Presidential candidates (some more than others) make hundreds of exaggerated, misleading, outdated, or downright false claims during the course of their campaigns. Assessing the accuracy of these claims is not always a quick endeavour. The process can involve digging around for data, contacting individuals, finding news stories, and comparing numerous reports and studies. And all that can be for just one claim. Repeating this process for several claims could get time-consuming.
Luckily, political fact-checking has grown over the last several election cycles. In fact, between 2008 and 2012, the number of fact-check news stories increased by more than 300 percent. Three of the biggest fact-checking sites are Fact Checker, Politifact and FactCheck.org.
While these sites do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, it’s also fun (and informative) to do a little DIY fact-checking yourself. One of the easiest things you can do on your own is learn about a candidate’s legislative record (if they are a current or former member of Congress).
Using easily accessible data, you can learn about a candidate’s policy priorities while they were in Congress, their ability to work with members of the other party, and their overall effectiveness as a legislator.
Much about a candidate’s legislative record can be learned by looking at the legislation they sponsored or cosponsored while in Congress. You can get this data by searching for the person’s name in the Members section of Congress.gov. The search will bring up a list of bills, resolutions, and amendments authored by that person during their time as a member of Congress.
To get you started, I’ve provided links to the legislative records of the more widely-covered presidential candidates.
- Hillary Clinton (107th – 111th Congress)
- Bernie Sanders (House 102nd – 109th Congress; Senate 110th – 114th Congress)
- Ted Cruz (113th – 114th Congress)
- Rand Paul (112th – 114th Congress)
- Marco Rubio (112th – 114th Congress)
Making sense of the data doesn’t require a lot of complicated analysis. Here are some tips:
Bills by subject
Once you’ve clicked through to view someone’s record, look at the left side of the page and expand the filter labeled “Subject – Policy Area.” Using Hillary Clinton’s record as an example, we can see that she had 430 bills, resolutions, and amendments related to healthcare, almost three times the number of bills in her next biggest policy area, international affairs. This suggests that healthcare was a major policy priority for her.
Bills sponsored and co-sponsored
You can also learn about who a candidate worked with while in Congress, and how often they worked with members of the other party. Try doing this: look at one of the bills the candidate sponsored and see who the co-sponsors were. Co-sponsors are other members who have agreed to help a piece of legislation pass. See how many of these co-sponsors belonged to the opposite party (it’s indicated in their title). Do this with several other bills, and you start to get a picture of who the candidate worked with, and how often they truly did work “across the aisle.”
You can also try this exercise with the legislation the candidate co-sponsored.
Status of legislation
A lot of bills don’t have enough support to make it through the legislative process, and they die. You can check the number of bills a candidate passed by expanding the filter labeled “Status of Legislation” on the left side of the page. Compare the number of “Introduced” bills to the number that “Became law.”
If you look at this metric for each of the candidates, you start to get an idea of who was an effective legislator and who was not.
*Keep in mind that a member of Congress can still be effective without being the sponsor or cosponsor of a bill that passes. They may carry a bill on a topic, but a different bill on the same topic ultimately passes. Or, a member may make an important amendment on another person’s bill that creates significant policy. A good discussion of these caveats can be found here: Did Hillary Clinton have her name on only three laws in eight years as Jeb Bush says? (Politifact)
How a candidate voted on a particular bill (also called roll call information) is something else you can easily check on your own. There are three main sources for roll call information from 1989 to the present:
- Congress.gov – Roll Call Votes by the U.S. Congress
- Senate Legislation & Records
- House Legislation & Votes
These sites present you with the roll call information only, and don’t do any further analysis, like showing you a candidate’s key votes, or how often that person voted along party lines. If you’re looking for something like that, the following sites can be useful:
- U.S. Congress Votes database (Washington Post) – this site is current only through the 113th Congress (2013-2014)
- Project Vote Smart
Fact-checking a presidential candidate’s legislative record is a refreshing way to learn about a candidate on your own terms. Viewing the legislation a candidate has authored as well as how they’ve voted exposes their legislative priorities, the other members of Congress they’ve worked with, and the amount of bipartisanship that they have (or haven’t) pursued.
Cover image by Pixabay user ClkerFreeVectorImages.