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Posted by on Mar 20, 2007 in Politics | 4 comments

Rating the Members


I’m not sure how much weight to put behind this exercise in the National Journal (h/t memeorandum).

The description of the methodology sounds impressive, but the ultimate decision about what’s liberal and what’s conservative still came down to a subjective judgment on the part of the magazine’s editors: “The yea and nay positions on each roll call were then identified as conservative or liberal.” Perhaps that’s the way it should be or simply must be; politics is, after all, a subjective art, not an objective science. Still, I’d love to see the criteria they used to define conservative and liberal, though for the life of me, I can’t find them. (If others do, please share accordingly in the comments section.)

Regardless, the exercise is a fascinating one, and it certainly appears to be more robust than other such ratings, based as it is on a composite voting record: “A panel of National Journal editors and reporters initially compiled a list of 187 key congressional roll-call votes for 2006 — 84 votes for the Senate and 103 for the House — and classified them as relating to economic, social, or foreign policy.”

Possibly of greatest interest to those whose political orientations are left-of-, right-of-, and dead-on-center, is the Journal‘s assessment of the Congressional centrists — an analysis that (among many other things) confirms what has been written before: Notable Republicans with liberal orientations (e.g., Chafee in the Senate and Leach in the House) were booted out in the mid-terms, further skewing the GOP’s rightward tilt.

Beyond that, there’s much more here, in the main article and sidebars, to both confirm and challenge our individual perspectives on Members of Congress, including (especially) those Members who are vying for the White House in ’08. Enjoy the material, and as always, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and observations.

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  • I don’t give much credence to the National Journal congressional vote ratings because the methodology used to construct each individual member’s ratings is extremely flawed and prone to giving extremely misleading assessments on individual member’s ideology in each of the three issue areas (fiscal policy, social policy, foreign policy).

    I’ve written about the NJ’s rating system numerous times before on several other blogs–pointing out both its flawed methodology and the misleading outcomes–and I’m not going to rehash my entire argument here. But suffice it to say, I see two major problems with the methodology (which are actually related to one another):

    1) As Pete pointed out, in this study, “liberalness” and “conservativeness” are completely subjective. If you read the methodology section, you will see that the authors of this annual study NEVER define what constitutes a “liberal” view or a “conservative” view. Rather, “liberalness” and “conservativeness” was determined by how closely a politician’s vote corresponded to the votes of other politicians:

    The votes in each issue area were subjected to a principal-components analysis, a statistical procedure designed to determine the degree to which each vote resembled other votes in the same category (the same members tending to vote together) . . .

    The analysis also revealed which yea votes correlated with which nay votes within each issue area (members voting yea on certain issues tended to vote nay on others). The yea and nay positions on each roll call were then identified as conservative or liberal.

    2. Because it compares politician’s votes to that of its peers rather than a concrete definition of “liberalness” or “conservativeness”, the NJ’s rating system is much less a measure of political ideology than it is of political partisanship. Yes, those members who tend to be the most ideological also tend to be the most partisan, but there is not a strict correlation between the two.

    Consider, for example, those politicians at the extreme left and the extreme right. A handful of Democrats are so “left-wing” that they might vote against their own party, if they deem their party’s position to not be “liberal” enough.

    Off hand, I cannot think of any example from the 2006 congressional year, but I can think of a perfect example from the 2007 congressional year. On the most recent House vote in regards to the funding the Iraq War, Representative Barbara Lee was the lone Democrat to vote against the Democrat-backed bill because, in her mind, it does not call upon the U.S. to withdraw its troops soon enough. Thus, on paper, her vote was identical to majority of Republicans who also voted against the bill. But the fact of the matter is the Representative Lee voted against her own party, not because she is more “conservative” than them on this issue–exactly the opposite–she is more “liberal.”

    That was an example from the left. Let’s consider the right. Representative Ron Paul is a political anomaly in that he simultaneously holds membership in both the Republican AND Libertarian parties. His political philosophy is best described as paleolibertarian (a conservative-leaning libertarian). He is a strict Constitutionalist, meaning that he votes against ANY and EVERY piece of legislation that he feels violates–in any way–the explicit meaning of the Constitution. As a result, he votes against almost any bill that is brought before the House of Representatives (whether it is sponsored by Republicans or Democrats), and for this reason (and because he is a physician), he is notoriously known in Congress as “Dr. No.”

    What this means is that Representative Paul often votes against his own party on spending bills. He voted against Bush’s prescription drug bill because he deemed it to be unconstitutional. He regularly votes against highway bills, transportation bills, and any bill that he deems to be filled with pork-barrel-spending, which he believes is not only fiscally irresponsible, but violates the concept of federalism, which is enshrined in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Thus, on paper, his votes are often identical to majority of Democrats who also tend to vote against Bush’s measures (albeit for far different reasons). But the fact of the matter is that Representative Paul voted against his own party on these bills, not because he is more “liberal” than them on these issues–exactly the opposite–he is more “conservative.”

    In fact, over the last decade, Representative Ron Paul, has regularly been the most FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE politician of either party in either house of congress–a fact that remained true in 2006. Yet the National Journal ranked him 101 out of 435 in terms on fiscal conservatism. According to the National Journal, Republicans like Jon Boehner, Don Young, Jean Schmidt, JD Hayworth and 96 other Republicans are more fiscally conservative than Ron Paul. And the reason is obvious–Ron Paul consistently votes against his own party when he feels that the proposed legislation is too costly and/or unconstitutional–and for this, the National Journal considers him to be more “liberal” than 23% of the House.

    This makes no sense. Voting against one’s own party on “conservative” grounds (as Ron Paul often does) doesn’t make one a “liberal” on the issue in question. Similarly, voting against ones own party of “liberal” grounds (as Barbara Lee sometimes does) doesn’t make one a “conservative” on the issue in question.

    I could go on with countless other examples. I haven’t even mentioned anything about what constitutes a “liberal” versus “conservative” foreign policy. According to the National Journal, paleolibertarian Ron Paul is a “liberal” on foreign policy because he is consistently anti-war and opposes George Bush’s interventionist foreign policy. One wonders, was Ron Paul also a “liberalâ€? when he opposed President Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy?

    The National Journal’s congressional vote rankings are extremely flawed and are a perfect example of branding people as “liberals” and “conservatives” based purely upon how well they tow the party line rather than on a concrete definition of “liberal” and “conservative.”

  • Paul Silver

    Fascinating and entertaining.
    Thanks for this.
    I wonder why all of those Centrists don’t organize as a caucus to moderate the legislative process and help elect others who are likeminded?

  • Paul Silver

    What the Centrist list says to me is that those legislators do not automatically vote with the leadership for reasons of conscience or simply that their district is not as liberal or conservative as the party leadership.

    Nevertheless it is a useful profile of the general “flexibility” of the legislators; and it seems to me to reflect the conventional wisdom about most legislators.

  • nicrivera,

    Important details; thank you for sharing those.


    Despite nic’s details, I think your assessment of the “centrists” stands …

    What the Centrist list says to me is that those legislators do not automatically vote with the leadership for reasons of conscience or simply that their district is not as liberal or conservative as the party leadership.

    Nevertheless it is a useful profile of the general “flexibilityâ€? of the legislators …

    And in that sense, the centrist list might be potentially useful to those of who want to encourage those legislators to “caucus,” formally or informally.

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