Sunday, November 20, 2011

Heritage Head Scratching

In Conservative circles, the Heritage Foundation is a beloved institution. Because of legal limitations on what they can do, a sister group was created. That group is Heritage Action. Among other things, Heritage Action ranks members of Congress on their conservatism.

In their description of what this covers, Heritage Action states “With each vote cast in Congress, freedom either advances or recedes. Heritage Action’s new legislative scorecard allows Americans to see whether their Members of Congress are fighting for freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society. The scorecard is comprehensive, covering the full spectrum of conservatism, and includes legislative action on issues both large and small.

“Heritage Action's legislative scorecard isn't graded on a curve – it is tough and we don't apologize. After all, we are conservatives, not tenured university professors.”

The problem is that this description is inaccurate. More on that later.

Representative Jeffrey Duncan, Representing South Carolina’s 3rd District, has the highest or most conservative rating of all members of Congress on the scale with a grade of 97%.

Pennsylvania’s delegation is rated much lower. Rep. Joe Pitts gets a score of 80%, Tim Murphy 64%, Tom Marino 56%, Glenn Thompson 54%, Mike Kelly 53%, Todd Platts 53%, Bill Shuster 53%, Lou Barletta 52%, Charlie Dent 49%, Michael Fitzpatrick 49%, Jim Gerlach 49%, and Pat Meehan 47%.

All of these members of Congress are Republicans.

The Democrats score much worse with Rep. Mark Critz getting 20%, Jason Altmire 17%, Tim Holden 16%, Allyson Schwartz 13%, Robert Brady 10%, Mike Doyle 10%, Chaka Fattah 10%.

It’s easy to dismiss the democrats getting such a bad score on a measure of conservatism but, if we were to say 70% were a passing grade, how does every Republican but one not pass a conservative test? It is even more perplexing when you examine how often members of congress vote together or, more illustrative to the point of this article, how often each member votes with Heritage Action’s most conservative member.

Using the most conservative member of Congress according to Heritage Action (Jeff Duncan) and comparing the actual votes cast by each member (thanks to for this tool) of the Pennsylvania delegation, we find that Joe Pitts voted with Jeff Duncan 92% of the time. Tim Murphy voted with Duncan 87% of the time, Tom Marino 88% of the time, Glenn Thompson 87% of the time, Mike Kelly 86% of the time, Todd Platts 82% of the time, Bill Shuster 87% of the time, Lou Barletta 84% of the time, Charlie Dent 80% of the time, Mike Fitzpatrick 76% of the time, Jim Gerlach 78% of the time, and Pat Meehan 81% of the time.

For the Democrats, Mark Critz voted with Duncan 39% of the time, Jason Altimire 56% of the time, Tim Holden 41% of the time, Allyson Schwartz 23% of the time, Robert Brady 17% of the time, Mike Doyle 20% of the time, and Chaka Fattah 19% of the time.

So this is how it breaks out:

Pitts votes with Duncan 92% of the time but only gets an 80% from Heritage Action.

Murphy votes with Duncan 87% of the time but only gets 64% from Heritage Action.

Marino votes with Duncan 88% of the time but only gets 56% from Heritage Action.

Thompson votes with Duncan 87% of the time but only gets 54% from Heritage Action.

Kelly votes with Duncan 86% of the time but only gets 53% from Heritage Action.

Platts votes with Duncan 82% of the time but only gets 53% from Heritage Action.

Shuster votes with Duncan 87% of the time but only gets 53% from Heritage Action.

Barletta votes with Duncan 84% of the time but only gets 52% from Heritage Action.

Dent votes with Duncan 80% of the time but only gets 49% from Heritage Action.

Fitzpatrick votes with Duncan 76% of the time but only gets 49% from Heritage Action.

Gerlach votes with Duncan 78% of the time but only gets 49% from Heritage Action.

Meehan votes with Duncan 81% of the time but only gets 47% from Heritage Action.

So, how do members of Congress that vote largely 80-90% of the time with Heritage Action’s most conservative member end up scoring in the 50 percentile?

Heritage Action picks and chooses what votes to look at.

That isn’t earth shattering. Most groups do that. The NRA looks largely at firearms bills when scoring someone. The Club for Growth looks largely at economic issues when scoring someone. The difference is these groups are very clear in what they are ranking. For instance, the NRA doesn’t say that a member of Congress gets an “A” rating as a conservative, they say they get an “A” rating on gun issues even though gun issues are probably part of any real litmus test that anyone would use to define if someone were a conservative or not.

So, what does Heritage Action look at in scoring the members of Congress? You can find their list here.

They pick and choose not only votes, but co-sponsorships of legislation. One can make an argument for or against using co-sponsorships. In favor of including it would be the argument that a co-sponsorship helps a bill move to the floor for a vote and that it is a pre-vote statement of uber support for a measure. The argument against it would be that legislators should be judged on how they legislate or more directly, how they vote, and that there is nothing preventing someone from co-sponsoring something and then voting against it (except maybe the political risk associated with it.)

Also worth noting is what they do not include. For instance, they do not score on the Balanced Budget Amendment, a bulwark of conservative policy. Even if they wanted absolute purity and scored against it in favor of the more conservative amendment, it should have been included.

The Heritage Foundation and their sister group Heritage Action are wonderful groups with dedicated conservatives that perform a very necessary function in helping to evaluate our government and deploy activists to the betterment of our country. That is why it is so disappointing that they play favorites with what they choose to include in their scoring. They are demonstrating a bias that is not simply an expected bias towards conservative ideals and principles. They are picking winners and losers based on what they deem a “Key Vote.”

This method of scoring would be acceptable and even encouraged by this writer if they accurately described what it truly was a measure of. Heritage will argue they do, if you read through the key votes page on their website. I argue that if that is the case, they should not describe their scoring as a “comprehensive” scoring that covers “the full spectrum of conservatism.” Their key vote test is neither “comprehensive” nor does it cover “the full spectrum of conservatism” as they claim.

RedState writer Daniel Horowitz more accurately describes what Heritage Action’s scorecard tests or doesn’t test.

The Heritage family has earned the reputation of being a fair, truthful arbiter of public policy. Conservatives trust the content they get from Heritage without question. That is now changing because of this test. They are tarnishing their reputation by representing this scorecard as they describe it. To claim someone that votes with the Heritage Action's most conservative member of the house around 90% of the time is actually only conservative around 50% of the time or less is ridiculous and diminishes Heritage’s credibility.

Need more proof? Tea Party luminary, Congressman Allen West, was only able to muster a score of 74% on Heritage's scorecard. Would Heritage Action support a primary fight against Allen West since he is not reliably conservative by their standard? If the answer is yes, Heritage needs to have their collective heads examined. If the answer is no, Heritage should re-examine their scoring criteria because, as this example further illustrates, it is clearly flawed as a "comprehensive," "full spectrum" measure of conservatism.

Heritage Action should either devise a test that actually is a comprehensive score on the full spectrum of conservatism or stop describing their present test as such if they wish to preserve their excellent reputation as a trusted source of conservative thought.

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