Why bill success is a lousy way to keep score in Congress
The Washington Post - 02/06/2014
Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from John Wilkerson and Nick Stramp of the University of Washington’s Department of Political Science and David Smith of the College of Computer and Information Sciences at Northeastern University.
On Tuesday, February 4, the Washington Post published an article in which retiring representative Robert Andrews (D-NJ) was asked to defend the fact that none of the bills he sponsored over 20 years had become law. A bad measure (bill success) that previously garnered little public attention now seems to be trickling into the mainstream as congressional data becomes more easily accessible. The Washington Post article is especially noteworthy because the message for Rep. Andrews’ constituents is that he has failed them (when that is not necessarily the case).
Political scientists have been using the progress of bills to rate the effectiveness of lawmakers for more than 50 years. A half-century ago, bills were an accessible metric at a time when better indicators were hard to come by. Times have changed though, and one of the things Scott Adler and John Wilkerson learned in developing theCongressional Bills Project was that bill success is a problematic measure of effectiveness because bills are just “vehicles” or containers for policies (see chapter 4 of Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving). It is one thing to study why vehicles progress, and quite another to study the progress of policy ideas.