This is a season when lawmakers’ hopes for the new Congress still spring eternal. But that's not all. It’s also a time of finalized reckoning for all their votes in the old Congress.
Scorecard time is climaxing at the Capitol. More than 80 advocacy groups — from all along the ideological spectrum and from every mainstream and obscure corner of the policy universe — have come up with their own algorithms for measuring every member’s level of loyalty with a single letter or number. When the Chamber of Commerce unveils its scores next week, it will signal an end to the 2012 grading season.
But the process for 2013 is just now coming into full flower, as the Senate prepares to cast the most intensely lobbied and passionately debated votes of the young year. And the groups that have announced they’ll take special note of the roll calls on gun control — to “score the votes,” in K Street parlance — offer a window into the current state of the complex, high-stakes and big money mainstay of modern lobbying.
Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, has announced it’s looking for a “no” Thursday to break the GOP filibuster, hoping to stop the gun violence debate before it gets started. The group said it will reduce the 2013 grade of any senator who votes the other way.
That signals a departure for Heritage’s three-year-old lobbying shop, now that its parent think tank is under the direction of former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who until this year was cultivating his standing as the tea party’s favorite senator. Last year, fewer than 10 of the group’s 67 key Senate votes were on topics other than fiscal or regulatory policy.
Jumping into the gun control debate at the earliest opportunity suggests that Heritage wants to start shaping the outcome on every issue, social or economic, that galvanizes the conservative base.
At the same time, a brand new entrant into the score keeping game emerged Tuesday on the opposite side of the debate. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the advocacy group financed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said it would be grading every senator’s and representative's level of support for expanding background checks, limiting assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, cracking down on gun trafficking, and allowing states to tighten concealed carry rules.
It will be an A through F letter grade, just like the venerable scorecard of the National Rifle Association. So the high honor role of one list will no doubt align with the flunkees on the other.
Both groups are trying to capitalize on the same dynamics that have made scorecards an essential lobbying tool for the past several decades: The byzantine nature of the legislative process, combined with information overload, can overwhelm even the savviest of the politically engaged.
If an advocacy group can boil each lawmaker’s record down to one score, its members can get easily digestible and actionable information — to decide who should get an angry email, a protest outside the district office, a big campaign check or, most importantly, their votes in the primary and the general elections.
There’s a serious question, though, about whether the effectiveness of the report system has been compromised by its very wide spread. For decades, the making-the-grade game was dominated by the biggest advocacy players — labor unions and big business associations, old line liberal organizations and their most venerable conservative counterparts.
But in recent years the number of scorecards has mushroomed to include reports from all manner of niche groups, from advocates for the arts to protectors of the zebra mussel. With each one claiming its grades merit the most attention, and with so many aimed at ideologically similar groups on the left or right, the end result has been something of a Tower of Babel: Few scorecards stand out as genuinely influential, so lawmakers feel free to brush aside threats from one group about a vote being scored because they know plenty of other groups they’re appealing to won’t care.
By the time the election comes around, a unionized teacher who’s a part-time Realtor and a member of both the NRA and the Sierra Club may have so many conflicting scorecards to look over that her eyes will glaze over.
A member who’s being pressed for absolute fealty from dozens of scorekeepers may feel politically comfortable in the knowledge that he hasn’t been able to win top marks from any of them.
With Heritage expanding the subjects in its report card, just as Bloomberg is starting to grade on the opposite curve, it’s possible neither move will stand out in the 2014 campaign, no matter how well-funded each will surely be.