The United States Capitol is seen at sunrise, on March 24, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
How do you measure how good or bad the job your congressional representative did was?
It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
Alan E. Wiseman, a professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and Craig Volden, a professor of Public Policy and Politics at the University of Virginia, have spent more than a decade trying to figure it out.
Co-directors of the Center for Effective Legislation, a joint project of the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, Wiseman and Volden are also the authors of the 2014 book, Legislative Effectiveness in the US Congress.
“We were trying to understand why some members of Congress are more successful in promoting their agenda or legislation in Congress,” Wiseman said. “In preparing the book, people asked us all kinds of interesting questions.”
The Southern California Newsgroup has been trying to objectively measure the good work local legislators are doing, both in Washington and Sacramento, for nearly a decade.
But no single measure can tell the whole story.
“There are so many things that legislators do that they and their constituents value,” Wiseman said, including the work of legislators who oversee the federal government and voter services.
Probably the easiest thing to do is measure the number of bills introduced and how many became law.
Members of Congress representing Southern California voters were more likely than average to pass bills in the last session of Congress.
In the 117th session of Congress, which ran from January 3, 2021, to January 3, 2023, 7% of bills introduced became law, according to an analysis by GovTrack.us, a website nonpartisan organization that tracks members of Congress. data. (The data includes bills that were later absorbed by larger omnibus bills.)
That’s about average: Since the 93rd Congress, which ended on December 20, 1974, 5.88% of bills introduced have become law, according to data from GovTrack.us. Individual sessions range from a 4% to 9% rate of bills becoming law.
In the 21st century, about two-thirds of that legislation has been non-binding resolutions, expressing support or opposition to something, rather than establishing the law of the land.
Los Angeles-area representatives in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties had 11.98% of the bills they introduced pass into law in the 117th Congress, according to a new Southern California alliance NewsGroup. California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla won approval of 5.04% of the bills they introduced.
Members of Congress from Southern California did better than average in Congress 117 is not a surprise to Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne.
“The House is a majority institution, which means the predominantly Democratic California delegation was expected to do relatively well in the last Congress,” where Democrats were in control, Godwin wrote in an email. “There have also been seasoned members like Ken Calvert, who served as the ranking Republican member on a key subcommittee and may have collaborated on bipartisan legislation.”
By contrast, an SCNG analysis released in October showed that Governor Gavin Newsom signed 37% of the legislation introduced in the California Assembly and 44% of all legislation introduced in the California State Senate in session two years most recent.
Still, the number of bills enacted isn’t everything.
“Effectiveness is more than sponsoring bills,” according to Godwin. He singled out Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-San Bernardino, now the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. During the 117th Congress, Aguilar introduced 12 bills, none of which became law.
“(He) was doing a lot of work behind the scenes with the Democratic leadership. It’s also hard to blame him for being part of a group that has tried to work with a bipartisan group on immigration reform,” Godwin wrote. “Constituent services, influencing amendments, shaping media coverage of Congress, basic committee effectiveness, reputation, staff turnover, and fundraising for other candidates feed perceptions of job performance.”
The quality of the approved bills matters more than the quantity, argues Aguilar. He specifically pointed to the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, the bipartisan gun safety bill, and the Cut Inflation Act.
“If you had done one of those bills in a two-year session, you would have said, ‘this is amazing, this is great,’” Aguilar said. “We did five.”
Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, agreed that not all bills are created equal.
“In terms of legislative productivity, it’s not just the batt average of bills signed, but the importance of the legislation itself. Major veteran benefits reform is far more important than dozens of bills to rename post offices,” he wrote in an email.
Also, having lawmakers help prevent bad bills from passing is “arguably as important” as passing good ones, Pitney wrote.
The Wiseman and Volden Center for Effective Legislation calculates a Legislative Effectiveness Score (LES) for members of Congress, combining the quality and number of bills introduced, along with how far those bills go in the legislative process. .
“There are a lot of intermediate successes that happen in the legislative process,” Wiseman said. “These intermediate stages are quite significant.”
And successes they achieve part of the way with bills in one session of Congress translate into passage of more bills in future sessions, according to Wiseman.
Other insights from his data: In addition to the benefits of majority party membership, seniority and being a committee chair, Wiseman said the center’s research shows lawmakers are more successful if they have relationships with members of Congress from the other party . as well as having a focused political agenda.
“We wanted to come up with some metric that would capture some of the major legislative hurdles in the process,” Wiseman said, which led to the development of the legislative effectiveness score.
The LES score they got is based on more than a dozen different elements, including how far along the bills were in the legislative process and how substantial the policy proposals were.
In the 117th Congress, members of the minority Republican Party in the House of Representatives had an average LES of 0.58, while members of the majority Democratic Party had an average LES of 1.40, reflecting that it was easier for Democrats do more when they controlled the House. The committee chairs obtained an average score of 2.55.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, minority Republican members had an average score of 0.77, majority Democratic members had an average score of 1.23, and committee chairs had an average score of 1.51.
The average score for members of the House of Representatives from the Los Angeles area was 1.44. The two senators from California had an average score of 1,369.
Money sent back to the district
One of the things legislators can do, in addition to getting legislation passed, is send money home.
The amount of money that representatives send to their district, a process known as “appropriations,” is an important measure of their effectiveness, according to Pitney.
“While appropriations have a bad reputation due to past abuses, they are generally sensible vehicles for providing help to communities in need,” he wrote.
The Bipartisan Policy Center detailed local spending in the 2021 omnibus spending bill, looking at who requested which destination. The average Southern California member of the House of Representatives requested $12.1 million in appropriations in that bill, ranging from the $26.9 million contributed by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Thousand Oaks, to Rep. Darrell Issa. , Republican for Vista and Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, neither of whom made any appropriations, according to the center’s data.
And finally, members of Congress helping the residents of their districts, known as “constituency services,” are considered incredibly important in many communities. Services often include things like helping voters navigate problems with federal agencies, including Social Security, the Small Business or Veterans Administration.
“Voters of color really value voter services a lot,” said Christian Grose, a professor of political science and public policy at USC. He wrote a book on the subject, Congress in Black and White.
Quantifying how well members of Congress are doing in the constituent services is difficult, he said.
“The style of Congress depends more on who is in the district: whether they are focused on passing legislation or on voter services,” Grose said.