USA Today: Congress' most effective lawmakers aren't generally its household names

Center for Effective Lawmaking released its rankings of the 116th Congress. And those focused most on policy may surprise you.

Despite high approval ratings or wide popularity, well-known members of Congress are not the most effective lawmakers, according to a report from the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

The center recently released its effectiveness scores for members of the 116th Congress, which ran from Jan. 3, 2019, to Jan. 3, 2021. The bottom line: The lawmakers often in the news — particularly from the House of Representatives — aren't generally the ones sponsoring bills that make significant headway through Congress or making substantial policy proposals. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is one exception.

Through a partnership between the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Vanderbilt University, the Center for Effective Lawmaking, created in 2017, aims to understand and communicate the effectiveness of lawmakers and the congressional legislative process.

“We’re the Center for Effective Lawmaking, so we’re particularly interested in the lawmaking component of what members of Congress do, so we set aside oversite and constituency services and so on,” said Craig Volden, the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. “In that lawmaking space, we've generated the legislative effectiveness scores.”

There are four lists of top 10 most effective lawmakers, one for each political party in each chamber of Congress. The topmost effective House member for each party was Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, topped the House lists, while Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took the No. 1 spots in the Senate were the topmost effective senators in the chamber for their respective parties.

“We’ve found initial patterns that those more effective tend to be what we would call the workhorses rather than the show horses, and because of their policy focus, they’re less likely to be called upon by the media,” said Volden.

“We’ve kind of relatedly found that those who are called on by the media, that there tends to be more of an interest in talking about ... politicking and personalities than there is in talking about policy and lawmaking.”

How legislative effectiveness scores are determined

Legislative effectiveness scores are determined through a combination of 15 different metrics, including how many bills a lawmaker sponsors, how far the bill goes through Congress and how substantial or significant the bill is.

Lawmakers scores are a weighted average of the five stages of the lawmaking process and three levels of bill significance, where lawmakers can get downgraded for commemorative bills and upgraded for more “substantive and significant bills,” Volden said. 

“When we talk about (lawmakers) introducing bills into the U.S. House or Senate, we're only looking at public bills, meaning those that actually make their way through both chambers and assigned to law; actually have the power to change U.S. code essentially,” said Alan Wiseman, the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. “We're not focusing on resolutions.”

According to the center, Rubio sponsored a total of 103 substantive bills, with five of them becoming law.

“It is a great honor to have been named the most effective Republican lawmaker in the Senate. I believe in the work I have done and continue to do for the state of Florida and for our nation. I am committed to protecting America’s economic and national security, and will work with anyone, regardless of party, who shares those goals,” Rubio told USA TODAY in a statement.

Peters sponsored 84 substantive bills, with a total of 14 of them passing through Congress and becoming law.

“Michiganders expect us to get things done for them – and that’s always been my focus. I’m proud to be recognized as the most effective senator and for passing legislation on issues impacting Michiganders,” Peters said in a statement about his effectiveness score. “I will continue working to bring people together to solve challenges facing our state and nation.”

Because whether a lawmaker is in the majority or minority party significantly impacts their legislative effectiveness score, the center doesn’t rank the Congress as a whole, calling it “inappropriate.” Instead the center ranks each party in each chamber, which is why there are four topmost effective lawmakers lists. 

Household names aren't among most effective

To compare lawmakers' effectiveness versus popularity, a Morning Consult poll on approval ratings for lawmakers from late 2019 offers insight on the difference between popular lawmakers and the most effective ones.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-V.t., John Thune, R-S.D., and Chris Coons, D-Del., were among the top 10 most popular senators at the end of 2019, according to a Morning Consult poll, which surveyed more than 490,000 registered voters. Yet none was among the Center for Effective Lawmaking's top 10 most effective lawmakers for the 116th Congress..

Based on their legislative effectiveness score, Thune was ranked No. 24 out of 54 Senate Republicans, while Coons was ranked No. 32 out of 45 Senate Democrats.

Lawmakers who are more frequently mentioned by news or social media outlets than others, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, are not ranked high on the effectiveness list. Ocasio-Cortez is ranked No. 230 and Pelosi No. 237 out of the 240 House Democrats, while Jordan ranked No. 202 out of 205 House Republicans.

Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Al., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., were ranked the least effective senators in their respected parties, while Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Kay Grander, R-Texas, were named the least effective lawmakers in the House for their parties.

Along with an effectiveness score, each member also gets a benchmark score, which shows how an average lawmaker with the same seniority in the same position does. Members of the majority party, committee chairs and more senior members of Congress tend to score higher for effectiveness. 

Changes in effectiveness from past years

While the Center for Effective Lawmaking's main purpose of the scores is to assess lawmakers' effectiveness, the scores also show trends, allowing the center to make conclusions about the state of Congress.

Based on the scores, the center found that the 116th Congress' committee and subcommittee chairs weren’t ranked as high as past chairs. Usually, they rank near the top of the lists.

“One way to think about that is the gap between an average member and a committee chair or subcommittee chair is narrowing substantially, and that’s a lot of evidence that policymaking isn’t being done in the committees and subcommittees as much as it used to be,” Volden said. “One clear takeaway is kind of the declining power of committees, as mostly party leaders want to handle most of the construction of the most major pieces of legislation themselves or outside of the committee process.”

The center also found that Democrats within the Senate as the minority party were more engaged in the lawmaking process than expected. According to Volden, Democratic senators introduced an average of 60 bills during the 116th Congress, compared to an average of 40 during the 115th Congress.

Democrats in the Senate were also able to get enough Republicans to vote with them to get their bills into law “at a rate we have not seen across the past 50 years,” Volden added.

“It’s important to recognize that only two of those bills were bills that we would note as commemorative measures, so it’s not the case that the Democratic senators were so successful because they were just introducing lots of legislative,” Wiseman said. “These were substantive pieces of legislation that found their way through lawmakers. They were successfully navigating the lawmaking process despite being in the minority party.”

Of the 119 bills introduced into the Senate and passed into law, 48 of them were sponsored by Democrats.

A bill to improve safety and security for the Veterans Act of 2019 introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and one to extend the Medicaid mental health services demonstration program for two weeks, introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are among the 48 bills that became law.

Most effective lawmakers

Top 10 most effective House Democrats

1.         Nita Lowey of New York

2.         Peter DeFazio of Oregon

3.         Carolyn Maloney of New York

4.         Frank Pallone of New Jersey

5.         Mark Takano of California

6.         Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas

7.         Eleanor Norton of Washington, D.C.

8.         Joe Neguse of Colorado

9.         Bennie Thompson of Mississippi

10.       Elaine Luria of Virginia

Top 10 most effective House Republicans

1.         Michael McCaul of Texas

2.         Chris Smith of New Jersey

3.         John Katko of New York

4.         Andy Barr of Kentucky

5.         Garret Graves of Louisiana

6.         Don Young of Alaska

7.         Buddy Carter of Georgia

8.         Steve Chabot of Ohio

9.         Phil Roe of Tennessee

10.       Elise Stefanik of New York

 Top 10 most effective Senate Democrats

1.         Gary Peters of Michigan

2.         Jeff Merkley of Oregon

3.         Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada 

4.         Jon Tester of Montana

5.         Tammy Duckworth of Illinois

6.         Benjamin Cardin of Maryland

7.         Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

8.         Tom Udall of New Mexico

9.         Robert Casey of Pennsylvania

10.       Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire

Top 10 most effective Senate Republicans

1.         Marco Rubio of Florida

2.         Roger Wicker of Mississippi

3.         John Cornyn of Texas

4.         Lisa Murkowski of Alaska

5.         Dan Sullivan of Alaska

6.         Chuck Grassley of Iowa

7.         Jerry Moran of Kansas

8.         Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

9.         John Kennedy of Louisiana

10.       Cory Gardner of Colorado

By:  Sarah Elbeshbishi
Source: USA Today