What Advocacy Organizations Can Learn From The Most Effective Lawmakers

While watching a recent Democratic primary debate, I heard Senator Amy Klobouchar cite a Vanderbilt study that named her the most effective Democratic Senator during the last congressional session. Curious and a bit skeptical about anyone’s ability to measure legislative effectiveness, I tracked down the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) to learn more. After reading through their research, I’m convinced there are worthwhile takeaways, including for advocacy organizations seeking to influence legislators. It turns out certain legislators consistently get more of their bills passed into law than their peers year after year. I don’t think the metrics that CEL uses capture everything about influencing policy, but advocacy organizations will benefit from knowing who the effective legislators are and the strategies those legislators use to achieve success. Not everything lawmakers do will translate to advocacy organizations outside of government, but some strategies will be applicable. Advocacy groups can mimic successful legislative strategies like sticking closely to issues that fit with your mission, membership, and expertise, while being open to compromising with seemingly unnatural allies to build winning coalitions. Interestingly, ideology does not seem to matter much for legislative effectiveness, countering the conventional wisdom that centrist politicians and organizations get more done. 

The Methodology for What Makes an Effective Legislator

The index that CEL’s leaders Craig Volden and Alan Wisemen created for determining legislative effectiveness is fairly straightforward.  For each session of Congress, every legislator is tracked on the number of bills they sponsor and how often those bills clear legislative hurdles such as receiving action in committee (e.g. a markup or vote), receiving action on the floor of the House or Senate, passing one of the two houses, and passing into law. The researchers graded every bill into three categories: 1) commemorative; 2) substantive; and 3) substantive and significant. Commemorative bills like renaming a post office score lower than those that enact substantive policy change. Substantive bills that receive a certain level of media attention earn the “significant” label and garner additional points. Finally, the researchers created a benchmark score to account for the fact that being in the majority party or holding a committee or subcommittee chair provides more baseline opportunities to enact bills than members in less powerful roles. The benchmark allows CEL to get a rough sense of whether a legislator met expectations, exceeded expectations, or came in below expectations during a given legislative session compared to their colleagues.

What CEL’s Results Mean for Advocacy Organizations

Although lawmakers’ scores go up and down from year to year, individuals exhibit fairly clear patterns over time. Effective legislators consistently score higher than their colleagues, and that translates even when they move from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Throughout his career, John McCain consistently got more legislation passed into law than many of his colleagues. Over the last 10 congressional sessions (20 years), Sen. Diane Fienstein has exceeded expectations every time. Rep. Don Young of Alaska has accomplished this 23 times in a row

In an immediate sense, advocacy organizations at the federal level should find the information useful. If you are looking for a legislator to champion your issue and have an interest in passing something into law, it’s worth it to at least glance at who consistently moves their proposed legislation furthest. Convincing an effective legislator to be your champion will not guarantee you can pass your favored policy. Having an ineffective champion, though, could hurt your chances of getting anything done. Beyond the practical step of considering effective allies, the lessons learned about what makes for effective legislation may also translate to advocacy groups. 

Craig and Wiseman also wrote a book, part of which focused on the 20 most effective lawmakers they could find over a sustained period. They learned a handful of habits that all of these lawmakers demonstrated. Not all of them apply to advocacy organizations. For example, using committee chair and sub-committee chair positions to advance your agenda is not something advocacy organizations have the power to do. (However you can ally closely with those leaders!). Other lessons do translate more readily to outside advocacy groups. 

Laser Focus on Your Constituents and Expertise

Two groups of two habits each have some application for advocacy groups. The first two habits of effective lawmakers focus on taking advantage of their personal background and district: 

  • Develop a legislative agenda rooted in personal background, previous experiences and policy expertise.
  • Develop a legislative agenda tightly focused on district needs.

As an example, CEL points to the late Rep. Tom Lantos who “ escaped Nazi forced-labor camps and dedicated his congressional career to fighting human rights abuses worldwide.” According to their analysis, these habits boil down to two traits: specialization and persistence. Effective advocacy groups can learn from and apply these lessons. Notably, many organizations already apply similar considerations when making advocacy decisions about which policy issues to prioritize. For groups who committed to a disciplined approach to issue advocacy that strictly prioritizes your members interests, mission, and expertise – CEL’s data offers some support for your strategy.

Build Broad Coalitions Including with Strange Bedfellows

Two other habits of effective lawmakers are also relevant to advocacy organizations: 

  • Be open to compromise, even with those who are not natural allies.
  • Cultivate a broad set of allies, even beyond Congress.

The logic behind these strategies is that by bringing on different constituencies among lawmakers, you are more likely to get the needed votes to move a policy forward. This is especially true if you don’t have a majority of votes for something among policymakers who already agree with you and are willing to compromise on some aspects of your agenda to bring other votes on board. 

The power of the “strange bedfellows” coalition was driven home to me several years ago during a major policy win in the 2011 debt ceiling deal between the Obama Administration and then Speaker Boehner. The compromise to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars also included a $17 billion dollar increase in funding for the Pell grant program. At the time, Young Invincibles was involved with a number of allies in the Save Pell coalition seeking to close a shortfall in Pell grant funding. 

After months of relentless advocacy we were thrilled to see the problem addressed in a deal that otherwise led to cuts elsewhere. Later I had learned our efforts were only part of the story. While Democrats wanted to protect education funding, many conservative Republicans were not thrilled with the final deal. However, higher education institutions, and for-profits colleges in particular that heavily enroll Pell eligible students lobbied Republican lawmakers behind the scenes to support Pell funding. For-profit colleges were not natural coalition allies of progressive advocacy groups who were simultaneously seeking tougher regulations on poor performing for-profit schools. Nevertheless, both sides agreed on the need to keep up Pell funding, and the for-profits had stronger relationships with Republican lawmakers, including through donations to many electoral campaigns. For-profit college support helped create enough room on the Republican side of the debt ceiling stand-off for a negotiated deal that included extra Pell money. While this was not an intentional coalition, it did make plain the power of uncommon allies to deliver policy victories. 

Although the need for compromise translates from lawmakers to advocacy groups, I do think the incentives are slightly different for those outside government compared to those in power. Advocacy organizations working in broad coalition will need to compromise from time to time, to bring a diverse set of actors around a common agenda. However, the responsibility of lawmakers for getting to a final result that addresses a policy issue creates more need to compromise, and to do so sooner in the legislative process. Advocacy groups may not want to signal publicly or privately where they are willing to give on their policy agenda so as not to lose  negotiating power. They have more incentive to “stick to their guns,” waiting until a final bill is up for a vote before signaling final approval or disapproval. In fact, I’ve been encouraged by allied lawmakers in the past to keep up the public pressure to help them have a stronger negotiating position in early legislative negotiations. All this goes to say that effective advocacy groups will know how to compromise both in setting coalition priorities and working with lawmakers, but the timing and nature of that will look different than for lawmakers.  

Ideology Does Not Appear to Matter for Effectiveness

Another finding from a CEL working paper suggests that ideology is unrelated to lawmakers’ effectiveness. You have probably heard some version of the conventional wisdom that centrist politicians or organizations are able to get more done by virtue of their place in the political spectrum. Clarke et. al “find that lawmaking effectiveness is not a product of the pivotal ideological centrist position of factions or faction size…” It appears that much more important than where you fall on the ideological spectrum are the tools noted above such as being open to working with a diverse set of allies. Advocacy organizations can probably take this as a data point that may apply outside of government as well.

What CEL’s Index Might Leave Out

While CEL appears to be onto something in their data, I believe they have captured only part of what makes for effective policy change. Advocacy groups should heed both CEL’s data and remain open to other strategies and tactics.  The case of Bernie Sanders over the past two Presidential primaries appears to demonstrate another such approach. Senator Sanders does not seem to be very effective at moving legislation as part of his agenda, though his place as an independent makes it difficult to use CEL’s tool to rank him compared to other Democrats. I tried comparing him to Amy Klobuchar – a particularly effective legislator by CEL’s standards – over the 12 years they’ve spent in Congress. Senator Klobuchar scored higher, in some cases significantly so, for 5 out of the 6 congressional sessions they have shared as members of Congress.

However, it’s undeniable that despite his sparse legislative record, Senator Sanders’ Presidential campaigns have broadly pushed the policy agenda of the Democratic party to the left. Even the so-called moderates in the 2020 Democratic Presidential field including Sen. Klobuchar, Vice President Biden, and Mayor Buttegeig all ran on platforms well to the left of Barack Obama. Whether he ever wins a Presidential campaign or even passes another bill, Senator Sanders and the movement behind him could have a significant impact on scope of policy change if the Democrats regain power. I don’t know of a clear way to quantify that type of influence, but it does appear to exist. 

For advocacy groups, I do think the takeaway is that there are multiple tools in the policy change toolbox. If you are interested in substantive legislative progress, particularly in the near term, CEL’s data offers some support for the effectiveness of several strategies discussed above. There are also other potential options. Introducing less substantive message bills like Medicare for All that will not pass, but nevertheless pull a broader swath of policymakers and advocates in your direction also has an impact though it may be more difficult to quantify. The legislative effectiveness index shows part of what makes for effective change, but it does not account for the entire toolbox. 

Are there other strategies you think that might be left out? If so what do you think they are? Let me know in the comments.