The biggest challenge in covering the congressional race between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman lies in determining how to judge the two men and compare their performances in Congress.
In their increasingly intense contest, the two veteran Democrats each has portrayed the other as, to put it mildly, an ineffective lawmaker. Such exchanges were a major part of a recent Berman-Sherman debate at a Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association meeting, as well as at other confrontations. Reports on the campaign are based heavily on these two-way attacks, which aren’t helpful to Angelenos trying to figure out whom to choose in the polling booth. But their records are hard to quantify. As a friend who covers Congress said, “so much of what happens back here occurs out of public view.” That certainly is the case with a bill that wasn’t introduced by either Berman or Sherman. It was this year’s huge transportation bill, which will provide the Los Angeles area with a billion dollars for transit and other projects and create thousands of jobs. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer was a co-sponsor, but that term doesn’t adequately describe the extraordinary maneuvering and persuasion she had to use to get such a measure through a deadlocked Congress.
I’ve been exploring the Web site GovTrack.us, which tries to solve the dilemma by collecting information on legislation in Congress from a variety of government sources and then crunching the data. The founder, Joshua Tauberer, started it has a hobby while an undergraduate in 2004, and it is the go-to site for statistical analysis of congressional action.
I’ve written briefly about GovTrack before, and I am drawn to it by my interest in using statistical analysis for subjects that have long resisted it — such as sports and politics. I was an early purchaser of “The Bill James Baseball Abstract,” which, beginning in 1977, brought revolutionary statistical analysis to a sport long ruled by folk wisdom and vague instinct. James’ method was the subject of the book and movie “Moneyball.”
Tauberer is the Bill James of Congress. His site includes voting records, bills introduced and passed and signed into law and committee memberships. He subjects each bill’s journey through Congress to a statistical analysis, which he translates into rankings of Senate and House members. The most interesting part is his ranking of members on leadership and ideology.
On a chart showing these two categories, Berman ranks as a moderate, slightly on the left side of center. He is high on the leadership scale, which Tauberer determines, in part, by looking at the clout of those co-signing Berman’s bills. If you get a lot influential cosigners on your bills, it makes you a leader under the Tauberer system.
Sherman is slightly to the right of Berman on the ideological scale, and below him when it comes to a leadership ranking. Berman is rated a leader, and Sherman rank and file.
Sherman might argue with that. On his bill waiving the visa requirement for Israeli visitors to the United States, he had as co-signers such Democratic leaders as Steve Israel and Jerrold Nadler of New York. And both Berman and influential Berman supporter Rep. Henry Waxman were co-signers of Sherman’s bill to prevent state and local governments from banning male circumcision.
Still, Tauberer’s leadership rankings reflect the status of the jobs they have held in Congress.
Berman, elected in 1982, was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House and now is its highest-ranking Democratic member. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the prestigious Judiciary Committee and a member of its intellectual property and Internet subcommittee, of vital interest to his many film industry constituents. Sherman, who took office in 1997, has not reached such high positions. Nevertheless, he is a member of the financial services and foreign affairs committees, and is the highest-ranked Democrat on its terrorism and trade subcommittee.
GovTrack also lists every bill that members have introduced. I read summaries of them and found what I expected, a number of moderate to liberal measures reflecting each authors’ interests. Berman introduced a version of the American Dream Act, speeding the way for children of undocumented immigrants to get an education; a measure strengthening First Amendment rights; a bill helping Salvadoran immigrants; a measure for arms control in the Middle East.
Sherman introduced measures requiring the breakup of “too big to fail” banks, hedge funds and insurance companies; imposing sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil products; toughening laws governing China trade. In his first year, he introduced a bill requiring members apply in writing for a pay raise, which undoubtedly antagonized a number of them.
Chasing down their bills is important. Reading the summaries gave me a picture of the congressmen on the job. Combining that with GovTrack’s statistical analysis, I felt I got a handle on them as congressmen. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, as GovTrack notes, of the 11,553 bills in the current Congress, only about 5 percent will become law.
Statistical devotees — baseball followers of “Moneyball” and political managers — will tell you that the intangibles also are important.
That’s why in the weeks remaining before the November election, journalists and voters should make an effort to come to see Berman and Sherman in person at their forums and debates. It takes an effort to get there, but you may be rewarded with a worthwhile show that can help you make up your mind on Election Day.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).