Published January 13, 2015
Asked what he has accomplished during his 19 years in the Senate, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) gives a lengthy answer but has a short list of laws that bear his name.
The Massachusetts senator is known for using his investigative powers to shine a light on problems and corruption, but not as someone steeped in the process of making bills into law. Asked recently what he has accomplished that wouldn't have happened had he not served in the Senate, Kerry replied: "There are actually a lot of things."
"Can I say that it wouldn't be done, that somebody else might not have picked up the cudgel?" he said in an Associated Press interview. "I don't know. But I know I led a lot of fights in the Senate that nobody else was doing and that made a difference."
His response prompted an examination of his record. Kerry has been the lead sponsor of eight bills that have become law. Two are related to his work on the Senate panel on oceans and fisheries - a 1994 law to protect marine mammals from being taken during commercial fishing and a 1991 measure for the National Sea Grant College Program Act (search), which finances marine research.
In 1999, President Clinton signed his bill providing grants to support small businesses owned by women.
The rest of the laws he saw passed were ceremonial - renaming a federal building, designating Vietnam Veterans Memorial 10th Anniversary Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day (search) and World Population Awareness Week in two separate years.
"There isn't a bill where you say ah-ha, this bill has John Kerry's name written all over it," said David King of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "His strength isn't as much in legislation than in pointing the klieg lights on a problem and going from there, and he'll be able to do that a fair amount in the presidential race."
Kerry said he has been responsible for laws to pay for 100,000 police officers and support fishery and environmental laws and small-business aid programs. He also pointed to his advocacy of democracy in the Philippines and the end of the Marcos regime there.
And he spoke of the investigations from earlier in his career - his probe of the Nicaraguan Contra (search) armies, international money laundering and American prisoners of war in Vietnam. He also led the effort to normalize relations with Vietnam, where he was wounded in combat as a Navy officer.
Former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who served with Kerry on the Finance and Foreign Relations committees, said Kerry was steadfast in the positions he took and not always willing to cut deals with Republicans. He said it was an effective strategy that he admired, although it could rub others the wrong way.
"The hallmark of John Kerry has always been his independence," Torricelli said. "That independence has always irritated his colleagues. I don't think John Kerry would ever been characterized as a member of any club."
Aides point out that while many of Kerry's initiatives have not passed Congress intact, they have been included as amendments to bills that made it into law.
Some senators are renowned for their legislative prowess. They include Kerry's Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, for decades the Democrats' point man on health care, education and other key issues.
Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science at Brown University, said that puts Kerry at a disadvantage. "Nobody - I don't care how smart and good you are - could work under the shadow of Ted Kennedy," she said.
But if recent political history is any indication, other academics said, legislative accomplishments don't mean much in a presidential race.
"Most voters only have a vague idea of what senators do," said John Pitney, government professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "If you look at the senators who've run for president, most don't have a legislative record."
Former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson was an exception, Pitney noted, although he became president after the assassination of John Kennedy, another former Massachusetts senator with political talents but few legislative accomplishments.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., was a highly regarded congressional leader, but that didn't serve him well enough as the 1996 GOP challenger to Clinton.
"Bob Dole is one of the great legislative craftsman of the last 50 years, but there's not much you can say on the campaign trail about how bold you are in compromise," Harvard's King said.