The crack of the bat and the smell of spring are unmistakable signs that it's time to wade through all the rankings and ratings again. No, not for fantasy baseball stats. For congressional scorecards.
Like the mountain of information available to sports geeks, political junkies get their fix, too — and the rankings have never been more divisive. Blamed for everything from complicating the budget deal and killing a gun-control bill last year to a stalled flood-insurance bill this week, congressional scorecards are seeing a backlash from lawmakers who say they aggravate an already polarized environment.
"The only voter scorecards they should be attuned to are the ones that come from their own districts — and they should put less stock in everything else," said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Each year, dozens of political and advocacy groups, from the League of Conservation Voters to the Humane Society, grade lawmakers based on how they vote on bills these organizations care about. In some cases, groups use these grades to pressure lawmakers even before the vote. It's all legitimate advocacy — but it can cause tension, especially when these recommendations stall or derail legislation.
Such was the case this week, when conservative groups Heritage Action and the Club for Growth both came out against a bill to address high flood-insurance premiums that was headed to the floor, warning lawmakers their votes will be part of their legislative scorecards.
Support for the bill faltered, and a planned Thursday vote was scuttled Wednesday by GOP leaders. The Club for Growth immediately issued a press release applauding the decision to not proceed with the bill and "stick taxpayers with a bill for higher subsidies to beachfront properties."
But lawmakers like Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican running for the Senate who is leading the charge on the bill, challenged whether any group could lay claim to the true "conservative position."
"Guess what?" Cassidy said. "I say I am a conservative, too. So, at some point, you can thump your chest and try and say it more loudly."
Other lawmakers said their constituents come first. "They need this. This has been catastrophic to the housing market in Florida," said GOP Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
Speaker John Boehner has also been critical in recent weeks. After Heritage Action and other conservative groups opposed a budget deal in December, Boehner took the uncharacteristic step of criticizing them publicly.
"They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous," Boehner said.
In fact, the speaker's frustrations with Heritage had been building for some time, dating from the group's opposition to his "Plan B" proposal for the fiscal cliff in 2012, which he ultimately scuttled.
Indeed, similar tensions have emerged more than once this session. In April last year, a House vote on a bill supported by Republican leadership to extend a program in the president's health care law, the Pre-Existing Conditions Insurance Plan, was pulled from the floor after the Club for Growth issued a statement urging a "no" vote.
Of course, Boehner and Republicans are not alone in expressing frustration.
Last April, Sen. Joe Manchin complained that the decisive event that doomed an amendment to expand background checks for gun purchases was the National Rifle Association's decision to count Senate votes on its scorecard.
"If they hadn't scored it we'd have gotten 70 votes. I predict 70 votes without scoring," Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, told reporters at a breakfast.
Instead, the amendment he cosponsored with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey got just 54 votes, fewer than the 60 required to advance, despite the widespread popularity of the measure in public polling. "There's a defining moment when you know that nothing else matters except doing what the facts prove to be right," Manchin said. "And I got that defining moment, and I have to live with whatever happens."
More recently, several major pieces of legislation, including the budget deal and a bill to increase the debt ceiling, have passed despite opposition from conservative groups.
Israel conceded that scorecards might be helpful to voters on certain "niche issues," but lawmakers in the end should not overly focus on "this war of scorecards."
"Look, if it's one group's voter scorecard versus another group's voter scorecard, what is more important? It's the scorecard that your voters are compiling," he said.
Still, these ratings will continue to be a part of the Washington landscape, as they have for decades. The Club for Growth unveiled its 2013 rankings this week. The National Taxpayers Union is planning to do so soon.
And the groups strongly defend their right to advocate — and keep score.
"Communication between lawmakers and their constituents is critical to our system of government, but lawmakers do not have a monopoly on communication," said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action. "We are talking with their constituents every day about what is happening in Washington and what the implications are for conservative policy."
He added: "So long as they are comfortable with their actions in Washington, they should have no objection to a fully informed constituency."