June 9, 2016

The Nuances of Building a Better Congress

Congress is gridlocked, say talking heads. Dysfunctional, say pundits. Less popular than head lice, says an actual poll. In a word, broken.

So let’s fix it, says  Craig Volden,  professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. What would that take? More-effective lawmakers, he says.

Volden and his research partner and co-author, Vanderbilt University professor Alan Wiseman, previously developed a deep database and a formula that rates members of Congress by their effectiveness at turning their ideas into laws—as opposed to partisanship, ideology or campaign spin. Now they want to figure out what common characteristics or backgrounds make those members effective. 

It’s a little like Moneyball for Congress.

“Partisanship matters. Ideology matters. But we wanted to focus in on the individual members of Congress who get things done,” Volden says. “Hardly anyone knows anything about the effectiveness of their member of Congress, so we’re stepping into that space.”

Volden and Wiseman’s Legislative Effectiveness Project scored every member of the House of Representatives in every two-year session of Congress back to 1973. Their 2014 book won prizes in political science circles. And the results are online for anyone to play with, at thelawmakers.org. Some high scorers ballyhooed their ranking in re-election campaigns, and some news operations published lists of the Top Five or Bottom Five. But most of the data just waits on the web, a curiosity for political scientists and Congress nerds.

Volden acknowledges that the LEP’s focus on lawmaking doesn’t capture all the skills and nuances of being an effective member of Congress, such as helping constituents with problems, defeating bad bills or winning appropriations good for their district. “This is part of the story, and a missing part of the story,” he says. “This is their effectiveness at positive lawmaking.”

That’s a significant gap, especially in the view of a congressman, such as Rep. Randy Forbes (Law ’77), R-VA, who doesn’t score well. The bills Forbes has sponsored haven’t made it far toward becoming law, but he has been very effective when it comes to influencing the annual defense bill as chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. For example, in 2015 he pushed back Pentagon budget-cutting proposals to ensure that the military budget funds steady construction and overhaul of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers—multibillion-dollar contracts essential to shipbuilding jobs back home.

“I am not sure how useful it might be to the average voter in terms of fairly judging a congressman’s performance,” says Bob Gibson (Col ’72, Educ ’14), executive director of the University’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership and a longtime political reporter. “How many bills one sponsors and sees through to passage may not be what a voter gives a hoot about in Washington these days.”

Volden and Wiseman hope voters will come to assess candidates in part with their objective measurements. To apply their work in the world of practical politics, they are asking a prime question: Do members of Congress win or lose re-election based on their effectiveness?

Not yet, says Volden. There’s no correlation between an incumbent’s legislative effectiveness score and the percentage of the vote he or she collects in the subsequent election.

Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is a case in point: At the peak of his effectiveness—Volden and Wiseman’s rating put him in the top five most effective members of Congress—Cantor was defeated in a Republican primary. Establishment Cantor fell to a Tea Party insurgent, so he had grassroots problems—but his effectiveness didn’t save him.

Knowing the legislative effectiveness of so many current and former members of the House, they’re examining those members’ backgrounds to detect potential—the better to assess candidates.

For example, does it help to have served in a state legislature—a very common path? Yes, they’ve found, but only if it’s a full-time, professional state legislature. If it’s a part-time legislature, as in most states, those former “citizen-legislators” turn out to be less effective than members with no lawmaking experience at all.

Are men or women more effective? Women—because they build coalitions across party lines, especially when they’re in the minority party.

Are veterans more effective lawmakers? No, but they are more moderate and tend to be problem-solvers, perhaps a carryover from the mission-oriented military culture.

What about education? Graduates of elite institutions—UVA counts—are more effective lawmakers, especially at moving big ideas further through the process. And they tend to be more liberal, in both parties.

There’s plenty of room for more research, which Volden and Wiseman hope their work prompts. But this is an election year, with all 435 seats in the House up for election. So Volden hopes to see Legislative Effectiveness Scores highlighted as candidates mix it up between now and November—in news coverage and editorials about the candidates, on the campaigns’ Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, and especially in voters’ heads, as they try to choose a better Congress.

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Professor of Public Policy and Politics, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking
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Garrett L040