Opinion: Berman vs. Sherman: Evaluating their congressional records

Much of the debate in the San Fernando Valley contest between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman has revolved around their congressional records, but I’m having trouble deciphering them. And if it’s hard for me, after spending years writing about legislation, pity the interested voter. In their years in Congress — 29 for Berman, 15 for Sherman — they have cast many votes and introduced bills, either as a main author or collaborator. Because there’s a public record of this activity, you’d think it would be easy to look it up, rather than rely on the candidates’ speeches, charges and counter charges.

But, as David A. Fahrenthold wrote in a fascinating article in the Washington Post, the main source of a Congress member’s votes and proposed legislation is a Library of Congress Web site called THOMAS, named for Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson was an accomplished scientist as well as our third president, he would no doubt be appalled by the backwardness of his namesake site. Its clunky system, Fahrenthold wrote, permits searches of bills by name, author and subject. “But researchers can look only at one bill at a time — divorced from the patterns, history and context that make all the difference on Capitol Hill,” Fahrenthold said.

It took a Princeton freshman, Josh Tauberer, to figure out how to incorporate all this into a database.  Today, 11 years later, his site, GovTrack.us, puts it all together. While Tauberer says his site isn’t perfect, many groups depend on GovTrack.us. “What happens if he walks in front of a bus?” Daniel Schuman of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation asked Fahrenthold.

I looked up Berman and Sherman on the site. First of all, I learned that only about 4 percent of bills introduced in the House ever pass, which provides a bit of context to the Berman and Sherman boasts of effectiveness. I know that bills passed are an incomplete measure of work done in the House. Much of what members accomplish is done behind the scenes, through deal making, vote trading and calling in of favors. In addition, Berman and Sherman have often been co-authors of bills when other members took the lead and got top billing. And, as minority liberal Democrats in a House run by conservative Republicans, their power is currently severely limited. Still, that 4 percent figure is interesting and not one mentioned on the campaign trail.

Although GovTrack.us compilations go back to when Berman entered the House in 1983 and Sherman in 1997, I limited my search to 2011 and 2012. Time and space prevented a more extensive search, but interested readers can dig deeper at the GovTrack.com Web site.

In 2011 and 2012, most of the bills Berman introduced appeared to be going nowhere. President Barack Obama signed his measure allowing some Israeli investors to work in the United States, and the House passed his bill designed to promote exports. Most of his legislation went to committee, where GovTrack.us gave the bills low chances of approval, ranging from 7 percent for a bill increasing aid for Israel missile defense down to 1 percent for most of the rest of them. That doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, Berman’s proposal to give special status to foreign farm workers, given a 3 percent chance of passage, might be part of immigration reform, if that ever passes.

Sherman’s bills also went to committee, and they, too, were given a slight chance of passage. They include measures authorizing the president to stop transfers of goods and services that would hurt national security, provide a form of the Dream Act for illegal alien students, toughen sanctions against Iran, and prevent state and local governments from banning circumcision. None of his bills became law during this period.

I didn’t think this information told the whole story. Previously, Berman and Sherman had sent me lists of their legislation that they felt was important, but I wanted it in their own words. So I called Berman and Sherman and asked each of them what were their proudest accomplishments in the House.

Each gave me two. “Hansen Dam,” said Berman. He told me that in 15 years of work, he got the federal funding to turn the huge area in the northeast San Fernando Valley from a disreputable gang hangout into the popular recreational area it is today, with swimming, fishing, athletic facilities, picnic areas and other features.

Second, he said, was Iran, where Sherman has accused him of being too soft on sanctions. “My opponent will try to tear it down, but I have been the congressional leader in this effort,” he said. Success will come “when Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons. We are in the middle of this effort. They are still enriching uranium.”

For his part, Sherman said, “My two most important accomplishments consisted of blocking bad things, which is just as important as passing good bills.” He cited his part in leading in the effort to rewrite the 2008 recession bailout program — the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP — to protect taxpayers and the government from loss.  Second, he cited his work with other members to block regulations that would have made it more difficult to get a home mortgage. “The regulations would have banned mortgages for even high qualifiers unless they had 20 percent down,” he said. “That would have depressed the entire Valley economy.”

Each man is campaigning as if he were a master of Congress. But what the record shows is that it’s hard for a liberal Democrat to be Superman in this conservative House. So the fight goes on, and so does the digging by journalists, interested voters and by those dark-arts workers in the two campaigns, the specialists in opposition research. To be continued as the campaign unfolds.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).