The Value of Cosponsorships

It isn’t what you might think.

National Journal
Brian Mcgill, Brian Resnick and Sarah Mimms
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Brian McGill Brian Resnick and Sarah Mimms
July 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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