By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Teachers aren’t the only ones to hand out report cards.
Any number of lobbies in Washington issue reports scoring lawmakers on how they voted on a host of issues near and dear to their respective organizations.
One legislator may get a score close to zero by one organization, yet be judged as nearly perfect by another group — sometimes on the same votes, sometimes for a different series of bills under consideration.
“We have a long tradition of scoring,” said Mary Novak, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby. Network was founded 50 years ago, in 1972, and started scoring in 1974. “This is one of the most consistent exercises in our political ministry,” she said.
Novak added Network’s government relations team looks at all the bills its lobbyists have weighed in on during the year and narrows down that list to the bills it considered “most consequential” for Network’s chosen agenda, which is refreshed with the start of each new presidential term. For 2021-24, it’s titled “Build a New Agenda.”
For 2021, Network scored nine House votes. And lest one think there is a chasm in the lower chamber between Democrats and Republicans that can never again be crossed, Novak told Catholic News Service that two House Republicans got scores of over 50%: Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. Novak said she considers 50% “a passing grade.”
While there were 40 House members who got scores of zero, there were 220 who got perfect scores of 100%.
Network scored the American Rescue Plan Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the similar For the People Act, the American Dream and Promise Act, the Protect the Right to Organize Act, the Build Back Better Act, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and the EQUAL Act, intended to cut racial disparities in cocaine conviction sentences.
Over in the Senate, there were 50 senators who scored 100%, and the other 50 scored zero. That’s because Network had only one bill to score: the American Rescue Plan Act. It was prepared to score the Senate versions of the other eight bills for which it had graded the House, but they never came up for a vote, largely due to the failure to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate — in other words, the filibuster.
Asked if Network would consider scoring a bill to cut off debate so a bill could be voted on, Novak replied, “Potentially.”
Scoring doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The scores and votes are published in Connection, Network’s quarterly magazine.
Network members also set up meetings at the lawmaker’s home-state office to physically drop off the voting record and talk about the lobby’s upcoming legislative priorities; 116 have already done so, according to Novak.
“We have also been celebrating our 100-percenters on social media,” Novak said. “Our members of Congress really look forward to our scorecard issue of Connection magazine every January. Sometimes they call us first before it comes out” to learn how they fared.
Students for Life Action has been scoring votes for two years, according to Kristi Hamrick, the organization’s chief media and policy strategist, shortly after it established itself as a 501(c)(4) organization.
“The biggest use of scorecards is to vote the way that you advise so that you can hold them accountable,” Hamrick told CNS. “It’s really an important part” of its mission. “It’s how you reward or don’t reward a candidate.”
So far, “I think it’s gone well. We’ve got some seats that we have flipped,” Hamrick said. “One of the things that SFLA is not afraid to do is to ‘primary’ a candidate” — backing a same-party challenge to the incumbent. “That is where we in particular have used scoring.”
Students for Life looks not only at Congress but state legislatures. “We’re going into a state and saying there is a particularly egregious vote in your state. This is how that person voted,” Hamrick said. “It’s particularly useful when people say they’re pro-life and don’t act it. There’s some real room for maneuvering where people are trying to wear a pro-life label while not voting pro-life.”
Titus Folks, a grassroots Students for Life political coordinator, pointed to seats that changed in Arizona, Kansas, South Carolina and Virginia, down to the exact number of text messages in the Virginia race.
In Congress, last year Students for Life issued a news release saying in advance it would score a vote on a particular bill. “We sent out lots of scoring letters: ‘Please be advised that we are going to inform your constituents of this vote.’ That is what scoring is about, letting constituents know whether they voted for or against the cause of life,” Hamrick said.
She’s not a fan of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bills. “You know how it is in Congress, bundle our legislation and muddy the water,” Hamrick said, “putting 10 things in one pot.”
Her advice to lawmakers when it comes to life issues: “However a package may be presented to you, this one thing is significant and you need to pay attention to it.”
“The NRA (National Rifle Association), even Planned Parenthood and company — all groups communicate. We pro-life groups need to be just as direct.”
Hamrick added, “We’re not partisan. We’re not here to tell you whether to vote Democrat or Republican. We’re tell here to tell to vote pro-life and to give you an informed choice.”
State Catholic conferences seem to shy away from scoring.
“Scoring votes could be seen as being biased toward/against some legislators,” said an email from Cindy Evers, an administrative assistant at the Missouri Catholic Conference. “We do, however, publish 2-3 key House and Senate votes each year once session has ended. We simply report on how the legislator voted on legislation we were tracking and what our position on the bill was.”
Tom Costanza, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, chuckled at the thought of lawmakers being unable to score a perfect 100% because of the diverse portfolio of issues monitored by the church.
“We’re more relational, one-on-one” with legislators, Costanza said.