into law.

For comparison, here are how Hawaii’s other reps have performed in the House in the same metrics over the decades. The GovTrack database goes back to 1973, so the table reflects which years are covered for each representative, not necessarily the full years they served in Congress.

District Member Party House Years In Database Bills Passed Introduced Cosponsored
2 Patsy Mink (D) 1990-2002, 1973-77 7 421 2,052
2 Daniel Akaka (D) 1977-90 5 77 1,164
1 Spark Matsunaga (D) 1973-77 3 240 270
2 Ed Case (D) 2002-07 2 36 808
1 Neil Abercrombie (D) 1991-2010, 1986-87 1 103 3,318
1 Colleen Hanabusa (D) 2011-12 1 3 178
1 Cec Heftel (D) 1977-86 0 140 770
2 Mazie Hirono (D) 2007-12 0 49 1,245
1 Pat Saiki (R) 1987-91 0 25 486
1 Charles Djou (R) 2010-11 0 8 46
Total 19 1,102 10,337

Source: Civil Beat analysis of GovTrack.us data

All in all, Hawaii’s representatives have had limited success passing legislation over the years. In four decades, 10 different congressmen and congresswomen have passed a grand total of 19 bills. The late Patsy Mink and retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka would have to be considered the most productive — and that doesn’t even factor in Title IX, which Mink helped became law the year before the GovTrack database starts.

Hirono, again in bold, appears somewhere toward the bottom of the list, with only Republicans behind her.

But the numbers of bills passed, introduced and cosponsored are just a few of many numerical ways to measure a lawmaker’s effectiveness.

Knowlegis, a firm describing itself as “specializing in providing tools and services for enhancing effectiveness for interacting with elected officials,” developed power rankings to determine which members of Congress were able to get things done. The list, once part of Congress.org, identified Neil Abercrombie as “dead last” in his class. The rankings are no longer accessible to the public, but the criteria used to create them still exist.

The methodology breaks the determining factors into four broad categories: Position (tenure, committee assignments, leadership position); Indirect Influence (media, congressional caucuses); Legislative Activity (passage of legislation, shaping legislation through amendments); and Earmarks (securing funds for local projects in his or her district or state).

Hirono’s Senate campaign points to some of her less-visible accomplishments in Congress that would fit into some of those categories. A few examples:

  • Her office brought home more than $1 million for Hawaii constituents in the first half of 2012, though some of those funds were collaborations with others in Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
  • Hirono wrote the provision exempting Hawaii’s Prepaid Health Care Act from the Affordable Care Act, according to the Honolulu Advertiser in 2009.
  • Hirono authored an amendment exempting interisland passengers from new fees in the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011.

It’s not clear how much those actions would move the needle on Knowlegis’ power rankings. More importantly, the service makes an important caveat about the value of its quantitative ratings:

It is very important for visitors to know the following: The Knowlegis Power Rankings project team acknowledges that Members of Congress sometimes exercise power in ways that cannot be seen or measured. For example, we did not measure some variables such as effectiveness in assisting constituents in the district and state, known as “casework.” Nor did we measure legislators’ visibility in the district and state, such as public appearances or communication with voters. Finally, legislators often play important roles as liaisons with federal agencies in matters where state or local governments have a vested interest in a special project (such as military base closures). These factors — while crucial to a member’s re-election and extremely important to constituents — are hard to measure and rarely contribute to power in the House or Senate.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar for the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank and a well-regarded congressional scholar, says evaluating a representative’s work is a complicated exercise.

“There’s no easy answer to this,” he told Civil Beat Thursday. “There are 535 members of Congress and 435 of them in the House. It’s not difficult to stand out if what you want to do is say outrageous and inflammatory things. You can get on cable television and raise a lot of money. But in terms of legislative action, it’s not easy for rank-and-file members to stand out.”

Ornstein, who said he couldn’t speak directly to Hirono’s effectiveness, said generally that measuring a member’s effectiveness is “elusive.”

“It’s a big mistake to think that the folks who introduce or cosponsor the most bills are the most effective,” he said. “Some of the most effective members are the ones who work behind the scenes on the details of legislation. … So it’s one of those things where it’s a subjective judgment.”

If voters’ subjective judgment is that Hirono should be Hawaii’s next senator, she’ll have at least six years — and possibly many more — to build a record of accomplishment in Congress.

About the Author