Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Average Is Just Not Good Enough

The National Taxpayers Union (NTU) released its annual ratings of Members of Congress on Tuesday, and Virginia's congressional delegation did not fare well. The averaged score among Virginia House members was 50 percent; in the Senate, that score was a dismal 33 percent.

All four Democrats who serve in Congress from Virginia earned an embarrassing "F" grade. The grades of the nine Republicans were all over the map.

First, some background. According to NTU's press release:

The multi-year decline of lawmakers' pro-taxpayers scores under Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate entered a nosedive in 2007 with a new Democratic majority, according to the National Taxpayers Union's (NTU) 29th annual Rating of Congress. The scorecard, the only one to utilize every roll call vote affecting tax, spending, and regulatory issues, was based on a record 609 votes -- 427 in the House and 182 in the Senate.

"Despite campaign-trail promises from many Members of Congress to put Washington on a stricter diet, our 2007 Rating shows that, by and large, the only things shrinking on Capitol Hill are lawmakers' pro-taxpayer scores," NTU President Duane Parde said. "Overburdened taxpayers looking for an end to 'earmarked' spending, an extension of President Bush's tax cuts, and an honest entitlement reform plan won’t like what they see in Congress's performance so far."

Between 2006 and 2007, the average "Taxpayer Score" in the House fell from 39 percent to 35 percent. The Senate's average plummeted by 11 points, from 48 percent to 37 percent. This spiral takes scores closer to the all-time low (in 1988) of 27 percent and 28 percent, respectively, for the House and Senate. The highest marks were reached in 1995, when House and Senate averages were 58 percent and 57 percent, respectively.

Even though 2007's overall results were not the worst in the Rating's history, several other dubious records were achieved last year, including the lowest score ever (1 percent) and the largest number of single-digit scores (over 200 in the House and Senate). The latter result produced the lowest median scores (not averages) in the history of the Rating, and reflects tremendous political polarization between fiscally liberal lawmakers and the rest of Congress.

The scoring system used by NTU has long been considered an objective measure of how legislators vote on spending and tax issues. As the news release explains:

Unlike those of other organizations, NTU's annual Rating does not simplistically focus on a handful of equally weighted "key votes," but every roll call vote affecting fiscal policy -- appropriations, authorization, and tax bills; budget target resolutions; amendments; and certain procedural votes that could affect the burden on taxpayers. For this reason, it has received praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including former Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI), creator of the "Golden Fleece Award." A Member of Congress's "Taxpayer Score" reflects his or her commitment to reducing or controlling federal spending, taxes, debt, and regulation.

For the fifth consecutive year, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was the top scorer in the House with a 96 percent rating -- bringing him one year closer to Rep. Ron Paul's (R-TX) record of six first-place finishes from 1979 to 1984. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) captured first place in the Senate for the second year in a row with a 93 percent rating. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) received the worst score in the Rating's nearly 30-year history: 1 percent. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) was the biggest spender in the Senate with a 3 percent rating.

The NTU scorecard can also be used to show which Democratic and Republican Members of Congress fell the furthest in their relative ranking from 2006 to 2007. Among Democrats, they are Rep. William Jefferson (LA), who dropped 156 slots in the House ranking, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY), who declined 30 steps in Senate rank. Rep. Tom Petri (WI) slipped the most among GOP House Members (75 places) while Sen. John Sununu (NH) lost 20 steps in Senate Republican rank. In 2005, Sununu was the upper chamber's top scorer.

Among members of the Virginia congressional delegation, only Representative Eric Cantor (R-7) earned an "A" grade and the designation "Taxpayers' Friend."

The full list of Virginia House members (in alphabetical order) shows the following grades and scores:
Rick Boucher (D-9) -- F and 5 percent
Eric Cantor (R-7) -- A and 87 percent
Tom Davis (R-11) -- C and 57 percent
Thelma Drake (R-2) -- B+ and 75 percent
Randy Forbes (R-4) -- B and 70 percent
Virgil Goode (R-5) -- B+ and 79 percent
Bob Goodlatte (R-6) -- B+ and 78 percent
Jim Moran (D-8) -- F and 5 percent
Bobby Scott (D-3) -- F and 3 percent
Frank Wolf (R-10) -- C- and 44 percent

STATE AVERAGE -- 50 percent
(I did not include the late Jo Ann Davis [R-1] or her successor, Rob Wittmann [R-1], whose votes were not reported by the NTU. Wittmann can count on being rated next year.)

On the Senate side, retiring Senator John Warner (R) earned a "C" grade and scored 55 percent, while first-term Senator Jim Webb (D) earned an "F" grade and scored 13 percent, for an average state score of 33 percent.

For those in other states who might be interested in their own congressional delegations or their own individual Members, NTU has a searchable database of scores and grades going back to 1992.

The middling performance of Virginia's Senators and Representatives brings to mind that famous quotation of Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska, who said with regard to failed Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell, "So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

I guess we're getting mediocre representation in Virginia ... in spades.

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