Scoring Effectiveness in Congress

Batten’s Craig Volden and Vanderbilt’s Alan Wiseman have developed an unprecedented system for determining which lawmakers actually get things done.

What makes someone an effective lawmaker? Surprisingly, until Batten’s Craig Volden and Vanderbilt’s Alan Wiseman began discussing that question a little over a decade ago, we didn’t have a clear answer. 

“There's an array of research that engages with questions of effectiveness in almost any profession you can think of, whether it be athletes, teachers, management consultants, or attorneys,” Wiseman told an online audience last week. “But there was very little academic scholarship to engage these questions with regards to lawmaking.”

All that has changed since Volden and Wiseman developed their legislative effectiveness scores through the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a joint venture between the Batten School and Vanderbilt University. During last week’s edition of Batten Expert Chats, the two professors spoke and took questions on the scoring system and its impact on legislative politics.

Today, the CEL’s effectiveness scores hold interest not only for scholars, but also—thanks to increased media coverage—for average citizens, many of whom use the scores to inform voting decisions, Volden and Wiseman said. Because every Member of Congress receives a score through the CEL’s system, the scores have also played an important role in political campaigns. Senator Amy Klobuchar frequently highlighted her score, which marked her as the most effective democratic lawmaker in the Senate, and the New York Times also cited it as a reason for endorsing her, Wiseman said. A T-shirt worn by Klobuchar’s supporters in Iowa even included a reference to her legislative effectiveness.

“Sadly, neither of us got any of the swag,” Wiseman joked. “But we're still hoping.”

The CEL developed the scores themselves through a painstaking process of data collection. Initially, CEL researchers analyzed every public bill introduced from 1973 until 2008, and the scope was recently extended to 2018. 

To create their scoring system, the team identified the five “crucial hurdles” a bill must clear, Wiseman said—in other words, the various stages it must move through to become law. Getting a bill passed is, of course, highly difficult. “In some congresses, you might see as little as 3-4% of public bills ultimately being signed into law by the President,” Wiseman said. However, “not all bills are equally challenging,” he explained: There’s a big difference between a bill to rename a post office and one that would bring about major healthcare reforms, for example. To account for this, the team divided the bills into three categories: bills that garnered significant media attention; “commemorative” bills covering topics like coins and medals; and “substantive bills” (everything else).

After gathering data both on the stage each bill reached and its category, the team evaluated every Member of Congress based on the number of bills she introduced and how far they made it on their journey to becoming law, Wiseman said. Since members of the majority party tend to score higher than those in the minority, the CEL also created a “benchmark score” based on how the team would expect each Member of Congress to perform, factoring in questions like whether the person belongs to the majority party, whether they’re a committee chair, and how far into their term they are.

“By presenting their raw score as well as their benchmark score, we can identify whether they're performing above or below expectations,” Wiseman explained.

Within the CEL, the scores have spurred further research, including the Building a Better Congress project, which has explored questions such as whether it’s possible to predict a person’s legislative effectiveness. Patterns in scores show that various factors could increase the impact a Member of Congress could make, such as serving in professional state legislatures, serving on active duty after 9/11, and being a woman.

“Especially when they're in the minority party, we’ve found that women keep pushing their issues forward and keep building coalitions across party lines in ways that men, on average, don't do as much,” Volden said.

The CEL has also identified the “five habits of highly effective leaders,” which include things like drawing on your expertise and aligning your legislative agenda with your district’s concerns. In response to a question about how Members of Congress can improve their scores, Volden said he would advise that they find “the sweet spot between what they care deeply about, what their district cares deeply about, and what they have some influence over because they’re on a committee or subcommittee for it.”

Recently, Volden and Wiseman said, the center also scored Members of Congress on their effectiveness when it comes to specific public issues, such as health and education. The pair will release these scores for the first time this month.

Overall, Volden and Wiseman indicated that the CEL’s effectiveness scores have an incredible number of applications and implications. In response to a question about what excited him the most about his work, Volden hesitated to choose just one area.

“Whatever I’m doing today, that’s what I’m most excited about,” he said.

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