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In Congress, Clarke last among firsts

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Brooklyn’s newest congresswoman has gotten off to a slow start.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D–Park Slope) has written fewer bills than all but three members of her 54-person freshman class — and she didn’t even roll out her first piece of legislation until earlier this month, after getting wind that an influential political magazine was about to publicly skewer her for failing to draft a bill.

As a result, she was the last member of the freshman class to submit a piece of legislation, which she did on Oct. 15 — more than nine months into office and four months after the second-tardiest freshman.

Moreover, Congress.org, an organization that monitors the legislature, gave Clarke a power ranking of 366th in Congress, and 36th in the freshman class.

The numbers have left even Clarke’s supporters scratching their heads.

“She has had an incredible opportunity to become a leading freshman,” said Arthur Piccolo, a Democratic insider who vigorously campaigned for Clarke in the heated four-way race to succeed retiring Rep. Major Owens in 2006.

“She has not taken advantage of that at all. It mystifies me. [Her lack of legislation is] a symbolic example of that.”

Clarke has drafted two bills since hearing the complaints from the wonks and the chattering class. Her first bill sought to improve the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service, where backlogs can force immigrants and naturalized residents to wait years for their documentation.

Eight days later, on Oct. 23, Clarke introduced a second bill that would increase government relief to military families.

Clarke’s spokeswoman, Chic Smith, insisted that quality of legislation was more important than quantity.

“Would it be better for her to introduce a bill that required everybody carry Kleenex, or everybody carry Purell?” said Smith. “There is no deadline for members of Congress [to introduce legislation].

“I don’t understand the emphasis on the amount,” added Smith. “There’s always going to be a first, someone in the middle, someone in the last [place].”

Until recently, that someone was Clarke, who declined to speak with The Brooklyn Paper about her bill-writing shortcomings. But she told Politico, an influential online magazine, that she had “not really concentrated that much on crafting legislation.”

“Part of it was getting my bearings,” added Clarke. “I do have interest. I just haven’t made that my ultimate focus.”

Clarke did not use her mid-year medical leave as an excuse. In July, Clarke had surgery to relieve painful uterine fibroids, and took a six-week leave of absence.

Beyond that, Craig Holman, the campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, a congressional watchdog group, said Clarke’s inaction was not that significant.

“Freshman congressmen traditionally are not the sponsors of much legislation, given their lack of familiarity and networking within Congress,” said Holman. “And the legislation they do sponsor tends to be pretty meaningless.”

Even so, other freshmen representatives have managed to get their focus more quickly. Gus Bilirakis (R–Florida), has already introduced 18 bills, one of which of was passed by the Democratic house just this month.

If Clarke is writing few bills, she may merely be following the example set by her predecessor, Owens. In the last 10 of his 24 years in Congress — presumably when his seniority gave him far more clout than a humble freshman — wrote 102 bills, or about 10 bills per year on average, according to GovTrack.us, an independent legislation-tracking Web site.

Not a single one passed.

Clarke bar

Brooklyn’s newest member of Congress, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D–Park Slope), is going easy on the House Clerk. In fact, Clarke ranks second-to-last among all freshman in the number of bills she’s introduced during her first 10 months in office. Here are the top 10 bill-writers and the bottom five (through Oct. 29):

chart

Late bloomer

Not only has Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Park Slope) written few bills, the freshman introduced her first bill a full four months after the next-tardiest freshman. Here’s how the bottom five shape up:

chart

‘Schoolhouse’ primer

Rep. Yvette Clarke has had so many problems introducing legislation that we at The Brooklyn Paper felt that maybe she needed a refresher course on how things work in Washington Towards that end, we’d like to remind her of the words to the famous “Schoolhouse Rock” song, “I’m Just a Bill”:

“I’m Just a Bill.”
Lyrics and music by Dave Frishberg

I’m just a bill.
Yes, I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it’s a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It’s a long, long wait
While I’m sitting in committee.
But I know I’ll be a law some day
At least I hope and pray that I will.
But today, I am still just a bill.

I’m just a bill.
Yes I’m only a bill,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, now I’m stuck in committee,
And I’ll sit here and wait,
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
How I hope and pray that they will,
But today, I am still just a bill.

I’m just a bill
Yes, I’m only a bill
And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill
Well, then I’m off to the White House
Where I’ll wait in a line
With a lot of other bills
For the president to sign
And if he signs me, then I’ll be a law.
How I hope and pray that he will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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