By PAUL C. BARTON, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- If it's true that lawmakers define themselves by the bills they sponsor, then count members of Tennessee's congressional delegation as favoring parental rights, abortion restrictions, old-fashioned light bulbs, traditional cigars, Christmas, and a weaker United Nations.
Those are among the thousands of bills sponsored or cosponsored by Middle Tennessee lawmakers that get little attention and stand only a microscopic chance of becoming law.
The 112th Congress, which still has four months to go, has produced plenty of such measures.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, leads the way among delegation members, sponsoring or cosponsoring 424 bills. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin comes next with 244. She's followed by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander (211), Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper (187), Republican Sen. Bob Corker (171), Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump (159) and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville (123).
"Bill sponsorship is the single most effective way to carve out an individual identity, especially in the House," said Wendy Schiller, congressional scholar at Brown University in Rhode Island. "And even though they don't have a strong chance of passing, they can be used as a concrete sign of (members') efforts to represent the voters in their districts."
Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina political analyst, said members get behind long-shot bills for other reasons as well.
"Often it is to plant an idea," he said, noting that proposals often take many sessions to pass. "It takes time for issues to bubble up."
Among the bills Cooper is cosponsoring, one would establish a system for financing congressional elections through a mix of appropriations, voluntary contributions and other sources. Members who raised at least $50,000 in contributions of no more than $100 would receive $1.05 million to spend on their primary (40 percent) and general election campaigns (60 percent).
But Republicans who control the House have long opposed public financing of congressional elections.
Under one of Cooper's own bills, the Internal Revenue Service would file the basic tax returns millions Americans using W-2 forms and other information supplied by employers. Taxpayers could reject a return and do their own, or they could just sign it and send it back. The legislation is intended to make the IRS "help you, not just catch a mistake," a spokesman for Cooper said.
Alexander and Corker have cosponsored a Senate bill that would let taxpayers donate money through their tax returns to help retire the national debt. Such donations would be in addition to any taxes owed.
Senate Republicans drafted the legislation to target investor Warren Buffett and other wealthy Americans who say they aren't required to pay enough in taxes.
Schiller at Brown University said the Senate produces fewer "frivolous" bills "because voters have the sense that senators have more power to actually get their bills enacted into law, both because of their individual stature and because of the length of their terms."
Suspicion of the United Nations is a theme that runs through many of the bills sponsored by the Tennessee delegation on both sides of Capitol Hill.
Corker and Alexander, for instance, are cosponsors of a Senate resolution that warns President Barack Obama not to send the Senate any international agreement reached by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The resolution states that such an agreement would undermine "traditional principles of law in the United States regarding the rights of parents and children."
United Nations-related House measures include one that would prohibit contributing tax money to the U.N. Population Fund, an agency that conservatives link to controversial forms of population control, including abortion and sterilization.
Blackburn, Black, DesJarlais and Fincher are cosponsoring the bill.
Another international issue drawing scorn is climate change. Blackburn and Black are cosponsors of a measure to prohibit contributing tax money to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Another bill Blackburn has cosponsored would bar foreign aid to countries in the U.N. that oppose the United States.
Disdain for two other organizations -- the National Labor Relations Board and the Environmental Protection Agency -- also runs through many of the bills sponsored by Tennessee Republicans.
A bill cosponsored by Alexander, for instance, would require the NLRB to move more slowly before declaring certain unions to be collective bargaining representatives of employees at plants such as one owned by Boeing in South Carolina.
And a bill cosponsored by Blackburn, Black, DesJarlais and Fincher would require the EPA to revise its regulations on a wide range of pollutants and consider how any new regulations would affect employment.
Tennessee Republicans also have put their names on dozens of bills dealing with proposed abortion restrictions.
That's especially true of Black, who has cosponsored at least eight bills on the subject. Those include measures calling for mothers to listen to ultrasound tests before having an abortion and a measure declaring that life begins at conception.
Family issues in general are a theme of numerous other bills, including a proposed constitutional amendment that says "the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right."
The proposal also says that neither the United States nor any state "shall infringe upon this right without demonstrating that its governmental interest, as applied to the person, is of the highest order and not otherwise served." Blackburn and Fincher are cosponsors.
Black and DesJarlais have cosponsored a proposal to repeal automatic citizenship rights for babies born in the U.S. to parents in the country illegally. The bill would require that at least one parent be a citizen or national, a permanent resident alien or someone serving in the military.
Among the numerous other measures Blackburn has cosponsored are ones that would:
-- Require federal agencies to justify their existence every budget cycle.
-- Prevent foreign legal precedents and concepts from being used in U.S. courts.
-- Repeal the excise tax on indoor tanning salons.
-- Affirm that "In God We Trust" is the official motto of the United States.
Blackburn also is cosponsor of a House resolution introduced by Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Fla., that warns President Barack Obama and federal agencies against using the Defense Production Act of 1950 to "confiscate personal or private property, to force conscription into the Armed Forces on the American people, to force civilians to engage in labor against their will or without compensation, or to force private businesses to relinquish goods or services without compensation."
The resolution is in keeping with the fears of some conservatives that Obama wants to use executive orders to establish a basis for martial law.
Blackburn, Black and Fincher also support the "Better Use of Light Bulbs" bill by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, that would reverse a 2007 law phasing out incandescent light bulbs in favor of fluorescent bulbs. The bill failed in the House.
Another measure would protect "traditional" or large "premium" cigars from regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.
Cooper, a Democrat, joined Republicans Black, Blackburn, DesJarlais and Fincher in cosponsoring the bill in the House, where it's still in committee. It's seen as protecting small businesses, including mom-and-pop and high-end tobacco shops that make hand-rolled cigars.
Even holidays like Christmas can be the subject of legislation.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., introduced a House resolution that calls for recognizing the importance of Christmas and Christmas symbols and disapproving of attempts to ban use of the word "Christmas" in public life. DesJarlais, Black, Blackburn and Fincher are cosponsors.
Tennessee members give varying explanations of their decisions to support specific bills.
"Many of the bills I've co-sponsored or introduced would make government more open and efficient, a longstanding interest of mine and consistent with my committee responsibilities," Cooper said in a statement, adding that he also looks at bills requested by constituents that would be "good policy for the country."
Alexander recalled that, "I said when I first ran for the Senate that I'd serve with conservative principles and an independent attitude."
And DesJarlais said he asks himself before cosponsoring a proposal whether it's in line "with the values that we hold in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District."
"The majority of the legislation that I have introduced originated from ideas my constituents brought to me," he said.
Fincher said he's guided by a desire for a more business-friendly climate.
"I hear it all the time as I meet with folks -- overzealous federal regulations are putting a damper on job growth," he said.
Contact Paul C. Barton at email@example.com