Since launching his bid for U.S. Senate last year, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke has painted Republican incumbent Ted Cruz as a senator whose national ambitions have distracted him from his Texas duties. Cruz has questioned what accomplishments the congressman from El Paso has to his name.
How exactly do the two men's records stack up? Their legislative achievements are easy to compare, given that both men entered Congress on the same day — Jan. 3, 2013.
They both joined chambers out of their party’s control. Two years later, the Republicans regained control of the Senate, while the Democrats maintained their minority status in the House — as would be the case for all of O’Rourke’s three terms.
Since the pair entered Congress, Cruz has introduced 105 bills, compared to the 65 bills O'Rourke has introduced over the same period, according to Congress.gov. The vast majority of those bills died in various stages of the legislative process, which is often the case with most legislation.
Cruz has passed five Senate bills into law, including bills authored and incorporated into larger legislation, according to GovTrack, an organization that tracks member voting and legislative data. Not included in the GovTrack count is a Cruz bill that requires hot air balloon pilots to undergo medical exams. That measure passed as part of a FAA reauthorization bill the Senate sent to President Donald Trump last month. Govtrack shows O’Rourke has passed three bills into law.
Obama years vs. Trump years
For their first four years in Congress, Obama was in the White House. According to GovTrack, O’Rourke passed two bills into law while the president of his same party held the Oval Office. His first bill continued tuition assistance programs for service members. That measure was included as part of a larger appropriations bill in 2013.
O'Rourke's other bill under Obama named a federal courthouse in El Paso.
Cruz also authored a courthouse renaming bill that passed under House legislation, one of three pieces of legislation he passed under Obama. GovTrack credits congressional members with passage if they’ve sponsored companion bills that passed into law. Another successful measure prohibited the U.S. from giving visas to U.N diplomats that previously engaged in terrorist or espionage activities against the United States. The bill came in response to Iran naming a U.N ambassador that was tied to the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
When the Republicans took the Senate back in 2015, Cruz became chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Space. In that position, he shepherded the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act through Congress. The bill, intended to encourage the development of the commercial space sector, originally passed as House legislation, but Cruz authored the companion bill in the Senate.
With Trump in the White House, O’Rourke managed to get his Express Appeals Act signed into law as part of a larger measure. The legislation directed the veteran affairs secretary to start a pilot program that provided veterans with an alternative and faster route to appeal for disability compensation.
Meanwhile, Cruz has had three bills enacted under Trump. The first was a bill reauthorizing NASA that passed the Senate unanimously. The second was a measure to give tax breaks to victims of three hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — a measure that was incorporated into a larger House relief package that the president signed. Most recently, Cruz had his hot air balloon safety bill included in larger legislation.
But legislative records are not the sole measure of productivity. Because it is difficult to get legislation enacted on their own, members routinely push for certain provisions to be included in larger bills, particularly through amendment processes both on the floor and in committee mark-ups. They also spend time fighting measures they oppose.
“(With) the way that Congress operates these days, much of it’s gonna be pieces of legislation rather than whole bills because now, the past two years in particular, Congress has done very little,” said Rich Cohen, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics from 2001 through 2010. “When Congress does act, the legislation often is comprehensive ... They’re big bills and there’s a lot going on in them so it shouldn’t be surprising that someone would take credit for a part of a bill rather than a whole bill.”
Committee work is also a measure of productivity. Both Cruz and O’Rourke sit on their respective chamber’s Armed Services Committee. Cohen said neither committee churns out much legislation, but rather spends much of its time working on a massive yearly Pentagon spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Provisions members get included in those bills don’t necessarily show up on their legislative record. A list on the Cruz campaign's website details 34 legislative accomplishments includes 23 provisions he got included into different NDAAs over his six years. And in several posts on O’Rourke’s Medium blog, he has mentioned multiple items he pushed for inclusion. But it’s not simple to verify either lawmaker's efforts in larger bills.
“It’s awfully difficult ... to prove it or challenge it one way or another,” Cohen said. “It’s the opposite of transparent. It’s difficult to figure out what happened when you have this 1,000 page bill with lots of moving pieces.”
Top three accomplishments
The Texas Tribune asked both Cruz and O'Rourke to provide the three legislative accomplishments of which they are most proud.
The O’Rourke campaign passed along three measures that the El Paso Democrat saw signed into law by Trump.
- Expanding Veterans' Access to Mental Health Care
O’Rourke was the primary sponsor of the “Honor Our Commitment Act,” which expanded mental health care through the VA to veterans with “other-than-honorable” discharges from the military. The measure was included in an omnibus spending bill in March. In a blog post a year earlier, O’Rourke said the legislation was needed because “(20) veterans a day are committing suicide, and 14 of those we know are not receiving healthcare from the VA.”
Requiring Mental Health Screenings for Separating Service Members
Tucked deep within the NDAA for the last fiscal year is an O'Rourke measure mandating that service members leaving the military receive a mental health examination, in addition to the already required exit physical exam.
"Ensuring that our service members receive comprehensive mental healthcare evaluations prior to returning to civilian life is critically important because doing so increases the chances we get veterans the treatment they need," O'Rourke said in a blog post when the bill was added to the NDAA.
- Permanently Protecting Castner Range
In last year’s annual defense spending bill, O’Rourke got a provision included to permanently protect the Castner Range, nearly 7,000 acres of land surrounded by the Franklin Mountains around El Paso. The provision was signed into law by Trump as part of a larger defense spending package. The bill prevents any commercial development in a space that O’Rourke said environmental activists have been fighting to preserve since 1971.
“This is an incredible opportunity to ensure that we pass on Castner Range, and all that it means to us as a country, to not just this generation but the generations that follow,” O’Rourke said in a floor speech at the time. He also has a pending bill to designate the range as a national monument.
In response to the request for three top legislative accomplishments, the Cruz campaign sent nine. Here’s a sample:
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Cruz pushed for tax break legislation for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The Cruz-led legislation ultimately was included in the final, larger relief bill that passed through both chambers and was signed into law by the president.
Cruz has used this legislation to attack O’Rourke’s voting record because O’Rourke voted against passage of the bill. O’Rourke has defended his vote by saying that the final bill didn’t have tax breaks as generous as those given to victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
- Purple Hearts for Fort Hood victims
In late 2014, Obama signed an NDAA that included a Cruz provision allowing victims of the 2009 terrorist attack at Fort Hood to be eligible for Purple Hearts. Thirteen people died in the attack.
“This designation is long overdue for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting and their families who deserve our prayers and support in dealing with this horrific act of terrorism,” said Cruz when the amendment was announced.
- U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act
Cruz was the primary sponsor of this 2015 bill in the Senate, which was a companion to the House bill that ultimately passed. This bill prevented the federal government from introducing further regulation on the commercial space industry for seven and a half years. The bill also reauthorized use of the International Space Station through 2024.
“This legislation makes a commitment to supporting the continued development of a strong commercial space sector and recognizes the major stake Texas has in space exploration,” Cruz said in a statement at 2015.
Cruz is the chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness and is from Houston, home to NASA.
The filibuster and the sit-in
Both Cruz and O'Rourke have had moments in Congress that elevated their profiles nationally.
For Cruz, it came just months into his first term, in which his outspoken opposition to the Affordable Care Act placed him at the center of a contentious government shutdown that lasted over two weeks and left many Republicans upset with him. Amid the efforts by congressional leaders to avoid a shutdown in September 2013, Cruz seized on an opportunity to speak on the Senate floor for 21 hours to highlight his opposition to the sweeping health care law.
But when he wasn't railing against Obamacare, Cruz strayed off topic to keep the clock running on what is now the fourth-longest speech in U.S. Senate history. Most notoriously, the freshman senator read Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” from the floor.
On the south side of Capitol Hill, O’Rourke presided over his own marathon political gamesmanship three years later. Shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, House Democrats staged a sit-in on the House floor to protest the Republicans' decision not to bring gun control legislation to a vote. When the Democrats staged their sit-in however, House Republicans adjourned, resulting in C-SPAN turning off its live cameras and leaving interested Americans without an option to watch the remainder of the sit-in.
But O’Rourke quickly found a way around the situation by using his phone to broadcast the sit-in live over Facebook with a fellow congressman, according to the El Paso Times. O’Rourke’s broadcasts were picked up by C-SPAN and CNN while the Democrats held the House floor for over 24 hours. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg later said that the Facebook Live streams related to the sit-in reached 3 million people.