Legislative Effectiveness, Part I: Pelosi vs. Boehner

Two political science professors, Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman, have come up with a way to measure the effectiveness of individual House representatives in their new book. They’ve created a “legislative effectiveness score” (LES) that compares each individual member’s legislative productivity during one two-year session relative to other members of that Congressional session. (Each two-year term has 450 points – equal to the number of members – available.) In their words:

“As concisely defined, legislative effectiveness is the proven ability to advance a member’s agenda items through the legislative process and into law.”

They try to show how successful a member of the House is able to move their bill through the committee process, onto the floor, have it pass, and eventually be signed into law. (Within each of these steps there are more finely grained indicators of effectiveness.) Effectiveness is only related to bills – not deal-making skills, constituent services, media appearances, or eating corn dogs at state fairs. “Significant” and “substantive” bills are weighted more than, say, a new name for a post office. They examined the 93rd through 112nd House sessions, which span from 1973-2012.

Volden and Wiseman look at a host of indicators for each member to try and find what criteria, if any, lead to more effectiveness: committee chairmanship, majority or minority party, women, African-American, and more. In addition to all the richness of variables they examine, I’m also interested in how different regions, the South especially, have fared in this research.

But before getting to regional differences, let’s get a sense of what the LES looks like in general. I took their data set and played around with it in R. Here’s a chart showing the effectiveness of the average majority and minority party member. Remember, there’s 450 points available – an average of 1 per member – for each Congress:


As you’d might expect, a representative in the majority party is going to be more effective than a minority party colleague. That doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual Democrat in, say, the 99th Congress (1985-1987) is more or less effective than a Republican, but as a whole, the lefty is more likely to push their bill through than the righty.


In the above chart, we see the LES score of each representative split up between majority and minority party members. The minority members  are concentrated near the bottom – joined by most of the majority, by the way – while the most effective members are almost always in the majority. And guess who is the most effective lawmaker based on their data? Why, it’s controversial New York Democrat Charlie Rangel, who was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 2007-2010 until he had to step down from the committee because of ethics violations. Despite being 84 and “disgraced” (in the eyes of some), he was reelected a couple weeks ago.

Last but not least, let’s look at a couple of lightning rods, House Majority Leader John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.


Speaker Boehner, using Volden and Wiseman’s calculation, is the much more effective legislator. He was a committee chair during the Bush presidency when the Republicans held the House. Pelosi never held a committee chair (she was on Appropriations and the senior Democrat on the Intelligence committee), just party leadership positions. This isn’t to say she wasn’t “effective,” just that the tangible data points used don’t translate well for her. Her prodigious fundraising for other Democrats isn’t incorporated.

Stay tuned for my look at the South through the lens of legislative effectiveness later this week.

(Code and data here on Github. Warning, the code is still a work in progress.)


About Jay

Health Policy Wonk. Slow long distance runner. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Cameroon '06-'08. Former Night owl.
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One Response to Legislative Effectiveness, Part I: Pelosi vs. Boehner

  1. Pingback: Legislative Effectiveness, Part II: The South | Living In The Sprawl

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