Statistically insignificant: lawmakers’ batting averages

After David Weigel ripped it apart ("a strange bit of make-work that offers almost zero insight about politics"), I had to visit the Brookings Institution’s Congressional Moneyball site, and it’s even worse than I imagined.

Sports metaphors are overused in hacky political analysis (okay, we can be charitable and say “political analysis written on a tight deadline”), and here is a research project with no hope of escape from them. It even has a logo in cursive type that apes the golden age of baseball pennants. (Hello, 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers!)

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The Brookings researchers frame their project as a response to the scarcity of legislation making it down from Capitol Hill during the past few years, but it was inevitable that someone would apply the popular book and movie Moneyball to American politics no matter what was going on in Washington.

If tasked with describing members of Congress as baseball players, you’d probably think of Democratic and Republican teams because elections. But Brookings knows that voters think political parties are icky, so it puts everyone on the same side and clucks at their inability to get along. (“If the 113th Congress was a sports team, it would be on a record-breaking streak of futility.”)

The opposing team is unnamed. Maybe it's China. Or Jupiter.

The first piece of the Moneyball project is a database of each legislator’s “batting average,” or the percentage of sponsored bills that were approved by a congressional committee. Here’s an explanation for why this is supposed to be important, in language I dearly hope you never encounter in a job performance review:

Just as in baseball where hitters have to clear all four bases to score a run, so too must legislators get their bills through a procedural gauntlet in order to pass a public law. In baseball, we would look to the number of hits, home runs, and walks to predict the number of runs that a player is adding to his team’s score. In Congress, we look to a variety of landmarks in the legislative process to give us a sense of the productivity and efficiency of individual legislators. By developing a series of baseball-inspired statistics based on these legislative junctures, we offer a framework through which to evaluate the performance of legislators. We can tell who is carrying the team and who is dead weight at the end of the bench.

Are you dead weight? Well, someone fits the description at your workplace. And maybe in your family.

Seriously, the emphasis on “batting averages” reinforces the most simplistic views of lawmaking, and if the metric catches on, it will encourage members of Congress to pander to voters with silly, inconsequential pieces of legislation.

According to Congressional Moneyball, the only Democrat in the House with a 1.00 batting average is Collin Peterson, one of the more obscure members even after being in the Minnesota delegation for 24 years. He’s one of the most conservative Democrats in the chamber, which means just one or two Republicans are to his left, but he doesn’t get such a high score because he’s put together bipartisan coalitions to pass legislation. Peterson introduced one bill in 2013, and it became law. According to govtrack.us, here it is:

Designates the U.S. courthouse and federal building located at 118 South Mill Street, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, as the “Edward J. Devitt United States Courthouse and Federal Building.”

It passed the House by a vote of 416 to 4 (nice coalition-building!), then passed the Senate and was signed by the president on December 20.

I ask readers who contribute to the Republican Party: Have you gotten any appeals to help rid Washington of the nightmare called Collin Peterson, the most productive Democrat in Congress?

As a guide to voters, the batting average is of use only to libertarians who believe that the fewer laws passed, the better. Note, however, that Democrats in the House tend to have lower scores because it’s tougher for them to move bills through the Republican-controlled chamber. If the Democrats retake the House, a lot of members will suddenly rank much higher in “productivity and efficiency.”

The Brookings Institution has produced a lot of valuable research, much of it in economics and urban development, so I’m hopeful that Congressional Moneyball will move on to data with more context. The batting-average database may be like the pilot episode of a TV drama, throwing in a murder and lots of nudity to get viewers’ attention before moving on to more thoughtful character studies. I would love to see a more nuanced take on who gets things done in Congress. For example, a panel of experts could determine the most important legislative proposals of the year, whether they passed or not. For example, Republican Paul Ryan gets a 0 batting average, but obviously his budget proposals have been influential in shaping the debate over the size and function of government.

Congressional Moneyball could also tell us who has displayed leadership in the important matter of keeping the government funded. See, for example, Norm Ornstein on “the ingenuity of [Democratic Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, [Republican Rep.] Harold Rogers, and the other leaders” of the appropriations process.

In the meantime, don’t pay much attention to stories about how your representatives do “at bat,” and don’t use the Moneyball stats to set up fantasy congressional committees on slow workdays. It’s just not a productive use of your time.

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