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Analysis

Congress scorecards up for debate

Ratings can vary widely; Stutzman’s by 30 points

Duffy
Wolf
Gonzales

They say you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. But with congressional players, it’s hard to tell which scorecard you should track.

Interest groups and political publications in recent weeks have been issuing their annual scores and ratings for last year’s session of Congress. And the numbers are all over the place.

Take the scores issued by five conservative groups for Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, who is up for re-election this year. An arm of the Family Research Council gave him a 100 percent rating based on four of his votes on legislation last year. The American Conservative Union graded Stutzman at 96 percent based on 25 votes. Club for Growth put him at 91 percent based on 31 votes, ranking him as the 22nd-most conservative person in the 435-member House.

But Heritage Action for America has Stutzman at 84 percent for the 2013-14 Congress, and FreedomWorks gave him only a 71 score for 21 House votes last year, which put him in 91st place on the conservative scale.

The nonpartisan National Journal tagged Stutzman with a conservative score of 70 for 111 votes, ranking him as the 141st-most conservative House member in 2013.

Stutzman’s six scores varied by 30 percentage points, the largest spread among Indiana’s nine House members and two senators. The scores of six other Hoosier lawmakers ranged across at least 21.2 percentage points, and the rest were in the teens.

This sample is a mere six scorecards and includes none from liberal groups (which tend to give Stutzman single-digit scores and zeroes). Editions of the Almanac of American Politics list the ratings from 11 organizations for each member of Congress, and a website for the Independent Voters of Illinois Independent Precinct Organization links to 67 ratings groups.

What are constituents and voters to make of all these scores? The Journal Gazette asked three political experts for their views: Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report; Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report; and Michael Wolf, a political scientist at IPFW.

Following are excerpts from emailed responses to questions from The Journal Gazette.

Q: Which group’s scorecard or ranking do you consider the most comprehensive and unbiased measuring stick for voters and constituents to pay attention to? Why?

Jennifer Duffy: The only “scorecard” I pay attention to is the annual National Journal Vote Ratings. Using a select group of key votes in three areas (economic, social and foreign policy), these ratings provide a good sense of where a member stands ideologically – how conservative or liberal they are. I like these ratings because they are not partisan. There is no agenda at all. They have a long track record. …

I don’t pay any attention to ratings by partisan groups, and any discerning voter shouldn’t, either. These ratings more often than not simply reward friends and punish enemies. There are groups like the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation that use the ratings to keep members in line. Before votes, they publish their recommendation and often say that the vote will be used to calculate ratings.

Nathan Gonzales: If you want to get a full perspective of a member’s ideology and partisanship, it’s best to look at as many scorecards from as many different types of groups as possible. I think the more ratings you can analyze, the more complete picture you’ll get of a particular member.

I wouldn’t put too much stock into one scorecard for one year from one group. Many groups also compile lifetime scores for members, which can be more important than the most recent year.

It’s important to remember that many of these scorecards are biased to the interests of a particular group. Unless it’s National Journal, most of the scorecards come from special interest groups who are trying to guide, or even threaten, members to vote a certain way.

Michael Wolf: Political scientists often use Americans for Democratic Action and American Conservative Union scores for broad-based ideological measures. The benefits of these are that they are built from a broader set of issues to make up their broader ideological scores. Also, their measures spread across decades, so they allow for historical comparisons as well as current ideological comparisons. Some political science models will use one or the other, assuming that one is “conservative” when they receive a low ADA score or “liberal” when they receive a low ACU score.

Another key set of statistics are the “key votes,” “presidential support” and “party unity” measure by Congressional Quarterly. They each provide a story about the pressure a representative or senator faces given the party of the president, the ideological pressures from constituents and the changing incentives of being “independent” in the past to being more partisan today.

Q: Who benefits the most from these scorecards: the voters who read them, the members of Congress who promote them or the rating groups and publications that have their names and interests mentioned by the media or in campaign ads?

Duffy: Who benefits from partisan scorecards? Not voters. The organizations do because they get publicity when they are published and because members (of Congress) pay attention to them. They tend to be a double-edged sword for members. They will promote the ones they like and bury the ones they don’t.

Gonzales: Most of the time, these scorecards are used by members to promote and cultivate a certain political profile, or they can be used as a weapon by political opponents. If a candidate is in a Republican primary, they’ll promote positive ratings from conservative groups.

Republican groups these days often cite how often Democrats vote with President Obama in order to drag them down in Republican-leaning districts or states.

Wolf: As the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate both become more polarized, the interests of these groups shift to become more ideological as well. The power of these groups is dramatic, and it is not just their overall score and evaluation, it is especially which particular votes the group decides is worthy of including in their measure.

It is tempting for these groups, who are involved in tighter ideological competition, to pick issues as “key votes” that may not have been key 25 years ago. But with the heightened partisan divide on guns, life, religion and the environment, it is tempting for groups to consider any vote related to their group as key, even if it is extremely preliminary or is a procedural vote in Congress.

As a result, the incentive is for more representatives and senators to stay more ideological within their party on potential key votes to avoid primary challenges.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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