Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rehberg and Tester: They Ain't Legislators

On Friday, both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg's March 31 Quarterly fundraising numbers were released and discussed in the media. Check out the article from the Helena Independent Record here.

Long story short: Both candidates had good quarters. The long story will have to wait until the reports are posted online at the FEC. Once that I have those numbers, I can dig into them more deeply to figure out how each campaign is doing.

In the meantime, I'd like to explore an issue raised by Senator Tester in some recent remarks he made here in Montana. Last month at a fundraising dinner in Helena, Senator Tester ripped Congressman Rehberg for his relatively slim record of legislative accomplishment. Tester said that Congressman Rehberg's record consists of naming a few post offices, and that's about it. The article can be read here.

The bigger point is how should we, as voters, evaluate the jobs that both Tester and Rehberg have done while in Congress. Should we evaluate them by their legislative accomplishments? If so, the record is pretty slim indeed for both candidates.

Using both THOMAS and the Congressional Bills Project, I examined the number of bills Tester and Rehberg have sponsored while serving in the Senate and House, respectively. I also looked to see if those bills passed their respective chambers and was eventually signed into law. For this analysis, I only looked at the bills where Tester and Rehberg were the primary sponsor. The analysis is in the chart below:

Neither candidate is what one might call a stellar legislator. None of Tester's sponsored legislation has signed by the president, and of the 77 bills sponsored by Congressman Rehberg, only four have (and yes, two of those bills are renaming post offices).

Of course, these data need to be placed into some broader context. Using the 110th Congress as a baseline, I looked at the total number of bills sponsored in each chamber and then broke out the average number of bills introduced by member and their success at passing legislation into law.

As one can plainly see, most legislation goes to Congress to die. Very few bills become law, and the average number of bills sponsored becoming law is only 1 in the Senate (close to 2 if you just look at the Democratic majority in the Senate), and less than 1 in the House. The mean number of bills sponsored in the Senate is 36 and only 16 in the House.

If we use these numbers as a guide, both Congressman Rehberg and Senator Tester are less active than the average member in terms of bill sponsorship (although Congressman Rehberg approaches the mean in the 11th Congress). Their inability to pass any of their preferred legislation into law is not surprising either. If you look who was the MOST successful legislators in the 110th Congress, they tended to be more senior, more seasoned, and holders of key instituitonal positions such as committee chairmanships. They also, surprise surprise, tend to come from the majority party. Senator Kennedy successfully sheparded 13 bills to passage in the 110th Congress, followed by Senator Leahy (8), and Senators Biden, Feinstein, and Harkin (7 each). In the House, Congressmen Oberstar and Berman got 8 and 7 of their bills passed, followed by Congressmen Conyers and Kildee (6 each). As you look at those names, the amount of seniority is clear--and this is not surprising at all. The literature on congressional careers (see Hibbing in particular) shows that legislative productivity increases over a member's term in office.

Neither Senator Tester or Congressman Rehberg are particularly senior, and Congressman Rehberg has only now achieved a leadership post as chairman of one of appropriations subcommittees. Evaluting their accomplishments as sponsors of legislation is perhaps not the best approach to figuring out who is doing a better job for Montana. Quite simply, neither are particularly distinguished legislators but we should not expect them to be given their career stage.

As Mayhew (2000) points out, legislating is only half of what members of Congress do. Members of Congress investigate, they take stands, they oppose presidents, they engage in foreign policy discussions, and they attempt to affect the flow of public discourse more generally. In the words of Richard Fenno, members of Congress are not just policy experts. They are constituent servants and they strive to demonstrate to voters that they are in touch or "one of us". Members can chose which aspects of their jobs to highlight to constituents. Perhaps the most useful way to evaluate both Tester and Rehberg is less on their legislative accomplishments, and more on their work as constituent servants and how close they are to the voters of Montana in terms of policy positions. Do they listen? Are they responsive? Do they successfully help Montanans navigate the federal system? And what are they doing to make sure the needs of Montanans are address? All of these questions can and often do have very little to do with legislation.


larry kurtz said...

Astute observation, Professor Parker; Senator Tester appeared in Boulder saying much of the same thing. The wolf rider on the budget resolution may be the lone exception to your premise and more input from voters may reverse Montana's momentary lapse into red state failure.

One of your colleagues spoke at our gathering and spoke highly of this blog.

Best wishes to you.

Ken & Carol said...

It seems we are all in agreement that sponsorship of bills is not a very useful measure of legislative ability, especially in those who haven't served very long. But why would that be a useful measure among the more experienced? I'm guessing that most bills would find us Montanans half for and half against, so maybe some measure of how often you follow your seniors or not might be more useful. Unless, of course, we could have a measure of the usefulness of all bills.

Adam said...

The problem remains that the public in general falls for this sort of rhetoric. A soundbite here and there about only building post offices or only passing 4 bills goes a long way with our largely uneducated voting populace. If only more people would actually research the candidates, perhaps democracy would run more smoothly.