Legislator scorecards don't tell the whole story

One of my pet peeves is when interest groups release rank legislators according to how they have voted on a few key bills. These scorecards can be helpful as a general guideline, but some lawmakers game the system by voting the “right” way on a scorecard issue but voting with the other side on procedural measures. A classic example was when some pro-choice and environmental groups gave Senator Joe Lieberman credit for voting against confirming Justice Samuel Alito, even though Lieberman had voted against the filibuster that was the only realistic way to keep Alito off the Supreme Court.

Progressive Punch has a search engine that lets you view how individual members of Congress have voted in certain issue categories. Even more useful, Progressive Punch has incorporated a “crucial vote” score that includes bills and procedural measures that passed or failed by narrow margins. You’d be surprised by how many Democrats have high Progressive Punch ratings overall but much lower crucial vote scores, indicating that “when the chips were down,” these people were not reliable allies.

But even the Progressive Punch rating system doesn’t tell the whole story, because committee and floor votes aren’t the only way for legislators to exercise their power.

Yesterday Environment Iowa reminded me of the problems with scorecards when the group announced its rating of Iowa’s members of Congress. The scores were based on “seven votes in the Senate ranging from an economic recovery bill with investments in public transit and energy efficiency to legislation saving the nation’s coasts from offshore drilling,” and 15 votes in the House “including funding to make schools more energy efficient and legislation protecting the Great Lakes.” Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Leonard Boswell (IA-03) received 100 percent scores, while Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02) scored 93 percent and Representative Bruce Braley (IA-01) scored 80 percent. Environment Iowa commented, “These numbers include a few absences from key votes that occurred during the floods of 2008.”

A few things are very wrong with this picture.  

First, I think it’s unfair to ding Braley and Loebsack for being absent during the 2008 floods. Missing a vote because of a crisis in your district is different from voting with the other side on a bill.

More important, Environment Iowa would have us believe that Boswell is more of an environmental champion than Braley and Loebsack, which is way off the mark. Boswell’s voting record has improved greatly during the last couple of years, as you can see by comparing his lifetime Progressive Punch scores with his score based on votes in 2009. He deserves credit for that (as does Ed Fallon for challenging Boswell in the 2008 Democratic primary). But if we are committed to combating global warming, as Environment Iowa is, we must recognize that the climate change bill is by far the most important legislation pending in Congress.

We wouldn’t even be talking about that bill if House Democrats hadn’t chosen Henry Waxman to replace John Dingell as chairman of the House Energy Committee. Braley went out on a limb to give the seconding speech for Waxman and helped win over many Democrats elected in 2006 or 2008. Boswell’s office declined to tell me whether he had supported Dingell or Waxman, but most Blue Dogs backed Dingell. In any event, Boswell was not a public advocate for Waxman.

While the climate change bill was being marked up, Braley was among the Energy and Commerce Committee members trying to make the bill stronger. In contrast, Boswell was among the Agriculture Committee members trying to make the bill weaker. Braley, Loebsack and Boswell all voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act (Waxman-Markey), but they weren’t equally loud voices for the environment.

Speaking of global warming, I have a problem with Environment Iowa giving Harkin 100 percent when he is one of 14 Senate Democrats trying to get more giveaways for coal-burning utilities in an already weak climate change bill. Harkin has generally suported clean energy and other good environmental policies in the past, but on the most important environmental legislation before the current Congress, he is unfortunately not a voice for the “change we need.” You’d never know that from Environment Iowa’s scorecard, though, because the Senate has yet to vote on the climate change bill.

It’s good for non-profits to reward good behavior by elected officials, but public votes shouldn’t be the only factors that go into these rankings.

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