Grading Legislators: An Alternate Approach

WC recently read an article in Boise, Idaho’s Idaho Statesman reporting that even a few Republicans are getting frustrated with the ratings/review systems managed by conservative think tanks, political action committees and single-issue lobbyists. My, my; the chickens are coming home to roost. WC wants to suggest an alternative grading system, but first let’s clear up some of the confusion about whether charities can get involved in politics. The Statesman tries to correct Idaho state house Rep. Kelly Packer’s misconception, but still gets it wrong.

Charities – sometimes calls §501(c)(3) organizations, after the IRS code section – get to give their donors a tax deduction for their contributions. Congress says the trade-off for getting the tax deduction is that the charities’ right to involve themselves in politics is severely limited. Charities are permitted to lobby, but the amount they can spend is restricted. They can do direct lobbying – that’s buttonholing the folks who vote on legislation – and the amount they can spend is calculated under an unnecessarily complicated sliding scale. Charities can also do “grassroots” lobbying – that’s going to the citizens who elect legislators and urging them to tell the legislators how to vote. Charities can only spend half as much on grassroots lobbying as on direct lobbying.

What charities are absolutely forbidden to do is to attempt to influence the election of legislators. They are forbidden, on penalty of losing their charitable status, from telling citizens who to vote for in an election. Which makes it absolutely wrong for charities to publish “grades” or “scoresheets” on legislators. That’s not lobbying; that’s not grassroots lobbying; that’s attempting to influence how and for whom voters cast their votes. In WC’s opinion, the Idaho Freedom Foundation‘s grade sheets on Idaho state legislators are a violation of the law. The organization can’t be a charity and “grade” legislators.

But that isn’t what WC wanted to talk about. It’s this business about “grading” legislators in the first place, scoring their performance against your special agenda. The most infamous is probably Freedomworks, which rates legislators on the Koch Brothers’ agenda. Or the NRA, which rates them on their gun nut quotient. Or RNCLife, which measures the rabidity of a legislator’s stand against women’s choice.

How about instead of single issues like abortion, the Second Amendment and suicidal economics, we graded them on just one standard: how often do they vote against their self-interest in getting re-elected? Instead of pandering to the rich crooks who write them campaign fund checks, or who extort vote commitments in return for contributions to PACs, what if they followed science? What if they put the interests of the country ahead of their self-interest? Why couldn’t we grade them on that instead?

Sure Dan “the Carpetbagger” Sullivan (R, Alaska Ohio) wouldn’t do very well on that test. He’s a climate change denier because he wants the energy industry’s money, especially the Koch Brothers’s money. Never mind they closed one of Alaska’s biggest employers during his campaign. Sure, Mike Crapo (R, the 19th Century) would bottom out. But might it not be helpful if we had Congresscritters who put service above self-interest?