Congressional Scorecards: Fair Territory or Drifting Foul?

National Journal
Billy House
Feb. 26, 2014, 3:48 p.m.

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.”

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