It's the No. 1 thing advocates ask when they get in to see a lawmaker: Would you please cosponsor our legislation? Organizations and congressional offices point to cosponsorships as evidence that a bill has momentum, and to signal their own effectiveness. But National Journal's strategic-research team found that having a lot of people sign on to a bill doesn't necessarily make the legislation more likely to pass.
NJ's team looked at every bill introduced in the House during the 112th Congress (not counting resolutions), and a scatterplot of the data reveals a definite pattern—dotted swiss. There was a very slight link between bill-passage rate and the number of cosponsors a bill attracted, but it wasn't close to predictive—and wasn't far from nonexistent. Even bills that garnered more than 200 cosponsors had only a 45.8 percent success rate, in a body that requires 218 votes for passage.
Up on the Hill, staffers were only mildly surprised to learn that this was the case. For one thing, they point out, the House isn't passing all that much legislation to begin with these days. And, on a percentage basis, much of what is making it through is legislation of the renaming-a-post-office variety. That kind of bill isn't likely to draw a lot of cosponsors or to require a groundswell of backers to pass. In addition, they say, lawmakers frequently introduce legislation for reasons that have nothing to do with actually legislating. Says one House Republican aide: "A lot of bills are introduced just as messaging points, and there's no intention of getting them passed."
Or there's no chance of getting them passed—a circumstance that's especially common for the minority party. As one House Democratic aide notes, "For Democrats, most of what we support or introduce isn't going to make it to the floor." In part because of this, party members often push for cosponsors on big messaging measures—if they can't make a law, they can at least make a statement—which in turn helps explain why more than half of the bills that had more than 200 cosponsors still didn't go anywhere.
There is some direct value in pursuing cosponsorships, the Republican aide asserts: "It'll be easier when you're whipping your bill if you already know that you have broad consensus for it." But the real value of cosponsorship isn't necessarily reflected in the fate of a given measure. Cosponsoring colleagues' legislation helps a lawmaker build a set of public values, the Democratic aide says. It is an expression of a member's position on an issue—a concrete one that he or she can tout to constituents. "It gives you something to point to, right?"
When a bill attracts cosponsors, it helps the legislation's originator, too. "I think, one, you're trying to send a message to your district: 'I've got a good idea, and these 70 or 80 members agree with me,' " the House Republican aide says. It also shows that a member can build a coalition and move something forward. Those are accomplishments that lawmakers in a relatively inactive Congress can highlight back in their districts—and beyond. When a lawmaker is able to show the inside-the-Beltway crowd evidence of his or her leadership skills, says the House Republican aide, it "bodes well politically [and] financially."
In the short term, cosponsorships may be more useful for relationship- and career-building, as well as public relations, than they are for getting laws passed. But, the Democratic aide says, while it's easy for outsiders to be cynical about the reasons Congress does what it does, and to view bill introductions and cosponsorships that way, the reality is more complex. Good ideas, and even good bills, don't necessarily light a fire under leadership the first time around, he says. More allies and more awareness can only help a cause in the long run. Building support, he says, "can take time."
For more from National Journal's strategic research team, go to our Presentation Center.