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Legislative effectiveness research is joint initiative between Vanderbilt, University of Virginia
Reps. Gerald Connolly, D-VA, and Don Bacon, R-NE, and Sens. Gary Peters, D-MI, and John Cornyn, R-TX, top their respective lists of the most effective Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the recently completed 117th Congress (2021–23), according to the latest round of legislative effectiveness scores compiled by the Center for Effective Lawmaking released March 20.
A joint research, education and outreach initiative between the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Vanderbilt University, the Center for Effective Lawmaking uses a data-driven approach to study each member of Congress’ ability to advance agenda items through the legislative process and into law. The center’s legislative effectiveness scores are based on a combination of 15 metrics regarding the bills that each Congress member sponsors, how far those bills move through the lawmaking process, and how substantial their policy proposals are.
“Our report highlights the Democrats and Republicans who have worked hard to tackle the nation’s public policy challenges,” said Craig Volden, co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking and professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia. “While the 117th Congress was known for high-profile bipartisan efforts on issues from Ukraine to infrastructure to same-sex marriage, our work shows such bipartisanship extending behind the scenes. Many minority-party Republicans in the House and Senate scored as equally effective to top Democrats, and many Democrats incorporated language from Republican bills in their final legislation passed into law.”
“At a time when many politicians, journalists and members of the public are decrying the rise of polarization in American politics, combined with the events of January 6 at the beginning of the 117th Congress, it is encouraging to see that there are many members of the House and Senate—in both parties—that continue to reach across the aisle and work with each other to help advance their legislative goals,” said Alan Wiseman, co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking and chair of the Department of Political Science, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Economy and professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt. “Contrary to popular perception, there are serious lawmakers in Congress.”
Connolly claimed the highest legislative effectiveness score in the House during the 117th Congress, with a score more than seven times that of the average House member. He sponsored 51 bills, 11 of which passed the House, with three becoming law as standalone measures. In contrast, the average member of the House sponsored 21 bills, with only one law produced for every two members. While Connolly used his position in the majority party and as chair of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to advance numerous pieces of legislation in the 117th Congress, the researchers found he has been an effective lawmaker throughout his seven-term career, even as a rank-and-file representative and when in the minority party.
Other patterns and trends from the Center for Effective Lawmaking’s report on the 117th Congress include:
- Committee chairs in the 117th Congress were not especially successful in sponsoring bills that became law, with an average of 1.1 laws per chair—the lowest across all congresses that the Center for Effective Lawmaking has studied, dating back to 1973. This most recent finding continues a more than two-decade pattern that points to the declining influence of committees, a shift that undermines expertise and effective lawmaking in Congress as a whole.
- Nine of the 10 most effective House Republican lawmakers tended to be more ideologically moderate in their voting patterns on the House floor compared to other Republican representatives. Perhaps this moderate orientation, suggest the researchers, and the need to appeal to a divided constituency led them to put forward legislative proposals that resonated with majority-party Democrats.
- Legislative success was consistent among Democratic senators as they moved from the minority party in the 116th Congress to holding a bare majority in the 117th. Four of the top five Democrats in the 117th Congress and one additional senator were all in the top 10 in the 116th Congress, offering evidence that lawmaking skills translate well across institutional positions—from the minority party into the majority, and even into committee chair positions.
- Several of the top 10 most effective Republican senators have higher legislative effectiveness scores than their Democratic counterparts, despite being in the minority party in the 117th Congress. The overlap among the top performers’ scores points to the ways in which the Senate continues to be a relatively bipartisan lawmaking institution, where members of both parties can successfully advance their legislative agendas.
The Center for Effective Lawmaking’s legislative effectiveness scores are released every other year following the conclusion of each congress. The center identifies the top 10 most effective lawmakers in the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, plus:
- lawmakers with long-standing patterns of “exceeding expectations” in legislative effectiveness in the House and Senate;
- high-performing freshman legislators in the 117th Congress who were especially effective lawmakers;
- lawmakers who were most successful at having their sponsored bills attached to laws; and
- the top performers in the 117th House by policy area.
The full rankings, methodology and an executive summary may be found at thelawmakers.org.
The Center for Effective Lawmaking seeks to advance the generation, communication and use of new knowledge about the effectiveness of individual lawmakers and U.S. legislative institutions. The center envisions a Congress made up of effective lawmakers, strong institutional capacity, and the incentive structure needed to address America’s greatest public policy challenges.
For more information about the Center for Effective Lawmaking, visit thelawmakers.org.