*Important note: NTU has not endorsed and will not be endorsing any Presidential candidate, nor is this post intended to suggest support or opposition for any Presidential candidate.*
There's been a lot of attention paid to NTU's annual Rating of Congress recently with regard to the Republican Presidential candidates. Since 1979, NTU has performed an annual Rating of Congress where we look at every vote on tax and fiscal policy, weight it from 1 to 100 based on importance, and calculate a percentage score indicating a Member's support for limited government (We did ratings before 1979 too but used a "key vote" system that's not directly comparable to our modern Rating). You can look at the entire record post-1992 (the year we began issuing letter grades) on our website, and our 2011 analysis will be available in a few weeks.
To clarify the record given the recent coverage, we released this statement yesterday where we published the entire Rating history for Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich going back to 1979.
In last night's debate, Rick Santorum cited NTU in an exchange with Ron Paul...
"Ron, The Weekly Standard just did a review, looking at the National Taxpayers Union, I think, Citizens Against Government Waste, and they measured me up against the other 50 senators who were serving when I did and they said that I was the most fiscally conservative senator in the Congress in the -- in the 12 years that I was there.
My -- my ratings with the National Taxpayers Union were As or Bs."
The analysis to which Santorum is referring was performed by Jeffrey Anderson, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard. Anderson did a couple of interesting things with the data, some of which I think are insightful and some of which I think are misguided. I'll try to lay my thoughts out in detail here, but it would really behoove you to go read his piece first for reference.
The first thing Anderson did was to confine his comparison of Santorum only to other Senators that served the entirety of his twelve year tenure in the Senate (from 1995 to 2006). While I suppose he would say he was trying to compare apples to apples, I think the end result is a bit of data cherry-picking which paints Santorum in a more positive light than would otherwise be the case. This restriction necessarily compares Santorum only to long-serving Senators, many of whom (like Robert Byrd or Daniel Akaka) had decidedly poor records based on NTU's metrics.
Anderson also converted each Senator's letter grade to a "grade point average," not unlike that which terrified you during your high school days. Anderson's conversion yielded a GPA of 3.66 on a 4-point scale for Santorum, a result which sounds quite good to anyone who remembers college applications. The problem with this is that it converts a short-hand measurement intended to give readers a general sense of a Senator's voting record to a precise number when our analysis already has precise numbers that do a better job. For example, Santorum's lifetime average score out of a maximum of 100% was 75.2%, including his House and Senate years. His Senate-only average was about 77.7%.
Another very instructive metric that doesn't garner quite enough attention, in my view, is the average rank. In addition to letter grades and percentage scores, we indicate how a Member compared to his or her peers by including their rank within the Chamber. To illustrate how useful it can be, look at Santorum's last year in the Senate, 2006. He received a grade of B+ and a score of 80%, but how did that compare with his peers? Well, it yielded a rank of 27th out of 100 Senators, meaning that 26 Senators had more conservative voting records that year and 72 had less conservative voting records. Santorum's average rank in the Senate was 19.5, which reflects a decent record (after all, he never received a grade worse than a B) but also one with a fair amount of variance (he ranked as high as 3rd overall in 2002 and as low as 33rd overall in 1999). Perhaps I'm biased because I work on the Rating, but I think these numbers are more instructive than the converted short-hand GPA from Anderson's analysis.
Beyond these quirks, Anderson actually did something quite interesting in comparing Santorum's voting record to how conservative (or not conservative, in this case) his state was...
"Based on how each state voted in the three presidential elections over that period (1996, 2000, and 2004), nearly two-thirds of senators represented states that were to the right of Pennsylvania. In those three presidential elections, Pennsylvania was, on average, 3 points to the left of the nation as a whole. Pennsylvanians backed the Democratic presidential nominee each time, while the nation as a whole chose the Republican in two out of three contests.
Among the roughly one-third of senators (18 out of 50) who represented states that — based on this measure — were at least as far to the left as Pennsylvania, Santorum was the most fiscally conservative. Even more telling was the canyon between him and the rest. After Santorum’s overall 3.66 GPA, the runner-up GPA among this group was 2.07, registered by Olympia Snowe (R., Maine). Arlen Specter, Santorum’s fellow Pennsylvania Republican, was next, with a GPA of 1.98. The average GPA among senators who represented states at least as far left as Pennsylvania was 0.52 — or barely a D-.
But Santorum also crushed the senators in the other states. Those 32 senators, representing states that on average were 16 points to the right of Pennsylvania in the presidential elections, had an average GPA of 2.35 — a C+."
This is a rather novel way to look at things, and one I'd admit hadn't really occurred to me before. It is, of course, true that a Republican Senator from Utah can "afford" to vote in a much more conservative manner than a Republican Senator from Massachusetts and still keep his or her job. The cynic in me decries the fact that politicians test the winds before casting votes, but it is an undeniable fact of life and it manifests itself time and again in Congress.
While I've spent most of this post talking about Rick Santorum, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ron Paul, with whom Santorum had the debate exchange. On our Congressional Rating, Ron Paul is almost without peer. His lifetime average is over 90%, he has snagged the top spot four times, ranked 2nd overall seven times and has never ranked lower than 10th overall in the House. In other words, in his "worst" year on our Rating, he still had a more fiscally conservative voting record than 425 out of 435 Representatives. I haven't done any in-depth analysis on this question, but the only Members I can think of that could claim to equal his performance would be Jeff Flake (92.4% lifetime average, 1st overall eight years in a row, never lower than 2nd overall) and Jim Sensenbrenner (85.9% lifetime average, 1st overall twice, 2nd overall four times, never lower than 13th overall).
The only issues I can think of on which Ron Paul might have harmed (obviously only by a very small amount) his Rating would be free trade agreements (which he generally votes against and NTU supports) and the myriad earmark elimination amendments that Jeff Flake carried from 2006-2009 (which NTU supported and he generally voted against). But on the whole, his record is exemplary.
Hopefully this is helpful in adding to the debate, and stay tuned for our 2011 Congressional Rating release in a few weeks.