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EYE ON GOVERNMENT: In campaign season, record of success is all about perspective

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Posted: Sunday, October 7, 2012 5:00 am

An exchange between two Congressional candidates this week took voters deep into the weeds of bills, resolutions and amendments — in other words, right into the ways and means by which Congress actually runs the country when its members aren’t busy issuing rhetoric-filled press releases.

It was probably a strange trip for anyone unfamiliar with the legislative process. But for voters looking to make up their minds based on Rep. Tom Reed’s actual record, it was probably a trip worth taking.

The dueling press releases started flowing Monday, when Nate Shinagawa, Reed’s Democratic challenger in the new 23rd Congressional District, criticized the Corning Republican for “inaction.” Whether that allegation holds up depends on your definition of action, and on whether you give Reed credit for efforts as well as results.

Shinagawa’s case rests on Reed’s failure to pass his proposals as standalone bills. It also rests on the distinction between bills, which Reed hasn’t gotten passed, and resolutions and amendments, which he has.

You can guess which one Shinagawa mentions.

“Congressman Tom Reed has spent two years in Congress, sponsored over 50 pieces of legislation, and none of the bills he has sponsored have become law, let alone passed the House even when his own party is in power,” Shinagawa said. “We need someone that’s going to propose legislation that actually has a chance of getting passed.”

Shinagawa blamed Reed’s partisanship for his alleged lack of action and tied it to Washington gridlock.

“This is part of a larger problem where Tea Party members like Tom Reed are preventing anything from getting done,” Shinagawa said. “When important bills are on the table like the Farm Bill, the Veterans Jobs Bill, or the Violence Against Women Act, he just goes home. His approach is too hands off.”

That makes it sound like Reed split the last two years between doing nothing and drafting legislation that would make Carl Paladino call him too conservative. It especially sounds like that if you don’t know about the resolutions and amendments Reed succeeded in passing.

Reed’s campaign filled that knowledge gap within hours. Communications Director Tim Kolpien said Reed sponsored 36 bills, nine resolutions and seven amendments. Thirteen of “those” passed, Kolpien said, using a word that could cover bills, resolutions, amendments or all three, but in fact refers only to the latter two.

As listed by Kolpien, Reed’s accomplishments include an amendment to defund a sewer project in Tijuana, Mexico; an amendment to defund the Presidio Trust Fund; amendments to increase funding for nuclear waste cleanup in West Valley, Cattaraugus County; and an amendment to increase funding to fight the emerald ash borer.

That makes it sound like Reed spent the last two years busily addressing his constituents’ needs and curbing potentially wasteful spending. It especially sounds like that if you credit Reed for the ideas used in several bills, which Kolpien does.

He cited provisions to reduce the paperwork for local bridge and road replacement projects and ease restrictions on truck drivers during the grape harvest.

It looks like both campaigns have some points. Reed’s bills have not passed, as Shinagawa said. Reed’s resolutions and amendments have passed, as his campaign said.

Shinagawa took those successes up in a second press release Wednesday, questioning, for example, whether the grape provision had ever made it into a bill.

“I stand by our original statement,” he said. “There are resolutions that Reed has sponsored that have passed. These are not bills that become law, and we made that very clear in our press release. There is a clear difference between a bill and a resolution, and resolutions have no opportunity to become public law, and are often just statements of approval or disapproval.”

In fairness, it takes time for freshman congressmen to learn the ropes, build influence and pass bills. If elected, Shinagawa would face the same hurdle. In all likelihood, he would also face a Republican-led House of Representatives not disposed to pass anything written by a Democrat.

Shinagawa would have to work hard, in other words, if he wants to surpass Reed’s record.

That’s not to say that he can’t or won’t — or that his comments lack merit. It’s fair to call attention to Reed’s record, and fair to ask voters to consider it: Legislation, after all, is what our congressmen are supposed to be down in Washington for.

Now voters have to decide if Reed has done enough — and, just as importantly, whether what he has done has been good for the country and his district.

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