Measuring the effectiveness of Barbara Boxer

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U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) speaks from NPR's Washington, D.C. studios during the Sept. 29 KPCC debate with Republican opponent Carly Fiorina. This was their second debate.

Democrat Barbara Boxer is asking California voters to send her back to Washington, D.C. for a fourth term in the Senate. What's she accomplished in her nearly three decades in Congress?

Democrat Barbara Boxer has represented California in the U.S. Senate since 1993. Before that, she spent 10 years in the House of Representatives.

In her KPCC debate, Boxer's Republican opponent Carly Fiorina said Barbara Boxer has had 28 years to serve the people of California. "Ask yourself, 'What has she accomplished?'"

So what has Barbara Boxer accomplished in nearly three decades in Congress? She has a laundry list of accomplishments. "The afterschool program, the very first one ever for our children; the combat care center that we got in San Diego; doubling the funding coming to California for transportation, meaning roads, highways, bridges." Boxer says, "We got the passenger bill of rights into place. We had stories of people waiting on the tarmac for eight or nine hours. We’ve put a million acres into wilderness. That’s permanent. Those are just some off the top."

But Boxer has not been able to scratch off her “to do” list what might be the most important item: energy legislation that fights climate change. Boxer chairs the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

Darren Samuelsohn, the senior energy and environment reporter for “Politico,” has covered the California Democrat for a decade. He says before she became chair, "She was known as sort of the back bench flamethrower who was investigating, was criticizing the Bush administration hardcore. Whenever the Bush administration put out a policy that didn’t square with where environmentalists were, Senator Boxer was all over them."

Samuelsohn says when the Republicans controlled Congress, there were more Boxer news conferences than Boxer legislation. "She excelled at that. And when she took over as chair of the committee, it challenged her to become someone who was speaking for the entire country as well as representing her California roots."

Last fall, Boxer was able to shepherd through her committee an energy bill that included provisions to halt climate change. She did it without a single Republican vote; the seven GOP committee members staged a boycott. But once out of committee, the bill sputtered and stalled.

Ben Geman, an environment and energy reporter for “The Hill” newspaper, says it was decided that that bill could not gather bipartisan support. The Senate's Democratic leaders took Boxer’s energy bill and handed it to John Kerry. The Massachusetts Democrat is just as liberal as Boxer, but he has almost 10 more years in the Senate – and he has the gravitas of a former presidential candidate. Geman says what Kerry was tasked with doing was trying to shape a separate bill "that was capable of clearing the finish line."

“Clearing the finish line” means getting some Republican votes so the bill would pass. Ben Geman says Kerry’s revised bill left the door open to nuclear power, “clean” coal and more offshore drilling. The measure stalled anyway.

Late this summer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stripped out everything except tougher energy efficiency standards and more oil company money for spill response. That bill stalled, too.

Boxer couldn’t get Republicans to vote for energy legislation. She says John Kerry did go across the aisle "and couldn’t. And then Harry Reid went across the aisle and didn’t. And I’m the only senator in history that got not one but two bills out of my committee."

UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain says the fact that she didn’t do the final negotiations on a compromise bill "that we may never see is not necessarily an election liability in California." He says one part of representation is "staying true to your principles and articulating the views that the rank-and-file want you to articulate."

Cain says those rank-and-file California voters haven’t measured Barbara Boxer’s effectiveness only by the number of bills that have her name. They’ve measured her by what she says. They’ve done that three times – and she’s won three times.

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