Berman leaves Congress

After 30 years, the last day in Congress for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) was Jan. 2. Unlike some other veteran lawmakers who left office this year — including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who penned a retrospective op-ed in The New York Times on his final day, and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who told his own story during a 20-minute speech to a mostly empty Senate chamber in December — Berman appears to have made no such public pronouncements.

Requests by the Journal for an exit interview submitted to Berman’s staff met with no response, and, according to the Congressional Record, Berman’s speeches on the House floor remained focused on business-as-usual right up until the end. On Dec. 31, the former ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke on the House floor to condemn North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile last month. Berman didn’t mention it would likely be his last opportunity to do so.

His congressional colleagues did mark the occasion, however. Along with Berman, Reps. Pete Stark, Lynn Woolsey, Bob Filner, Joe Baca and Laura Richardson all left Congress last year; members of the California delegation paid homage to Berman and the others who had represented the Golden State on Dec. 12 in a special hour-long tribute on the House floor. 

 “This House will miss you because you brought honor to it in everything that you have done,” Rep. Anna Eshoo said in an emotional speech about Berman. “So it is bittersweet. No, it’s just bitter. There isn’t any sweetness to it.”

During the celebration of their colleagues’ careers and accomplishments, a number of representatives praised Berman for his well-known achievements — “Mr. Berman will be remembered as a strong friend of Israel,” said Rep. George Miller — as well as for lesser-known ones. 

Rep. Mike Honda spoke admiringly of Berman’s support for a 2007 bill, H.Res. 121, which called on Japan “to apologize and to acknowledge the tragedy endured at the hands of its Imperial Army during World War II by over 200,000 women in Asia who were forced into sexual slavery.”

While Stark and Woolsey both made remarks on Dec. 12, the Congressional Record doesn’t include any statements from Berman during that hour in the House chamber.

Berman’s silent departure stands in marked contrast to the speech he delivered at the start of his congressional career. On April 12, 1983, in concluding his tribute to another accomplished California legislator — Rep. Phil Burton, who had died two days earlier of a brain aneurysm at age 56 — Berman noted that the speech was his first as a congressman. 

“I just find it ironic and sad,” Berman said, “that in the excitement of being elected to this wonderful institution, that the first chance I have to address the body on any subject is on the passing of a man who I had hoped to spend years working with and learning from.”

Howard Berman versus Brad Sherman, by the numbers

The biggest challenge in covering the congressional race between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman lies in determining how to judge the two men and compare their performances in Congress.

In their increasingly intense contest, the two veteran Democrats each has portrayed the other as, to put it mildly, an ineffective lawmaker. Such exchanges were a major part of a recent Berman-Sherman debate at a Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association meeting, as well as at other confrontations. Reports on the campaign are based heavily on these two-way attacks, which aren’t helpful to Angelenos trying to figure out whom to choose in the polling booth. But their records are hard to quantify. As a friend who covers Congress said, “so much of what happens back here occurs out of public view.” That certainly is the case with a bill that wasn’t introduced by either Berman or Sherman. It was this year’s huge transportation bill, which will provide the Los Angeles area with a billion dollars for transit and other projects and create thousands of jobs. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer was a co-sponsor, but that term doesn’t adequately describe the extraordinary maneuvering and persuasion she had to use to get such a measure through a deadlocked Congress.

I’ve been exploring the Web site, which tries to solve the dilemma by collecting information on legislation in Congress from a variety of government sources and then crunching the data. The founder, Joshua Tauberer, started it has a hobby while an undergraduate in 2004, and it is the go-to site for statistical analysis of congressional action.

I’ve written briefly about GovTrack before, and I am drawn to it by my interest in using statistical analysis for subjects that have long resisted it — such as sports and politics. I was an early purchaser of “The Bill James Baseball Abstract,” which, beginning in 1977, brought revolutionary statistical analysis to a sport long ruled by folk wisdom and vague instinct. James’ method was the subject of the book and movie “Moneyball.”

Tauberer is the Bill James of Congress. His site includes voting records, bills introduced and passed and signed into law and committee memberships. He subjects each bill’s journey through Congress to a statistical analysis, which he translates into rankings of Senate and House members. The most interesting part is his ranking of members on leadership and ideology.

On a chart showing these two categories, Berman ranks as a moderate, slightly on the left side of center. He is high on the leadership scale, which Tauberer determines, in part, by looking at the clout of those co-signing Berman’s bills. If you get a lot influential cosigners on your bills, it makes you a leader under the Tauberer system.

Sherman is slightly to the right of Berman on the ideological scale, and below him when it comes to a leadership ranking. Berman is rated a leader, and Sherman rank and file.

Sherman might argue with that. On his bill waiving the visa requirement for Israeli visitors to the United States, he had as co-signers such Democratic leaders as Steve Israel and Jerrold Nadler of New York. And both Berman and influential Berman supporter Rep. Henry Waxman were co-signers of Sherman’s bill to prevent state and local governments from banning male circumcision.

Still, Tauberer’s leadership rankings reflect the status of the jobs they have held in Congress.

Berman, elected in 1982, was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House and now is its highest-ranking Democratic member. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the prestigious Judiciary Committee and a member of its intellectual property and Internet subcommittee, of vital interest to his many film industry constituents. Sherman, who took office in 1997, has not reached such high positions. Nevertheless, he is a member of the financial services and foreign affairs committees, and is the highest-ranked Democrat on its terrorism and trade subcommittee.

GovTrack also lists every bill that members have introduced. I read summaries of them and found what I expected, a number of moderate to liberal measures reflecting each authors’ interests. Berman introduced a version of the American Dream Act, speeding the way for children of undocumented immigrants to get an education; a measure strengthening First Amendment rights; a bill helping Salvadoran immigrants; a measure for arms control in the Middle East.

Sherman introduced measures requiring the breakup of “too big to fail” banks, hedge funds and insurance companies; imposing sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil products; toughening laws governing China trade. In his first year, he introduced a bill requiring members apply in writing for a pay raise, which undoubtedly antagonized a number of them.

Chasing down their bills is important. Reading the summaries gave me a picture of the congressmen on the job. Combining that with GovTrack’s statistical analysis, I felt I got a handle on them as congressmen. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, as GovTrack notes, of the 11,553 bills in the current Congress, only about 5 percent will become law.

Statistical devotees — baseball followers of “Moneyball” and political managers — will tell you that the intangibles also are important.

That’s why in the weeks remaining before the November election, journalists and voters should make an effort to come to see Berman and Sherman in person at their forums and debates. It takes an effort to get there, but you may be rewarded with a worthwhile show that can help you make up your mind on Election Day.

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).

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,, puts it all together. While Tauberer says his site isn’t perfect, many groups depend on “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 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 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 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).