Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog Published an Article Measuring Legislative Effectiveness. It’s Wrong and They Should Withdraw It.

Photo source: Ted McGrath

Dear Professor Lazarus:

I just read your post on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, the headline of which declares “Hillary Clinton was a more effective lawmaker than Bernie Sanders.” Respectfully, there is insufficient data to make such a comparison and the conclusion cannot be supported by the available evidence. You should withdraw or amend the blogpost. Moreover, there is no good way to (quantitatively) measure legislative effectiveness. Let me explain why.

Measuring a Member’s role in moving legislation is incredibly complex. In addition to measuring the number of sponsored bills and amendments passed with the Member’s name attached, you’d also have to measure the number of bills and amendments that were the Member’s idea but did not have his or her name included. How many ideas showed up in the base text of the bill? You’d have to look at the output of committees and subcommittees on which he or she served, and assess the role thereon. You’d have to measure the weight and importance of the bills and amendments — not every measure is of equal importance. You’d have to look at their complexity — a single bill can include many different ideas.

In addition, you’d have to look at the bills and amendments the Member blocked — directly or indirectly. You’d have to look at the bargains the Member struck. You’d have to look at the coalitions the Member assembled, and whether his or her role in the vanguard helped move an issue in a particular direction.

But legislation is only a part of legislative effectiveness. There’s also the issue of oversight. Measuring the number of committee hearings attended would be way too gross, but it would be a start. What questions were asked for the record? What policies were changed or fixed because of letters from the Member? How many of those letter were instigated by that Member? How many did he or she lead, or sign on to? How many news stories were written from questions that were asked at hearings? What hearings were rendered unnecessary because of spade work by that Member in the background?

Even were one to assemble reliable metrics, which I think would be hard for the reasons I described above, the ones you use — measuring the passage of bills and adopting of amendments per year — is too gross to measure anything useful. If anything, it’s grossly misleading.

I won’t even talk about trying to measure the parliamentary skills and maneuvering that go into addressing effectiveness.

The kind of measurement of the two democratic presidential candidates in the way you have done so is dangerous. It will become campaign fodder for one candidate or the other. It will show up in advertisements. It becomes part of the political fight. And it’s just plain wrong.

As a political scientist, you must know the likely consequences of this kind of article. And you know — or should know — that the data doesn’t exist to make this kind of measurement.

I respectfully ask that you withdraw the article. It is beneath you.

Update: Here’s an example of one way to do it right.