Effective Lawmakers Put Policy Before Symbolism

March 27, 2023
Illustration of shaking hands infront of the capitol building

An annual study of Congress shows the most effective lawmakers know how to cross party lines and build coalitions. (Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

When it comes to national politics, polarizing partisans get all the attention. But it’s those crossing party lines who get things done.

A study of proposed bills and passed legislation by members of 2021-22’s 117th Congress, conducted by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, shows the most effective U.S. representatives and senators are those who work well with others.

The 6-year-old center is a joint effort of the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University.

“An interested citizen will hear about maybe 10 bills that are in Congress over a two-year period, so they would hear about the budget fights, about infrastructure bills and a few others, but they won’t get a big picture of what all Congress is doing,” said UVA’s Craig Volden, a public policy and politics professor with UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Under the center’s scoring system, the House of Representatives’ most effective legislators were Virginia’s Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-11th District, and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska.

In the Senate, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, had the top scores for effectiveness.

Portrait of Craig Volden

UVA’s Craig Volden, a public policy and politics professor with UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, co-directs the Center for Effective Lawmaking with Vanderbilt University’s Alan Wiseman. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Volden said Cornyn’s effectiveness ranking is because the bills he submits are aimed at policies across a wide variety of policy areas that gain broad support.

“Some people can work the system. It’s intriguing to see the coalitions that they build together,” Volden said. “There was a policy problem. They came up with a solution to it and that resonated with enough people.”

Volden and Vanderbilt’s Alan Wiseman are co-directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. The center sprang from the duo’s research and has expanded with a mission to offer practical insights for lawmakers in Congress and the states who want to be more effective.

The center derives its scores using congressional classifications of bills, and metrics and algorithms that are applied to the bills submitted, tabled and passed into law by each member of Congress. Researchers weigh how far the bills make it through the process, if they become law and how substantive their policy proposals are.

“Hundreds of bills become law, most of them behind the scenes and most of them with broad support from both Democrats and Republicans. That’s not as fun to report on as smashing each other, Democrat versus Republican,” Volden said.

The center studies the number of bills each senator and representative sponsors, the different policy areas on which the bills focus, and whether those bills became law. For the first time, center researchers are also using text analysis programs to track whether language was incorporated in other legislation.

Individual lawmakers then receive scores on effectiveness and their policy interests. Most of those who move and shake are either closer to the political center than others in their parties or focus on specific topics of general interest. That makes them more willing to reach across the partisan divide.

The most effective elected officials used traditional tactics to get laws passed, including building co-sponsors across party lines and finding allies in key legislative positions. The most effective lawmakers also work to get the legal language of their bills into those sponsored by others, Volden said.

“This is the first year where we felt good enough about text analysis and plagiarism software to use it to look at bill language that was incorporated in somebody else’s law,” Volden said. “It’s using plagiarism software in a nice way. It’s not like you’re mad about the plagiarism – you’re happy about it because your language, your proposal, was moved forward and you made policy.”

In the 117th Congress, Democrats had an easier time getting bills passed into law because they controlled both the House and the Senate. But Republicans had their fair share of laws passed as well.

“Moderate Republicans were able to do all of that better than more conservative Republicans in this past Congress,” Volden said. “The fact that any Republican bills went anywhere in a Congress dominated by Democrats, and that more than a hundred of them had their language incorporated into the laws that ultimately were adopted, means that we’re not completely in a partisan mode.”

The center’s ratings also go into scores by subject matter, as determined by the Congressional Research Service. The service classifies each bill by broad policy areas such as health, defense, education and civil rights, among others.

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

For instance, the scorecard ranked Virginia’s Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th District, as first in introducing and passing bills related to agriculture, with a score of 48.7. The top Republican lawmaker was Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, with a 21.7 score.

But there were some intriguing results. In the civil rights policy area, the Congressional Research Service included laws such as the Respect for Marriage Act, which passed to become a federal law that provides for same-sex and interracial marriages. But the category also included legislation many would not consider as civil rights, including the Recognizing the Unborn Act and the Parental Notification and Intervention Act, neither of which became law.

Based on the classification of bills submitted in 2021-2022, Virginia’s conservative Rep. Bob Good, R-5th District, tied for top Republican in submitting civil rights legislation with a score of 3.2. That compares to the top Democrat, Rep. Jarrold Nadler of New York, who scored 140.1.

“The Congressional Research Service has characterized each piece of legislation and puts it into a bin,” Volden said. “So why does Good’s performance rank as the top Republican on that front? Well, he sponsored two bills that were coded as ‘civil rights.’”

Good’s House Bill 5398 sought to prohibit the use of critical race theory in any federally funded program or activity and his H.B. 754 would prohibit governments from limiting in-person worship services or religious ceremonies in “houses of worship.”

“Neither of the proposals received action in committee or moved forward, but he gets top of the list because, among Republicans, putting forward two bills is as much on civil rights as anyone is doing,” Volden said.

Good ranked in the middle of his party, 127th out of 222 Republican representatives, for overall effectiveness.

“It’s interesting that people at the very top of our lists tend to be the ones who aren’t putting forward a lot of symbolic legislation,” Volden said. “Those at the very bottom don’t seem as interested in lawmaking as being symbolic. And those in the middle often have a mix of symbolic and substantive proposals.”

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