The Washington Post

Why bill success is a lousy way to keep score in Congress

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), left. (Melina Mara – THE WASHINGTON POST)

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 the Congressional 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.

Some reasons why judging effectiveness based on the progress of bills can be misleading:

  • All bills are not created equal. Some bills propose major reforms to the nation’s education system. Others name post offices.
  • Bills evolve. HR 3590 as introduced in the 111th Congress was titled The Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act of 2009, and was just six pages long. The same bill, when it became law, was titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 (PPACA) and was 906 pages long! HR 3590 was sponsored by the House Ways and Means committee chair Charles Rangel (D-NY), who played a relatively small role in the development of the PPACA. None of the four main markup bills, nor many other bills that inspired language found in the PPACA, became law.
  • Bundling happens. In 1999, Rep. Martin Meehan introduced HR 195, a bill imposing a tariff on imported wool trousers. His bill never made it out of committee, but an identical provision did become law as part of another bill (HR 435). Often “must pass” bills are the focus of bundling efforts. The USA PATRIOT Act of 2005 included numerous provisions having nothing to do with intelligence or terrorism. As Rep. Andrews noted, Congress may be passing fewer bills, but not necessarily fewer pages of legislation.
  • There is only one survivor. When the House and Senate consider companion bills on the same subject, only one can go on to the president.

The bar chart below hints at the perils of equating vehicles with policy ideas. For recent Congresses, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) identifies companion bills and bills that have been bundled verbatim into other bills that became law (using the designation, “For further action, see..”). Taking these companion bills into account effectively doubles the number of observed successes.

Bills that became law and their companion bills by Congress (Figure: John Wilkerson/The Monkey Cage)
Bills that became law and their companion bills by Congress (Figure: John Wilkerson/The Monkey Cage)

The CRS designation is probably just the tip of the iceberg. According to Rep. Andrews, “Freestanding bills almost never happen.” To the reporter, he suggested, “ask yourself how many of the ideas that were a seed planted in the bill that germinated in a larger bill. That’s the way this really works.” In other words, Andrews argues for a different standard of effectiveness – one where ideas matter, as opposed to bills or even identical legislative language.

In a current project, we are exploring text reuse methods from computer science as a means for tracing the progress of policy ideas in legislation. Our specific algorithm comes from genetic matching research but similar methods are used for plagiarism detection, among other things. We split every version of every bill introduced in a Congress by section. We then compare the similarity of the texts of each section pair. Using the legislative history of the 900 page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) as our working example, we were able to successfully predict (with 97% recall) when a policy idea found in a section of the PPACA matched a policy idea proposed at an earlier point in time. This allowed us to paint a more complete picture of the tangled legislative development of this important law.

From Rep. Andrew’s Congressional website:

In March 2009, Congressman Andrews was appointed to chair a special panel to review and request reforms for the defense acquisition process. On March 23, 2010, the panel released a report finding that the process had not aged well, particularly through the growth of information technology, and recommending specific reforms to modernize the acquisitions process and save money.

About a year later, on April 14, 2010, Rep. Andrews introduced HR 5013, the Implementing Management for Performance and Related Reforms to Obtain Value in Every Acquisition Act of 2010. Like every other bill he sponsored, this 90-page bill failed to become law. But what about the “specific reforms” proposed in the law? Did they also die a quiet death?

Using the same text reuse method to compare the similarity of HR 5013 with every enrolled bill of the 111th Congress led to one bill that became law about eight months later, HR 6523 (the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011). Fourteen of 36 substantive sections of Andrews’ 90-page bill were inserted essentially verbatim into Title VIII of the Defense Authorization Act. These nearly identical sections stretch from one end of  HR 5013 to the other, further suggesting that Andrew’s bill was the starting point for Title VIII. Though there are substantive differences, the overall organization of HR 5013 and Title VIII of HR 6523 are also very similar. Furthermore, we failed to detect any other bills that might have served as the inspiration for Title VIII.

In our view, Rep. Andrews deserves credit for inspiring this important set of procurement reforms, at least to the extent that he deserves credit in his role as the panel chair. This is just one example, of course, but it adds credence to Rep. Andrews’ estimate that “about 110 of his ideas have become law after being stuck into somebody else’s bill.”

The progress of bills offers many valuable opportunities for better understanding how laws are made, but we should stop rating members based on which legislative vehicles progress. Sadly, it probably won’t be long before bill hit rates or similar scores become standard fare on Web sites purporting to provide the public with “information” about their representatives’ legislative performance. Such a development could hinder rather than promote representative democracy.



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