Not All Scorecards Are Created Equal

Feb 23, 2012

Today, National Journal released its official 2011 Vote Ratings. In Washington, this is an annual rite of passage. Lawmakers will tout their top conservative ranking, or their top liberal ranking, or the fact that they have no principle at all!

National Journal used 97 Senate votes and 105 House votes to calculate the scores, with a rough balance of half economic votes, a quarter foreign and defense votes, and a quarter social votes. It is a broad scorecard to be sure, but the question for conservatives is whether this scorecard is "instinctually conservative."

To answer the question, we compared our own legislative rankings to National Journal's Composite Conservative Score in both the Senate and House. The results were surprising. Just five of Heritage Action's most conservative Senators made National Journal's top ten and none of Heritage Action's most conservative Representatives made National Journal's top ten.

See the comparison chart below:

For various reasons, National Journal's ratings do not capture the complete picture when it comes to principled conservatives in Congress, especially those in the House of Representatives. A partial explanation is because National Journal does not capture votes like the firefighter grant program, a $320 million program that has been proven ineffective. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes observed, "votes on relatively insignificant issues like this one can be telling."

If properly understood, the National Journal rankings remain a valuable tool for evaluating voting behavior of lawmakers. In their explanation of how the ratings are calculated, National Journal said, "No single measure of voting behavior is likely to be perfect." The explanation continued:

For instance, some House Republicans occasionally voted against budget-cutting measures last year because they didn't think the bills reduced spending enough....In such cases, their votes were counted as liberal because they voted with liberals. It's beyond the capacity of a vote ratings system to determine why a member voted the way he or she did on any particular piece of legislation.

Unfortunately, the rankings have a tendency to marginalize some of the most steadfast and principled conservatives in Congress, in part because "The yea and nay positions on each roll call were then identified as conservative or liberal." Those committed to returning fiscal sanity to Washington end up on the wrong side of the score because the analysis does not account for people voting the right way for the wrong reason.

Interestingly, the divergence between Heritage Action's scorecard and National Journal's rankings comes at a time when prominent conservatives are raising questions over the role the non-conservative media has played in the GOP primary debates.

The message for conservatives is simple: do not be shocked if some of your conservative heroes appear less-than-conservative on the National Journal rankings, and do not hold that against them. Instead, check their Heritage Action score.

As the DC Examiner said, "Heritage Action is the scorecard for conservatives."

Updated: February 27, 2012