An article in Monday’s Springfield Republican discussed the “2013 Report Cards” of the members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. These annual assessments of the performance of every member of Congress are published by what the article calls a “non-profit government transparency organization.” The organization, Govtrack.us, keeps track of every piece of legislation introduced in Congress, as well as the activity of every member of Congress, and then crunches the numbers to determine who, in their estimation, deserves to go to the head of the class. Govtrack has produced a treasure trove of data, but are these “report cards” really measuring what they purport to be measuring? Are “good grades” on these report cards truly indicative of good performance in office; of doing well the job voters elected members to do?
There are two fundamental problems with these “report cards.” First, some of the statistics used to determine the quality of a legislator’s performance on standards like “bipartisanship” and “leadership” are clumsy and not really reliable indicators of the quality being evaluated. Second, Govtrack issues grades to all 535 Members of Congress based on its assumptions about what voters want (or should want) from their representatives on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, voters across America do not all share the same perspective on what their Representatives and Senators in Washington should be doing, or how they should be doing it. In the case of the Massachusetts delegation, Govtrack’s “one size fits all” approach just happens to be particularly out of step with the perspective of the voters who sent them to Washington.
First, let’s look the shortcomings of the stats. Based on Govtrack’s rubric, Congressman Neal has been “the most bipartisan member of the state’s House delegation,” while Congressman McGovern has been the least bipartisan Bay State House member. This was determined by the percentage of bills each member co-sponsored that were not introduced by a fellow party member. Because 42% of the bills Neal signed on to as a co-sponsor were introduced by a Republican, he gets the prize for most bipartisan member of the delegation, while McGovern’s mere 22% relegates him to the bipartisan basement among Bay State House members. Is this a fair or reasonable way to measure bipartisanship? Using the same metric, Elizabeth Warren earns the lowest bipartisanship ranking among all senators serving their first term in office. Ouch! Is this proof that Scott Brown was right about Warren’s partisan venom?
The percentage of co-sponsored bills introduced by a member of the other party is at best a very weak indicator of what most folks mean by “bipartisanship.” If bipartisanship means a willingness to compromise with members of the opposition party over partisan issues, then at a minimum it should be measured by determining how many such legislative compromises a member has supported. Does the percentage of bills co-sponsored that were introduced by a Republican really tell us that Congressman Neal supported more such compromises in 2013 than Congressman McGovern, or Senator Warren? How many of those bills did Neal sign on to for reasons unrelated to genuine compromise? The vast majority of bills introduced in Congress have little or no chance of passage. Can we attribute bipartisanship to members who sign on to an opposition party member’s doomed legislation for tactical reasons, seeing it as a harmless gesture at worst, or maybe even as a way to pump up their “bipartisanship” stats? Should co-sponsoring a totally non-controversial, symbolic, or technical bill be weighed equally with co-sponsorship of a substantively bipartisan policy proposal in determining a member’s bipartisanship grade or ranking?
At best, this statistic sheds light on a member’s tactical skill and legislative acumen, which are talents wholly unrelated to substantive bipartisanship, unless of course we consider cross-party log rolling, horse trading, and well played institutional advancement to be elements of bipartisanship. Neal is the longest serving member of the state’s House delegation and is very good at a job that he and several long serving staffers have been doing for a quarter century. The Congressman known far and wide as “Richie” is ambitious, effective, and very much in tune with the mood and interests of his constituency, but he’s no more “bipartisan” than any other member of the state’s delegation on Capitol Hill.
The second problem is that Govtrack, a “good government” group, brings a highly moralistic perspective to the evaluation of legislators’ performance that is very different than the perspective of most Bay State voters. The other day, Professor Cunningham reminded us of the importance of political culture, and that America has at least three political sub-cultures: Individualistic, moralistic, and traditional; each one dominant in different regions. Like most “good government” groups Govtrack’s work presumes that voters are or should be primarily moralistic, but Massachusetts voters (as a group) are considerably more individualistic than moralistic. It’s not that Massachusetts voters are against bipartisanship, or government transparency per se. These are fine qualities, but they are NOT among the most important standards by which Bay State voters judge the quality of candidates or the performance of office holders.
The folks who have re-elected Congressman Neal 12 times want their Representative to have “juice,” and to be able to use it on their behalf, which is why this recognition for “bipartisanship” will be seen in Western Mass as just another reminder that Congressman Neal is very good at his job. This is certainly how it was framed in the Springfield Republican article about Govtrack’s report cards. Massachusetts voters expect their Representatives and Senators to be competing hard and fighting for the interests of the district and state. Piling up “wins” that help increase the influence of representatives in Washington is highly valued in an individualistic political culture. Commitment to abstract moral principles like bipartisanship and government transparency are well and good, but clearly secondary at best. Massachusetts voters don’t want their legislators to be righteous; they want them to be successful and powerful and to successfully exert power on their behalf.
It is illustrative that the newspaper didn’t bother reporting on ALL of our legislators’ grades. If it had, readers would have found that none of our legislators are making Govtrack’s version of the honor roll. Congressman Neal’s overall grades for 2013, according to Govtrack, were not good. His grade for attendance during roll call votes was effectively a D; bills introduced (C), bills co-sponsored (C-), working with the senate (C), number of co-sponsors of his bills (D+), bills out of committee (F), and support for government transparency (F). If the voters in Congressman Neal’s district shared Govtrack’s moralistic perspective, he would be in big trouble back home.
Congressman Neal is not in trouble back home. The voters of his district are getting exactly what they bargained for; a highly skilled and professional legislator cultivating and using institutional and political power on their behalf. Don’t expect any members of the state’s Washington delegation to be overly concerned with bringing up their Govtrack grades in 2014. They’ll just continue to smile about the good grades and ignore the bad ones while keeping their eyes on the report card that counts, the one issued on Election Day.