In a debate last week in the hotly contested Sixth Congressional District race, Republican challenger Richard Tisei branded US Representative John F. Tierney a do-nothing lawmaker.
“You’ve been in Congress for 16 years. You’re the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation who’s never sponsored a bill that’s been signed into law,” Tisei said, encouraging the audience to search C-Span’s online archives for bills sponsored by Tierney.
Tierney said Tisei fundamentally misunderstood how Congress works. “Richard, if we did laws the way you think, where everybody has to have it named after themselves to count, it would be sort of strange,” said Tierney, citing “a number of substantial bills that I’ve drafted and that I’ve worked with others on.”
Tisei’s reading was statistically accurate — Tierney’s campaign could point to no bill that became law that he had filed as lead sponsor — but independent observers and Tierney supporters said it is not a worthwhile measure, missing the anonymous work that shapes major legislation while giving credit to members of Congress who sponsor bills to rename post offices or celebrate local history.
“Whether or not your name is on legislation or you’ve sponsored or been a lead sponsor is absolutely not a measure of legislative effectiveness,” said David King, who teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and chairs its training program for new members of Congress. “I’m no fan of Tierney. . . . However, on this one, Tierney’s right.”
King said it is not Tierney’s legislative record that has left him politically imperiled, with polls showing the veteran Democrat trailing his challenger in the North Shore district.
Instead, he said, it reflects the consternation swirling around Tierney’s insistence that he knew nothing about an illegal gambling ring run by his brothers-in-law. His wife, Patrice, served a month in prison and five months of house arrest last year after pleading guilty to helping one of her brothers falsify his tax filings, admitting “willful blindness” in not reporting his offshore gambling operation.
US Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce with Tierney, dismissed Tisei’s assertion that Tierney is ineffective on Capitol Hill simply because legislation does not carry his name.
“It’s a clever game if you’re not in the Congress to make a charge like his opponent’s made, but it just doesn’t reflect effectiveness,” said Miller, former chairman and now ranking Democrat on the House education and workforce committee.
Miller said he considers Tierney a “go-to guy” among the 17 Democrats on the committee, ticking off the names of three other top deputies. Tierney digs into policy on higher education and job training bills and, as a lawyer, is a dogged interrogator, Miller said. “If you get into a fight with him, you better bring your lunch,” the West Coast lawmaker said.
Tierney works largely behind the scenes, a Democrat of mid-level seniority invested in oversight hearings and the rewriting of bills at the committee level, Miller said.
After defeating Republican incumbent Peter Torkildsen in a 1996 race so close the recount stretched for weeks, Tierney has cruised to reelection every two years since, until now.
The gambling scandal and Tisei’s reputation as a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican who served 26 years in the State House have propelled Tisei to a fund-raising lead this year and boosted the former Wakefield state senator in the polls.
Tierney’s campaign, while defending his wife, has focused less on the congressman’s own record than on trying to paint Tisei as a Tea Party pawn.
Miller credited Tierney for a number of legislative measures that do not carry his name. He cited a provision in the federal health care overhaul requiring insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premium payments on medical costs, giving consumers a rebate if they overspend on administration or marketing. He also named a requirement that the states maintain at least their 2006 level of higher-education support to avoid forfeiting some federal aid.
Tierney’s campaign has recently claimed that the 80-20 provision in the Affordable Care Act is called the “Tierney Rule,” though there is scant evidence that anyone used that phrase when the bill was drafted in 2009 and 2010.
But Miller said Tierney advocated singlehandedly for that clause within the committee, one of three House committees drafting the health care legislation.
“It would not have been in the legislation except that he pushed for it,” said Miller, in a phone interview from California. The first rebates this summer totaled $1.1 billion, according to the AARP. Tierney is working on a similar measure to ensure college funds are spent in the classroom, Miller said.
Tierney also sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, specializing in national and homeland security and foreign affairs. Before Democrats lost their House majority, he was chairman of the homeland security and foreign affairs subcommittee.
In that capacity, Tierney held 65 hearings and led multiple trips to the Middle East and South Asia, helping expose billions of dollars in wasteful US contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and encouraging the transformation of the Walter Reed medical center in the aftermath of Washington Post stories revealing patient neglect, according to his campaign.
Stephen E. Flynn, codirector of Northeastern University’s Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, said Tierney took seriously work that is important to the country, if not tracked closely by voters.
Flynn, who testified often before Congress as a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, found Tierney receptive to his argument that the government needed to rethink continuing to spend many times more on ballistic missile defense than on port security and cargo inspection, a generation after the Cold War. They co-wrote an op-ed on the subject in 2008.
“I’ve done a lot with members of Congress, and these are not necessarily the kinds of issues they engage in. There’s not a whole lot of pork in them, and there’s not a lot of constituents who are fully engaged in them,” Flynn said.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.