Imagine, just now, that you are smiling your day away in Seattle and happen to come upon a bronze statue while meandering the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Not just any statue, but a statue festooned with markers of love, one that quite obviously serves as a memorial to a cherished persona. The afro’d subject may have a tie, an actual, silk tie, around its neck. Or perhaps it has been knit-bombed and is somehow wearing a panel sweater somehow attached to its torso in ways that you, not a fiber artist yourself, find disconcertingly impossible unless someone had literally stood on this sidewalk for day after day knitting the sweater directly onto the bronze. Votive candles and tea lights may be scattered round of course, though only lit for a few hours each evening. Though other times the mementoes and scattered tchotchkes are cleared away, treated as clutter, garbage to be removed by the nearby businesses who prefer a clean aesthetic. One can never be quite sure how one will encounter it.
There is only one Capitol Hill statue this beloved, which creates this level of interaction with the people who pass: The Electric Lady Studio Guitar. It may have begun life as a static bronze of Jimi Hendrix, but the locals have made it more. It is on the list of African American Heritage Sites, of course. And for some time (possibly still?) an art supply store took up the space behind it so that it might function as advertising and inspiration. Parents have photographed children sitting on the low pedestal. The heartbroken have curled up between his bronze legs, leaning against his chest or guitar. Queers on a first date have used it as a landmark for meeting each other. In short, the locals have made it what it should be: an experience.
It is, in short, a big deal.
But while talking about Jimi Hendrix is fun enough, I actually began thinking about experience because of an article over at Wonkette which reported on Kyrsten Sinema, Democratic Senator from Arizona. Sinema, it seems, thinks that there’s no reason to fix the filibuster which currently frustrates any Democratic attempt to pass significant legislation. She gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal (which occasioned the Wonkette commentary). The Wall Street Journal’s article following that interview said this:
The Senate’s job is “to craft bipartisan solutions to solve the challenges we face in our country,” [Sinema] said. Asked how she thought both parties could come together, given how polarized the country has become, especially over elections, she responded: “I actually think I’ve got a pretty good track record.”
Well that got me thinking, as many people would believe I am never wont to do. What possible experience could Sinema have wrangling Republican votes on difficult issues? She’s only been a Senator for two years, after all, and at least some of that time must have been spent learning the job. And this isn’t just a general ability to work with people or a general confidence in her own deal-making ability. She’s got a track record that proves she can help the parties come together.
So what is this track record? Well, if you’re anything like me (GODS, SAVE YOURSELF! DON’T BE LIKE ME!) you would immediately go to the congressional record and start searching for legislation sponsored by Sinema to figure out how often a bill she sponsors becomes law and how many Republican votes she gets for such things along the way. Unfortunately I am something like me, and thus it was to Congress.gov that I went, plowing through the database of the 116th and 117th Congresses’ actions.
Both of my readers will be happy to learn that I spent less than 3 hours on this project, and even stopped to make some tea in the middle. At the end I learned some things that may surprise you, and may also surprise the fuck out of you.
Sinema introduced 87 pieces of legislation, according to the congressional record (assuming the electronic version has not been corrupted somehow). Of those 87, precisely 2 became their own laws. (Check my work.) Now, it’s possible (even probable) that some of those other bills were ditched because the same wording was adopted as an amendment to another bill in committee. But of course if that happened, the bill that eventually passed would not have been her work. Indeed, that might have been the dealmaking of another Senator who, being crafty and wise in the ways of legislating, offered to incorporate some small thing for which Sinema was advocating independently in order to guarantee Sinema’s vote on their larger effort. Such an amendment, then, wouldn’t indicate a track record belonging to Sinema for getting things done, but rather for the other Senator who brought Sinema along, granting a small concession to get what they wanted.
So let’s stick to just those 2 laws that Sinema introduced and which then passed to become law. How many votes from Republicans do you think they got, when you total committee votes and floor votes? How many in the Senate is the most relevant question, since she believes her track record indicates she can get past the filibuster, but just for fun, let’s throw in the number of votes in the House.
The grand, grand total? Committee and floor? You really want to know?
“But how can this be?” the more knowledgeable of my two readers might ask. After all, Both of her successful measures passed in the summer of 2019 when the Republicans had the majority. Wouldn’t at least 4 votes have been needed for the bill to pass? Wouldn’t she have needed to get at least 1 or 2 votes in committee?
Both of her bills were extremely minor things. One expanded the membership criteria for people seeking to join the American Legion, while at the same time extending anti-discrimination law to cover staff hires at those Legion halls. It did nothing else. The other was even less impactful, if that can be managed. The VA backs mortgages for some veterans, a lot of veterans, actually. Some of those veterans will choose to refinance a VA backed loan into another VA backed loan. That doesn’t happen all that often in the grand scheme, but it happens. Probably several thousand a year, maybe a few tens of thousands if we’re being generous. Sinema’s bill relating to VA refinancing modified the earliest possible date that a VA loan can be refinanced into another VA loan. The time period varies with billing periods and such, so isn’t always the same from person to person, but was always less than 8 months, barring seriously delinquent payments (and if your payments are delinquent, you aren’t going to qualify for a refi anyway). The wording allows some room for interpretation to my eye. While a banking or mortgage professional would probably be able to immediately tell you just how much earlier the VA can now refi a VA loan, from my inexpert point of view it looks to be 2-3 weeks in most cases, and never more than 2 months.
How many people are looking to refinance a VA loan between 6 and 8 months after they took out that VA loan? I can’t imagine many. And for some who might wish to because of a loss of job or some other family crisis, they won’t qualify. So at most this reduces payments a bit on an already existing loan for 2 months, and it probably only reduces a single payment by changing the interest rate a couple weeks earlier than it would otherwise, making the first month of reduction not even as large as subsequent months’ reductions.
In short, this is a bill that people working on trillion dollar health care economy restructuring can safely ignore, knowing that whatever they’re working on is going to have more impact on their constituents than Sinema’s VA loan bill.
And that’s the thing. Many pieces of legislation are fairly trivial. If no one finds it important enough to stop, such legislation can become law by default when the presiding Senator calls for a voice vote or unanimous consent on a subject (depending on parliamentary procedure, such consent can sometimes pass multiple motions at once). The weird thing is that on a voice vote, even if someone shouts “No!” the presiding officer will usually deem the measure to pass and the one or two shouts to be aberrations from a general apathy. Only if someone shouts “No!” and then follows that up with a demand for a recorded vote will the passage actually be delayed or stopped.
Both of Sinema’s bills passed by unanimous consent or voice vote in the relevant Senate committee and on the Senate floor. So not once, not one time, did she need to or manage to get a Republican senator to go on the record voting for a bill she sponsored that later became law. Her track record of getting Republican votes to pass a bill into law is zero track record. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kyrsten Sinema is not experienced.
Look, I’m as happy as anyone that we have an out bisexual woman in the Senate, but when someone insists that they have a track record of doing something, someone out there, even if it’s someone as nutty as me, is eventually going to track down that record. In Sinema’s case, this isn’t even exaggeration. If she had gotten one Republican vote one time on one real but non-controversial bill, that would at least be a non-zero number that she could stretch out to cover ten hypothetical votes on a controversial but hypothetical bill that is hypothetically subject to the filibuster.
But this number of wrangled votes is zero. As Jayne famously said, “Nothin times nothin, carry the nothin” turns out to be nothing. This isn’t exaggeration on her part. This is a lie. And it’s a bad lie. And it’s a lie that should be called out by reporters.
The only reason that this wasn’t, of course, is that the WSJ favors continued Republican power, and the filibuster favors Republicans for the foreseeable future. They wanted a Democrat to say that the filibuster is no barrier to legislating, or at least not an unreasonable barrier, not one that needs be repealed or reformed. And they got that Democratic statement from Sinema. They weren’t going to fuck it up by reporting the relevant context. But it is a lie, and it should have been called out by the reporter.
Sinema, do better.
As an appendix, when I first did this research I wrote up an imagined interchange between Sinema and a Real Journalist from Another Reality. All the important information is above, but if one of you wishes to read that dialog for your own amusement, I reproduce it here:
Sinema: We in the Senate need to craft bipartisan solutions to solve the challenges we face in our country
RJAR: Hmm. Well, how do you think both parties can come together, given how polarized the USA has become? Especially over elections, but also on other issues.
Sinema: I actually think I’ve got a pretty good track record.
RJAR: So, you’re saying you can bring people together in the Senate to pass bipartisan legislation even with the filibuster still in place.
Sinema: I do, but even if I didn’t I think you have to try.
RJAR: So, you’re saying that other democrats haven’t tried to get Republican support on issues that need legislative solutions?
Sinema: Oh, no, I’m sure they’ve tried, but I think we’ve reached a point where it seems easier to give up than to fight through to success.
RJAR: But you have a good bipartisan track record, one that makes you think you can pass legislation despite the filibuster’s 60 vote requirement?
Sinema: I think so.
RJAR: So how many bills have you introduced that later became law with 60 votes?
Sinema: Well, I’ve sponsored 1,837 bills–
RJAR: That number includes co-sponsorships, right? Bills other people were actually responsible for producing and that you attached your name to later. Isn’t that correct?
Sinema: Yes, co-sponsorships–
RJAR: I guess I’m asking for a time when you initiated a bill and shepherded it through passage. The number of times that happened, and of those, how many passed with 60 or more votes.
Sinema: Well, both of the the bills I sponsored that became law were passed without objection.
RJAR: Both? So your track record here is that you’ve sponsored successful legislation twice?
Sinema: Yes, twice.
RJAR: That doesn’t seem like a particularly long track record.
Sinema: Well, I’ve had only 2 years here as of yet.
RJAR: Right, so you don’t have much of a track record is what I’m saying. But you’re saying the opposite. You’re saying you do have a track record of overcoming the filibuster to pass bipartisan legislation, or at least a track record that would make people think that you can do that, if given a chance.
Sinema: And I think I can.
RJAR: So let’s look at those 2 bills. One allowed membership in the American Legion to veterans who served outside of a declared war, is that right?
Sinema: Yes. People who serve today often fight terrorism rather than a particular national enemy and it’s unfair to assume that they are not equally risking their lives just because the enemy is a Bin Laden instead of the president of a country, like Hitler.
RJAR: Well, Hitler wasn’t a president, but let’s leave that aside. That’s a fine bill. What was the vote.
Sinema: Uh, it passed without objection, as I said.
RJAR: So there was no formal vote?
Sinema: No. It received unanimous support in the Senate and the House.
RJAR: Well, it was a tiny bill that did only a very small thing considered entirely uncontroversial. It also had no effect on the budget, correct? The bill spent no money?
Sinema: Yes, that’s correct.
RJAR: And the other bill?
Sinema: It modified the Veteran’s Administration’s requirements for home refinances.
RJAR: Oh, right. It changed the earliest date the VA could consider a home refi from 210 days after the first payment is made on a loan to 210 days after the first payment is due, correct?
RJAR: So it didn’t change who qualifies for a refinance, it just changed by a couple weeks more or less when that refinance would occur, assuming that someone even wanted a refi less than 8 months after taking out a mortgage. Correct?
RJAR: And that was also passed with no official votes at all? Just unanimous consent and a voice vote where it automatically passes unless presiding congressmember hears enough people shouting negatives that they decide to record votes?
Sinema: Yes, and there was never any objection.
RJAR: But there was also no requirement to record a vote, or even for congressmembers to show up for the voice vote. Correct? So people could have opposed it, but thought it was such a small, inconsequential bill that showing up to oppose it wasn’t worth their time. After all, changing the start date for a couple hundred refinances a year by a maximum of 2 weeks plus or minus in a country with millions of property mortgages issued a year is ultimately going to have less impact on the country than many other things a congressmember could affect.
Sinema: I don’t think the effect is small to the families who are applying for these mortgages.
RJAR: This is a refinance. You think that living under the terms of a 7-month old mortgage for one extra month is something that has a large effect? If they’ve got the credit to get the mortgage originally and to refi it after less than a year, then they have the credit to put an extra hundred dollars in interest on a credit card, correct?
Sinema: 100 dollars is 100 dollars. Especially now with the coronavirus and so many people out of work–
RJAR: No, I get it. A hundred dollars is a hundred dollars. That matters to your constituents, but this is only a few constituents a year, vs. something like the recent stimulus bill that provided $1400 dollars to every one of your millions of constituents, not $100 to a couple dozen. I mean, that’s almost the difference between giving $1400 to every person and giving $1400 to the entire state of Arizona. And in the second case the money isn’t even coming out of the federal treasury.
Sinema: Well, what is your point here?
RJAR: I’m trying to flesh out your track record. You’re saying that your track record gives us reason to believe you can pass bills with 60 votes, but you’ve never sponsored legislation that passed a vote at all. The ones you passed – and there are only 2 – were extremely modest bills that would have gone entirely unnoticed in the national conversation if you hadn’t asked us to take a specific look at your record.
Sinema: I think two is a great start, and I think you’re overlooking the importance of getting everyone in congress to agree.
RJAR: But isn’t it possible that, even though you’ve gotten congress to agree that your two bills are worthwhile, or at least not worth the effort to oppose them, that since there was never any recorded vote that your “track record” in passing legislation doesn’t include any experience at all in getting Republican votes for things that are necessary to accomplish? As of yet, you haven’t gotten one single Republican to provide one single on-the-record vote for one single bill you’ve sponsored. So what specifically is it about your track record that shows you have the ability to wrangle Republican cooperation for important national priorities where Republicans and Democrats have different priorities?
Sinema: Well, I think the Arizona voters trusted me to do just that, and their judgement deserves some respect.
RJAR: So the track record you’re referring to is that you haven’t gotten a single Republican senator’s vote on a single piece of legislation you’ve passed, but you did manage to get elected to the Senate, so that’s enough?
Sinema: Well, I think that’s enough of this interview.