Friday, June 16, 2017

Legsilative Effectiveness and Influence: It's more than Passing Bills

How does one measure influence and the effectiveness of legislators? This is not a trivial question, as voters have to make sense of competing claims during election years when deciding whether to return an incumbent for another two or six year term. Of course, incumbents seek to inflate their importance and influence, while their opponents attempt the opposite. Justin Grimmer wrote a fascinating account of how legislators attempt to puff up their credentials in press releases, claiming credit for government spending and appropriations which are routine--the legislator likely had little role in procuring. 

I am drawn again to the topic of legislative effectiveness and influence by a recent post by Don Pogreba at his new website, The Montana Post. Pogreba contrasts the legislative accomplishments of Senator Tester with those of Senator Daines, suggesting that Tester is far more accomplished than Daines—inferring that Daines has little influence in Washington and does nothing of substance in the U.S. Senate.

Unfortunately, I thought the piece trivializes an important issue to sell a partisan point. Both parties are guilty of simplifying this issue to create a narrative useful to them. Let’s elevate the conversation, and see what political science can offer. Who is more effective: Daines or Tester?
I addressed the issue of influence and effectiveness in Battle for the Big Sky, as a key argument Team Tester made about Congressman Rehberg was that he had accomplished little of substance during his decade plus in the House of Representatives. I wrote this in evaluating the effectiveness of Tester and Rehberg as lawmakers:

            On average, House members passed less than one bill in the 109th through the 111th       Congresses that became law, according to data compiled by the Congressional Bills Project. In the Senate, it isn’t much better: Senators passed fewer than two bills on  average that were signed by the president over the same period.17 Of the 42 bills and resolutions sponsored by Tester during his first four years in office, two passed. Rehberg  passed seven of the 82 bills and resolutions he introduced between 2001 and 2010.18 In neither case do Rehberg nor Tester stand out as successful legislators, but their efforts are less reflective of their individual abilities than they are of governing in an era of   polarization and divided government. Senior members of both chambers tend to be more success­ful because they often have committee chairmanships that provide them with the opportunity and responsibility to advance legislation central to their party’s legislative agendas.

A couple of points are important. First, it’s really hard to pass a bill. Second, it’s really hard for House members to be effective in sponsoring bills—but it is “relatively” easier for Senators to get their legislation made into law. Third, appropriators don’t often sponsor bills and exert influence through earmarks instead. Finally, seniority matters: Freshmen simply don’t pass bills they sponsor in either chamber often. 

Let’s compare apples to apples. In 2007, Senator Tester was a part of the new Democratic majority. According to GovTrack, the same source Pogrebra uses to assess Senator Daines’ performance, Senator Tester did not have a bill sponsored by him (not counting co-sponsored bills) pass that year. In 2015, Senator Daines was also in his first year in the Senate as part of a new Republican majority. And, no surprise, he did not have a single bill sponsored by him become law. 

But sponsoring bills is only one way to think about legislative effectiveness. Indeed, it is a measure that is not terribly useful when looking at freshmen legislators. I noted in Battle for the Big Sky that the Senate gives far more opportunities for senators to participate directly in the legislative process through floor amendments. This is the similar tactic that my Georgia State colleague, Jeff Lazarus, employed to compare the legislative effectiveness of Senators Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Read the piece here; Lazarus concluded that Clinton was the far more effective legislator, owing in part to the support she marshalled for her amendments.

Tester effectively used amendments to advance his legislative priorities, particularly for a freshman Senator in the majority. While he ranked second to last among his class in the passage of sponsored bills (in the first four years of his first term), he was the second most successful Senate amender among the cohort elected in 2006. Of the 38 amendments he sponsored, eleven were adopted on the floor. Again, this data is from my book.
Senator Daines, in the 114th Congress, sponsored 55 floor amendments (Data for this analysis was obtained from Only five were adopted by the chamber—for a success rate of nine percent. How does that rank among Republican freshmen? 

Eleven Republican freshmen were elected in 2014. Six had higher amendment passage rates than Daines, five had lower success rates. Senators Rounds and Sullivan had 32 percent of their amendments agreed to (about Tester’s success rate), but both sponsored fewer amendments (19 and 41 respectively). At the bottom end of the scale, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford sponsored 34 amendments and had only one receive Senate assent (for a passage rate of 3 percent). Among freshmen, Daines also sponsored the most amendments—eight more than Colorado Senator Corey Gardner (17 percent success rate).

Legislative effectiveness is tricky to measure and must be placed both in career and institutional context. Daines’ inability to pass legislation sponsored by him should not surprise given his relative junior status—and Tester found himself in precisely the same boat when he arrived in Washington. Looking at amendments, Daines is less effective than Tester was early in his career. Tester’s experience as a successful legislator in the Montana Senate has carried over to the U.S. Senate. Daines, whose experience was in the private sector and not in politics prior to arriving on Capitol Hill, likely has had a steep learning curve when it comes to legislative maneuvering on the Senate floor.

One final and related point: political scientists have long argued that term limits are bad for legislatures. As David Mayhew notes in America’s Congress, some of the country’s most important, historic legislative measures were drafted and passed by members of Congress late in their careers. As the above analysis and discussion demonstrates, passing laws is the business of seasoned legislators and not those new to Capitol Hill. It is also not a particularly useful way to measure whether a legislator is effective or not earlier in their careers—especially not in isolation. There are also other ways to think about legislative effectiveness, including casework and pork brought back home. Both of these are hard to measure, and in the case of pork, ever more difficult to obtain given the recent ban on earmarks. Legislative effectiveness is multi-faceted and needs to be placed into comparative contexts.