Symposium | Revitalizing Political Leadership

Legislative Effectiveness: The Elements of Success

By Craig Volden Alan E. Wiseman

Tagged CongressGovernancestates

The American states offer tremendous potential as laboratories of democracy. As Louis Brandeis pointed out long ago, states can “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Policy successes can then spread across the states, while failures are abandoned. Policy achievements that began in the states have ranged from anti-smoking restrictions to widespread health insurance expansions. At the same time, the lawmakers who work on developing these innovative proposals gain valuable experience in political leadership that helps them tackle ever more difficult policy problems, either within their states or when they move up to the national level.

How well are state legislatures serving such promising roles? Are they attractive to new young leaders? Are they structured in ways that encourage practices of good governance, such as earnest deliberation over policy options, learning from others, acquisition and use of expertise, appropriate levels of bipartisanship, and bold experimentation? How would we even know which states are working well and which lawmakers are ready to take their training wheels off and gain further prominence in the national arena?

At the Center for Effective Lawmaking, we seek to advance the generation, communication, and use of new knowledge about the effectiveness of individual lawmakers and legislative institutions in the United States. In support of this mission, we generate Legislative Effectiveness Scores for every member of Congress and, recently, for state legislators (called State Legislative Effectiveness Scores) as well. Those scores combine 15 metrics based on the bills that lawmakers introduce, how far they advance toward becoming law, and how substantively significant they are. They are designed to offer an objective indication of who can navigate our country’s often opaque institutions to seriously address policy challenges.

The scores are limited in that they do not assess the content of the bills that these legislators seek to advance. That is, a lawmaker may be highly successful at advancing a set of policies that certain constituents may find highly objectionable. That said, they do capture which members of Congress (and state legislators) are most successful at advancing their agendas, and they can help point the way toward how state legislatures can better cultivate political leadership and promote effective lawmaking.

At both the state and national level, these Legislative Effectiveness Scores show what readers should already expect. Senior lawmakers, committee chairs, and those in the majority party are more effective than are freshmen, minority-party, and rank-and-file legislators. But, upon controlling for those factors, new and important insights emerge.

For example, at the congressional level, we’ve found that the most effective lawmakers are those who specialize in particular policy areas. Rather than being pulled in too many directions, they focus their lawmaking agendas on the sweet spot that combines insights from prior professions, concerns weighing heavily in their districts, and committee assignments that empower them in specific domains.

Additionally, members of Congress who are more bipartisan in the co-sponsors they attract to their bills are likewise more effective. While bipartisanship is obviously a necessary strategy for minority-party lawmakers, we find that it is equally important for majority-party members. It can signal to party and committee leaders that there are fewer roadblocks to be overcome if precious legislative time is spent on this particular proposal. In a similar vein, at the state level, we find that ideological moderates are more effective at advancing their bills than are those on the far right or the far left of the ideological spectrum. Given the partisan polarization in Congress, increasingly found also in the states, this pattern lends some reassurance that there still is room for middle-ground compromises.

Moreover, we have identified the states where proposals from minority-party members, junior lawmakers, or legislators from underrepresented groups are taken seriously, and the states where proposals from these groups seem to be broadly dismissed. We find that some of these differences are baked into the institutional structures of state legislatures. In some states, for example, the majority party exerts strong control over which bills can come out of committee and find a place on the legislative calendar. This and other institutional designs bias the balance of power in the states, leading to worse policy outcomes and a diminished capacity for governance.

For example, when minority-party members are excluded from active lawmaking, their expertise is lost, as is their ability to help remove the elements of initial policy proposals that they believe are most harmful. Simultaneously, these excluded lawmakers are denied the opportunity to learn how to build coalitions around their proposed policies and how to arrive at compromises—skills that would be useful later in their legislative careers.

In terms of cultivating lawmakers who can lead well—not only in their states, but nationally as well—we find that some states serve as better training or testing grounds than others. Given that about half of all current members of Congress have served in their state legislatures, we can use our scores in Congress as a common measuring stick to determine which states produce the most effective lawmakers. Here we offer very mixed report cards.

Some states—like California, New York, and Ohio—feature professional legislatures that look a lot like Congress: They meet year-round, pay legislators enough that they do not need other jobs to maintain a decent standard of living, and provide sufficient legislative staff to help members research and draft well-crafted policy solutions. Members of Congress who worked previously in such states continue to use the skills that they built in those environments, becoming more effective as congressional lawmakers than those who lack such training.

In contrast, many states have citizen legislatures that do not meet much, pay much, or support lawmakers with much staff. Members of Congress rising out of such institutions underperform not only relative to those who served in more professional legislatures, but also relative to those without any state legislative experience at all. Essentially, they are taking the wrong behaviors and lessons in lawmaking to Congress, and they seem to have difficulty shaking off those old habits.

The most effective lawmakers in Congress not only gained experience in professional state legislatures, but also thrived there, as measured by our scores. Two examples of such high performers illustrate that this state-to-national pipeline for political leadership can indeed work very well.

First elected to Congress in 2010, Republican Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio quickly emerged as one of the most effective lawmakers in his freshman class in the 112th Congress (2011-12), where he introduced 23 public bills, with many of them gaining attention in committee and on the floor of the House. These early successes served as the foundation for future agenda-setting and policymaking in subsequent Congresses. Whether in the minority or majority party, as a junior or more senior lawmaker, Stivers met or exceeded the level of lawmaking activity and success of those in similar positions. In areas ranging from veterans’ affairs to commerce and banking, he succeeded both with his stand-alone legislation and in working behind the scenes to affect other laws. Whether seeking to pass reforms to the ambitious Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act or finding a way to fund service dog support for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders, Stivers sought practical solutions to problems affecting the people of his district.

Representative Stivers’s preparation for his time in Congress took place, in part, during his service in the state legislature, both as a staff member and later as an elected state senator. Appointed to the Ohio State Senate in 2003, Stivers won reelection in 2004 and served four more years in the chamber before being elected to the U.S. House. During his time in the Ohio Senate, he consistently demonstrated himself to be a highly effective lawmaker, including during his final two years in the body, when he earned the highest State Legislative Effectiveness Score in the chamber. Serving as chair of the Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee helped him gain the procedural and policy expertise that he would later use not only in his congressional lawmaking, but also in his post-congressional position as president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, we see a similar example of cultivated leadership and effective lawmaking in House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York. First elected to the New York State Assembly in 2006, Jeffries established an impressive track record over his next six years in the chamber. He built on his law degree and judicial clerkship to introduce a variety of bills dealing with criminal justice issues. While doing so, he also assembled bipartisan coalitions around various proposals and gained valuable experience in shepherding bills forward on topics such as stop-and-frisk policing practices and how best to count inmates during legislative redistricting decisions. This is all reflected in his State Legislative Effectiveness Scores, which consistently exceeded the levels typical of those with a similar level of seniority, party affiliation, and institutional position.

Moving on up to the U.S. House, Representative Jeffries demonstrated a strong record of lawmaking effectiveness that mirrored and built upon his experiences in the New York state legislature. In his first term, in the 113th Congress (2013-14), Representative Jeffries introduced 15 bills, including one that passed the House and became law. This level of accomplishment for a freshman representative was all the more impressive given that Jeffries was a member of the minority (Democratic) party in that term. His subsequent activities in the next four Congresses reflected a similar pattern of lawmaking engagement and effectiveness, such that his Legislative Effectiveness Scores consistently outpaced those of others of comparable seniority. Like Stivers, his legislative triumphs reflected his prior expertise and his successes in the state legislature; in Congress, he played a key role in passing legislation to support students and law schools and address human trafficking and other criminal justice matters. Jeffries was among the top ten most effective Democratic lawmakers in the House in the 117th Congress, directly preceding his election to become minority leader in the current Congress.

With their many accomplishments in relatively professional legislatures, Stivers and Jeffries would have been good bets to be effective lawmakers once in Congress. And they did not disappoint. Our Legislative Effectiveness Scores are thus useful in identifying early in their careers those who show promise as leaders who can govern well. And, as noted above, the broader patterns of these scores highlight both the sorts of behaviors to be cultivated and institutional reforms that might help state legislatures live up to their potential as laboratories of democracy.

Yet just knowing what works is not enough. We must act on that knowledge. Candidates for state legislative positions often receive much more training on how to run and win their campaigns than on how to govern upon achieving electoral victory. The habits of highly effective lawmaking can and should be taught, and then reinforced as new lawmakers learn the ropes. Voters can help establish an environment that rewards effective lawmaking if they become informed about which legislators are successful in advancing their proposals. Here, media can play a role: Instead of only emphasizing controversial battles, they can highlight promising leaders and what they do to advance their legislative initiatives. If legislators are embedded in an informational and electoral environment that is focused on promoting effective lawmaking, they will be more willing to spend their energy on legislating and its rewards than on simply creating controversy or making provocative statements.

Good governance organizations headed by leaders like those who join us in writing in this symposium present numerous promising ideas for cultivating a new set of legislators focused on effective governing. Some of their suggestions will work very well, and their successes can be seen in the high-scoring lawmakers advancing through their programs and initiatives. Yet some of those suggestions can be further refined and improved—including through score-based evidence regarding what has worked well, or not as well as we might have hoped. Additionally, institutional reforms such as increasing legislator pay could likewise be justified, as legislatures that provide better working conditions attract and cultivate more effective lawmakers, many of whom achieve remarkable success upon moving up to Congress.

To an extent, the American state legislatures serve not only as laboratories of democracy, but also as the subjects of our ongoing experiment in self-government. If we can help them to function better—to represent Americans with greater accountability, to address public policy challenges with care and dedication—then voters will place greater trust in our system of government and its ability to work on their behalf. In so doing, they may be willing to support greater investments in further building up the capacity of state legislatures, making those bodies even more worthy of that heightened level of trust, and better able to deliver on their promises.

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Craig Volden is a Professor of Public Policy and Politics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He is Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Alan E. Wiseman is Chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, where he is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Economy and Professor of Political Science and Law. He is Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

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