Fact Checking FactCheck.org on Palin's Speech

One of the most pointed accusations Sarah Palin lodged against Barack Obama was the fact that, despite not authoring a single significant piece of legislation, he’s found the time to write two memoirs.

But listening to him speak, it’s easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or even a reform, not even in the state Senate.

Annenberg’s FactCheck.org, who I find to typically be quite fair in their judgment, steps in to defend Obama. On this point, they write:

Palin’s accusation that Obama hasn’t authored “a single major law or even a reform” in the U.S. Senate or the Illinois Senate is simply not a fair assessment. Obama has helped push through major ethics reforms in both bodies, for example.

In advancing this argument, FactCheck.org oversteps in a significant way, and one that I believe they ought to reexamine in order to justify their argument – or failing that, to retract their point entirely.

The truth is that Sarah Palin’s statement is absolutely correct: neither Barack Obama nor the staffers in his employ (like speeches, remember, they tend to be written by others) have authored a single major law or reform.The FactCheck.org folks first turn to the last part of Palin’s statement – “even in the state Senate.” They write:

Of course, we can’t say what Palin considers “major.” But if Palin’s own ethics reforms in Alaska were important enough to highlight in her convention address, then it’s only fair to credit Obama’s efforts on that topic. In 1998 in the Illinois Senate, Obama cosponsored an ethics overhaul that bars elected officials from using their campaign funds for personal use and and was called the the first major overhaul of Illinois campaign and ethics laws in 25 years. It also bans fundraisers in the state Capitol during legislative sessions. Obama’s Republican cosponsor Kirk Dillard even appeared in an Obama ad last summer describing Obama’s skills working with members of both parties to get legislation passed.

In this paragraph, FactCheck.org take an extremely generous view of legislative authorship. Bill cosponsors typically have very little to do with the drafting of a bill – especially in a state senate. Cosponsors are typically recruited after the bill itself is crafted, as a way of creating weight behind a piece of legislation and highlighting the importance of the measure. The ideal list of cosponsors includes members whose constituencies are most effected by the bill, a handful of influential committee members and leadership members who will determine the bill’s placement on the schedule for hearings, and at least one member of the opposing party (and sometimes not more than one – you just need one to call it “bipartisan,” as John McCain knows very well).

Some of these cosponsors will, on occasion, have an issue with one aspect of the legislation; they’ll sign onto the bill in turn for a small change in their favor, or more frequently, they’ll sign on to create some political cover for themselves. But in no sense is a cosponsor an author of a piece of legislation: neither they nor their staff drafted the legislation, and they do not have any opportunity to fundamentally alter the law except in the most extreme and odd circumstances.

Here’s a perfect example for you to consider: McCain-Feingold. The BCRA legislation is famous because of the two principal sponsors – but did you know there were 41 other co-sponsors in the Senate alone? They were:

Bayh, Bingaman, Boxer, Cantwell, Carnahan, Carper, Cleland, Clinton, Cochran, Collins, Corzine, Dayton, Dodd, Dorgan, Durbin, Edwards, Feingold, Feinstein, Graham, Harkin, Jeffords, Johnson, Kerry, Kohl, Landrieu, Leahy, Levin, Lieberman, Lincoln, Mikulski, Miller, Nelson, Reed, Reid, Sarbanes, Schumer, Snowe, Stabenow, Thompson, Wellstone, and Wyden.

There’s no question that Barack Obama has worked to get bills passed, in the state Senate and in the Senate. But if Hillary Clinton had claimed during the primary campaign to have “taken the initiative to reform Washington by authoring McCain-Feingold,” something tells me Obama would have pounced on that as a vast exaggeration – which, of course, it would be.

Cosponsors are allies in a fight: what they aren’t is, by any stretch, the authors of a piece of legislation.

FactCheck.org continues:

In Washington, Obama was instrumental in helping to craft the 2007 ethics reform law that ended gifts and meals from lobbyists, cut off subsidized jet travel for members of Congress, required lobbyists to disclose contributions they “bundle” to candidates, and put the brakes on other, similar common practices.

I’ve looked through FactCheck.org’s source list on this post, and unless I’m missing something, the only citation they have to support this argument is this article from Illinois Issues, a publication so unbiased in its coverage that it has repeatedly published the works of one Barack Obama on community organizing and other topics. Needless to say, surely you would have to have a better source to claim that Obama was “instrumental” to the crafting of a piece of major legislation. You’d think.

But let’s assume my depiction of cosponsorship is dead wrong, and that charitably, as a cosponsor, Obama should receive credit as a coauthor of the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.”

There’s only one problem with that: Barack Obama was not a cosponsor of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

In other words, the only piece of legislation FactCheck.org claims as the basis for attacking Sarah Palin – their only citation for what is, by their measure, Obama’s sole significant legislative act in the U.S. Senate – is a bill he did not cosponsor, did not write, and did not do much except comment on in the press.

In fact, the only evidence that he did anything other than put pressure on the bill’s authors to include a few changed passages on bundling is that Obama participated in a few press events and conference calls about the bill. That’s really shoddy. I should hope FactCheck reconsiders this paragraph and their argument that Obama was “instrumental” in this legislative feat, because it’s the sort of thing that makes one wonder about fairness.

Finally, there’s this point:

In addition, we already noted in a recent article Obama’s efforts with Republican senators to help detect and secure weapons of mass destruction and to destroy conventional weapons stockpiles around the world, and to create a publicly searchable database on federal spending.

I’ll grant the validity of this paragraph, but I do not see how this conflicts with Palin’s statement in any way. Her argument was that Obama had not authored (or directed the authorship of – as I said, the lawyers ultimately write these things, so let’s not pick nits as some did with Palin’s speech being written by a professional in that area) a piece of significant law. This is absolutely true. There is no major piece of legislation in Obama’s resume that was authored, created, or even outlined by him – and if he were to introduce one tomorrow, that would still fail the test – it has to pass, remember, to become a law.

One does not expect Obama to match John McCain’s lengthy record of significant bills authored and successfully passed in his short elected career as a talented public speaker who happens to be an elected politician. But it’s more disappointing when you consider what a brilliant writer Obama is, and not just on matters of law or personal memoir: he’s a talented fiction writer, too.

Everyone knows Obama wrote a memoir, Dreams from My Father, covering his time in Chicago. What fewer know is that during his years as an organizer Obama was also working hard on fiction-writing. “He wrote stories about the people he was working with,” Mike Kruglik told me, “fiction that was beautiful, beautifully crafted, fantastically evocative about what it was like to be in that community, including how bleak the landscape was, how threadbare some of the institutions were, what it looked like and felt like.” I asked Kruglik if he had read the stories. “Yeah,” he answered. “[Obama] gave them to me. They were about what a pastor was doing with his church.” Kruglik says he can’t remember much beyond that — this was years ago — but given the prominent role that Obama’s pastors and his church have played in the campaign, there would probably be a great deal of interest in the stories today. But you won’t get them from Kruglik, who says he gave the stories back to Obama without making any copies.

This seems just the sort of skill that would be well-suited in crafting a major law or a reform. But we’ll have to wait and see if that comes to pass – despite FactCheck.org’s insistence, Barack Obama has not done that yet.