Joe O’Dea speaks at 2022 Denver Metro Chamber candidate forum at the University of Denver, Oct 12, 2022. O’Dea is campaigning for the U.S. senator position for Colorado. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)
In Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate in Colorado, Republican challenger Joe O’Dea saved his most pointed attack on incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet for his closing statement, after Bennet would have the ability to respond.
“Bennet passed one bill — one bill — in 13 years that he wrote,” O’Dea claimed.
In one of the only tense moments in what otherwise was a night of civil exchanges at Grand Junction’s Colorado Mesa University, a frustrated Bennet interrupted O’Dea: “That’s completely untrue.”
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Bennet was right. O’Dea’s false claim — which is also being spread by his campaign staff and allies, and appears in a new TV ad — rests on a misleading search result on a government website and a misunderstanding of how legislation is routinely passed in Congress.
Dozens of individual pieces of legislation sponsored by Bennet have been signed into law after they were added via amendment to larger appropriations or omnibus bills, according to a Newsline review of the congressional record.
Many of the approved amendments are easily traceable using functions on Congress.gov, the official website maintained by the Library of Congress. Others are harder-to-track cases in which Bennet-authored legislation appeared in a larger bill as it was newly introduced, or won passage in a companion bill from the House of Representatives.
The legislation includes the expanded child tax credit, first introduced by Bennet in 2017 as the American Family Act, and incorporated as a one-year benefit in the 2021 American Rescue Plan. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the $550 billion bipartisan spending package passed by Congress later that year, included at least seven major provisions that originated as Bennet-sponsored legislation.
Sections from many of those bills, like a measure aimed at increasing broadband access, were copied almost word-for-word into the text of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Others, like a Bennet-sponsored proposal to regulate orphaned oil and gas wells, underwent more significant revisions before passage.
Following Tuesday’s debate, the Bennet campaign said in a press release that the Democrat, who was appointed to his seat in 2009 and won reelection the following year, had passed at least 101 pieces of legislation into law, 82 of which had bipartisan support. Newsline had independently verified the passage of more than 40 such bills at the time of publication.
The O’Dea campaign did not respond to a request for comment. O’Dea’s communications director, Kyle Kohli, continued to spread the false claim following the debate, as did the state and national Republican parties.
“Once again, Joe O’Dea is lying to the people of Colorado to get ahead,” Bennet spokesperson Georgina Beven said in a statement. “Just this Congress alone, (Bennet) passed his legislation to drastically cut child poverty, expand access to high-speed internet for Coloradans in rural and underserved areas, grow domestic clean energy jobs and combat climate pollution, protect our forests and watersheds to prevent wildfires, and establish Camp Amache as a National Historic Site.”
With Election Day less than two weeks away, O’Dea’s false claim also features heavily in a new campaign ad.
The ad features video from an Oct. 17 interview in which 9News anchor Kyle Clark repeated the claim while posing a question to Bennet.
“When you look back at 13 years in the Senate and you have one bill to your name, does that disappoint you?” Clark asked.
“Your research is completely inaccurate,” Bennet replied, according to full video of the interview. “I’d suggest you go back and check your research.”
To back up its claim, the O’Dea campaign cites a specific search result on Congress.gov, which displays the number of standalone bills sponsored by Bennet that were passed and signed into law. The “sponsor” of a bill in the House or Senate refers only to the member who introduces the bill on the floor, and indicates little about its authorship; proposed legislation is often drafted collaboratively by multiple senators and representatives, who may join as cosponsors.
Of the 28 sitting senators who took office between 2007 and 2011, over half have been the sponsor of fewer than eight bills, according to this metric. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut match Bennet with a single standalone bill passed, while Sen. Rand Paul’s total is zero.
Higher figures, meanwhile, show little correlation with policy impact. Two of the 10 standalone bills that are returned in a similar search for former GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who took office in 2015, involved the renaming of a post office and a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Denver.
Meanwhile, the Great American Outdoors Act — one of Gardner’s signature legislative accomplishments and the centerpiece of his 2020 reelection bid — doesn’t appear in the search. That’s because Gardner introduced his legislative text via amendment, and the vehicle for the act’s final passage was a House-originated bill.
The Congress.gov measure also fails to capture yet another common avenue for a bill’s passage — the attachment of a piece of legislation to appropriations packages, as members seek to use the leverage of must-pass spending bills to force votes on their priorities. A Bennet-authored bill to protect public lands in the San Juan National Forest, for example, was passed as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, while wildfire mitigation legislation he sponsored was incorporated into the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.
“I would put my record of bipartisanship and of civility up against any other member of the Senate,” Bennet said during Tuesday’s debate. “And if you send me back there, I’ll continue to do it.”
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