The passage of H.R. 2121, in fall 2009, unfolded without drama. It allowed for the sale of a customhouse in Galveston, Tex. The House debate took two minutes, and the vote took eight seconds. The ayes had it.
But something historic was happening. On his 482nd try, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) had authored a bill that would become law.
Paul has become a surprising force in the Republican presidential race, promising to use “the bully pulpit of the presidency” to demand deep cutbacks across government. But Paul has had only limited success using his current pulpit — a seat in Congress — to rally lawmakers behind his ideas.
Of the 620 measures that Paul has sponsored, just four have made it to a vote on the House floor. Only that one has been signed into law.
House colleagues say the genial Paul has often shown little interest in the laborious one-on-one lobbying required to build a coalition behind his ideas. This year, for instance, Paul has sponsored 47 bills, including measures to withdraw from the United Nations, repeal the federal law banning guns in school zones and let private groups coin their own money.
None has moved, and 32 have failed to attract a single co-sponsor.
“He’s somewhat of an introvert [and] a little quirky, so he doesn’t work the legislative process like most do,” said former congressman Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who served with Paul from 1997 to 2010. But Wamp said Paul, as president, might succeed where Paul the legislator had not.
“When you’re president, they can’t just ignore you,” Wamp said. “Because you have a mandate.”
In Congress, failure is often the norm: Many legislators file bills only to please some hometown constituency or to publicize their ideas. Most bills go nowhere, especially if their sponsor is not a powerful committee or subcommittee boss.
The other current legislator in the GOP race, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), has introduced 45 bills in her five-year-old career without one passing both houses.
During Paul’s years in office, only 4 percent of the more than 69,000 bills filed by House members have become law.
But Paul’s record stands out for its futility. His lifetime success rate: about 0.2 percent.
“This is an indication of Ron’s strength of leadership. He has had the courage to stand alone and to fight for principle, ignoring the pressure to sell out,” Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign chairman, said in a written statement. Benton said these failures were not proof that Paul, as president, would struggle to get his ideas passed through Congress.
“Now, the American people are demanding his principled Constitutionalism that will bring together broad coalitions from across party lines,” Benton said.
Paul, 76, has served three stints in Congress, covering 11 terms and part of another. His first bill was introduced just 11 days after he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1976. It would have repealed the law that had created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration six years earlier. It didn’t get out of committee.
In the terms that followed, Paul sponsored legislation to abolish the Education Department. He sought to repeal the income tax. He wanted to limit the census to just three questions: name, address and number of people in a household.
These measures also got little traction. The only time Paul got a full House vote for one of his sweeping ideas was in 2001, when he proposed to withdraw from the agreement that created the World Trade Organization. The House voted it down, 363 to 56.
Instead, his success came mainly on small-scale resolutions for Texas causes. In 2006, Paul authored a resolution congratulating NASA on a shuttle flight; it passed both houses unanimously. And in 2009, Paul wrote the bill that sold the Galveston Custom House to a local historical society for use as its headquarters.
Paul’s campaign says its candidate has also won legislative victories by amending bills written by others.
During the fight over the Dodd-Frank financial regulation in 2010, for instance, Paul won a partial victory: A provision was included to require a limited audit of the Federal Reserve’s transactions. The audit was still not as broad as Paul had long insisted.
Benton said that, in that case, Paul had marshaled more than 300 lawmakers behind his idea. “He had some of the most progressive Democrats to some of the most conservative Republicans on the same bill,” Benton said.
But Paul’s House colleagues say they have rarely seen him put forth the kind of sustained lobbying effort necessary to get a big idea passed into law.
Paul “has his ideas and puts them out there. And if people want to get on them, they can,” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.). “But I don’t necessarily think that he goes out and works — lobbies for them — like some of the younger guys.”
For most members of Congress, passing a bill starts with one-on-one lobbying: They look within their party, or their state’s delegation, to build up a large number of co-sponsors. Then a member lobbies the relevant committee chairman to take up the bill, using those co-sponsorships as proof of support.
Other Republicans said Paul takes a more low-key approach. He will seek out a small circle of lawmakers who have supported him on previous issues, and he will let potential allies come to him.
“He has a particular spot on the floor: about four rows up on the middle aisle,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). If you want to be lobbied, Chaffetz said, you walk by, and “he’ll say, ‘Hey, Jason, I want you to look at this.’ ”
That approach has paid limited dividends, even in the current Congress, which is controlled by Paul’s fellow Republicans. Among his 47 new bills, Paul has attracted a very large number of co-sponsors for only one, which demands a full audit of the Fed. It remains bottled up in committee.
His other bills are as ambitious as ever. In H.R. 1098, Paul proposes allowing private groups to coin their own money to circulate alongside dollars and cents. Some libertarian groups like the idea, saying that the new money could be useful if the dollar loses value through inflation.
Other experts have their doubts. “We’d have to spend probably the first four hours of every day trying to figure out which currency to use today,” said James Livingston, a professor at Rutgers University who studies economic history.
Paul has attracted no co-sponsors for that bill, and he doesn’t appear to be pulling out all the stops to find some. The Congressional Record contains a March 15 speech from Paul: “I urge my colleagues to consider the redevelopment of a system of competing currencies.”
But the speech is a common congressional illusion: Paul didn’t give it aloud to his colleagues. Instead, he simply wrote it and had it inserted into the record later.