Workhorses, not show horses: Five ways to promote effective lawmaking in Congress

Americans dislike Congress, especially when it fails to act on pressing problems. They are then surprised by legislative accomplishments on climate change, gun control and maintaining competitiveness with China.

But Congress does much more on a daily basis than deal – or fail to deal – with high-profile issues.

We have spent more than a decade exploring the thousands of bills and hundreds of laws produced by members of Congress each year. We find that individual representatives and senators vary dramatically in how interested they are in lawmaking and how effectively they advance their proposals. And we see opportunities to build a better Congress.

We have devised and generated a “Legislative Effectiveness Score” for each member of the House and Senate for each two-year Congress for the past 50 years. These scores are based on 15 metrics, capturing how many bills each lawmaker sponsors, how far they progress toward law and how substantively significant they are. The scores are politically neutral, with members of both parties scoring higher upon advancing whatever policies they think are best.

Voters can use these scores to see how their political representatives have fared in this measure, perhaps finding them among the 23% of representatives or 19% of senators who were highly effective in the most recently completed Congress. And researchers use them to determine the factors that make lawmakers effective in Congress.

Based on our work, we have identified five ways that legislators, reformers and voters can help promote effective lawmaking in Congress.