The trouble with legislator scorecards

One of my pet peeves is when interest groups release rank legislators according to how they have voted on a few key bills. These scorecards can be helpful as a general guideline, but some lawmakers game the system by voting the "right" way on a scorecard issue but voting with the other side on procedural measures. A classic example was when some pro-choice and environmental groups gave Senator Joe Lieberman credit for voting against confirming Justice Samuel Alito, even though Lieberman had voted against the filibuster that was the only realistic way to keep Alito off the Supreme Court.

Progressive Punch has a search engine that lets you view how individual members of Congress have voted in certain issue categories. Even more useful, Progressive Punch has incorporated a "crucial vote" score that includes bills and procedural measures that passed or failed by narrow margins. You'd be surprised by how many Democrats have high Progressive Punch ratings overall but much lower crucial vote scores, indicating that "when the chips were down," these people were not reliable allies.

But even the Progressive Punch rating system doesn't tell the whole story, because committee and floor votes aren't the only way for legislators to exercise their power.

Yesterday Environment Iowa reminded me of the problems with scorecards when the group announced its rating of Iowa's members of Congress. The scores were based on "seven votes in the Senate ranging from an economic recovery bill with investments in public transit and energy efficiency to legislation saving the nation's coasts from offshore drilling," and 15 votes in the House "including funding to make schools more energy efficient and legislation protecting the Great Lakes." Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Leonard Boswell (IA-03) received 100 percent scores, while Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02) scored 93 percent and Representative Bruce Braley (IA-01) scored 80 percent. Environment Iowa commented, "These numbers include a few absences from key votes that occurred during the floods of 2008."

A few things are very wrong with this picture.

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In Congress, which votes count?

Two questions commonly asked about the Congress are How liberal is a particular MC? and How effective is a particular party?

These questions are asked, explicitly or implicitly, hundreds of times a day (if not more) in the lefty sphere!

The information most relevant to quantitative answers to the questions is the roll call votes cast by MCs. Each MC will have the chance to cast around 300 such votes a year, a sampling of opinion at a frequency and level of detail not available from voters.

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