Perfect Politicians: Grading Congress on a Curve

By David Swanson

Raise your hand if you recall the 110th Congress (2007 – 2008) as having spent two years funding a war in Iraq that it had been elected to end, increasing the military’s bloated budget, and adamantly refusing to hold war criminals accountable? If your hand is not raised, please go and read the past two year’s worth of postings at If your hand IS raised, please check this out: a peace group just gave 58 congress members a perfect score, and another 59 a score of 90 percent.

Now it’s true that 117 members of Congress (or 108 house members and 9 senators) could have behaved that well and still failed to accomplish anything. After all, any legislation passed by the House can be tossed aside by the filibuster of senators representing 11 percent of the country or the veto of a president chosen by an election process that serious monitoring agencies consider too flawed to even take seriously. But, as many of us noted in November 2006, the two key things the 110th Congress had the power to do were not legislative.

The first was ceasing to fund an illegal war. On numerous occasions, 117 No votes on funding bills, or Yes votes on amendments, or No votes on procedural votes to bring bills to the floor, or even a handful of votes in committees could have made a difference and saved lives or at least completely altered the story of what was happening in our government. Often large blocks of Republicans were voting the right way for the wrong reasons and 117 Democrats joining them would have been decisive, or at least forced other members to change their votes or change the bills, for better or worse.

On March 23, 2007, in roll call 186 on HR 1591, the vote to fund the wars was 218-212, and only 14 of the 212 were Democrats. (Apparently 8 of the 14 had the right motivation, as did one Republican and one Libertarian.) The rest of the 117 perfect congress members? They voted to fund more war. On April 25, 2007, in roll call 265 on HR 1591 the vote to fund the wars was 218-208, and only 13 of the 208 were Democrats. On May 10, 2007, in roll call 336 on HR 2207 the vote to fund the wars was 302-120, and only 5 of the 120 were Democrats. On November 14, 2007, in roll call 1108 on HR 4156 the vote to fund the wars was 218-203, and only 15 of the 203 were Democrats.

When they could vote against war funding but allow the funding to still pass, a lot of Democrats did the right thing. On May 24, 2007, in roll call 425 on HR 2206 the vote was 280 to 142, and 140 of the 142 were Democrats. The Democratic leadership had maneuvered a bill through with primarily Republican support. They did this again on June 19, 2008, when roll call 431 on HR 2642 funded the wars by a vote of 268-155, and 151 of the 155 were Democrats.

A month earlier, on May 15, 2008, in roll call 328 on HR 2642, a vote to fund the wars had failed by 141-149 with 147 of the 149 being Democrats. In this case 132 Republicans had voted “present.” This made a lot of news, and is the only House war funding vote included in the grading system that got 108 House members such high marks, but the funding came through a month later because the Democratic “leadership” made the bill appeal to more Republicans.

The preceding evidence suggests that when a significant number of Democrats very rarely did the right thing, it didn’t matter. But the above are only a small sample of key votes. On September 26, 2007, there was a vote in roll call 911 on HJRes 52 to continue funding wars into 2008 at the same rate as in 2007. It passed by 404-14, with 13 Democrats and 1 Libertarian voting no. There were numerous unheralded votes of this sort, votes on military budgets and overall budgets, and — above all — procedural votes on whether to hold votes. Republicans and rightwing Democrats sometimes block procedural votes until bills are changed to satisfy them. I can’t recall progressive Democrats ever having done so. It wouldn’t be polite.

Nor would it be polite to filibuster a war funding bill in the Senate or to put a hold on such a bill. Even less well-mannered would be speaking out publicly against the leadership of one’s own party. Those would be the actions of congress members actually interested in blocking the funding, as opposed to the actions of those wanting to occasionally go on record with the proper votes. But can you imagine the change in the public discourse if 117 members of congress had voted No on every war funding bill and every procedural vote to bring such bills to the floor, and if they had publicly chastised their colleagues who voted to fund war? What if those 117 had joined the peace movement? Can you imagine? Could the Democratic leadership have withstood the pressure of 117 members of the house and senate constantly demanding an end to any more funding bills? Dennis Kucinich actually did this, but he did it alone. It would have been difficult and considered very impolite, but unless someone does eveything I can imagine them doing, I’m reluctant to call their performance “perfect”.

The second useful thing Congress could have done would have been to impeach Cheney and Bush. There was no major push for this by 117 people. Instead, the high point in the impeachment movement was when 28 members were dragged, kicking and screaming, onto a resolution to impeach Dick Cheney. As a consequence of not impeaching, Congress established the conventional (minority corporate media) thinking that Bush, Cheney, and their top subordinates should be immune from punishment for their crimes and abuses. The argument against doing so was that we could thereby elect a Democrat to the White House. The fact that we have done so is no evidence that we could not have elected a better one following an impeachment. The important question is what we lost in the bargain. We have now established for all presidents from here on out that laws can be made in secret or publicly rewritten with signing statements, information can be kept secret at the president’s word, money can be raised and spent without Congress, treaties can be made without Congress, illegal wars can be waged without Congress or by transparently lying to Congress, human beings can be kidnapped, held, and tortured, political opponents can be prosecuted on bogus charges, voting can be suppressed and elections rigged, spying can be done without warrants, the military can be used domestically, whistleblowers can be punished, propaganda can be promoted as news, investigators can be lied to, subpoenas can be ignored, and so on and so forth without end and without penalty.

We now have a president who says he won’t engage in some of these abuses, but that provides exactly zero deterrence against the next president resuming them. And even the current president is rewriting laws with signing statements, making laws by executive order, keeping in place numerous unconstitutional signing statements and executive orders made by Bush, keeping secret numerous known memos and pieces of evidence of Bush’s crimes, continuing illegal wars in two countries, dramatically escalating one of them, and launching military strikes into others, accepting an unconstitutional treaty with Iraq and declaring the power to make treaties without Congress, maintaining the powers of rendition and detention, holding hundreds of prisoners outside the rule of law, threatening the British government to enforce secrecy around the crimes of Bush and Cheney, arguing “executive” privilege to Congress on behalf of the likes of Karl Rove, and making wild claims beyond anything Bush attempted to have court cases related to spying and torture thrown out on the grounds of “state secrets,” the president’s power to classify information, and “sovereign immunity.” Can you imagine this as the world we would face had even 117 members of the 110th Congress performed PERFECTLY on matters of war and peace?

Now, I think Peace Action is an admirable organization that does a lot of great work. And I think it’s useful to know, by various measures, which congress members are better than the others. A report on how they voted on a handful of bills is a useful tool. But a different handful of bills would produce different results. Giving senators credit for attempting to “ban torture” which was always illegal, advances somebody’s agenda, but not mine. I just can’t help thinking that we’re grading congress by its standards rather than our own when I receive an Email reading, in part:

“In the midst of an emerging sea change in American foreign policy thinking, 117 congressional leaders have recently demonstrated an especially strong record of leadership towards a more effective national security strategy. This is according to a peace and security performance report on the 2008 session of the 110th Congress, released jointly by Peace Action, the nation’s largest grassroots peace organization, and its largest affiliate Peace Action West. …

“Fifty-eight members of Congress earned a perfect score in the report, including Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representatives John Lewis (D-GA-5), George Miller (D-CA-7) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-7). Fifty-nine scored 90 percent. Members of Congress who earned top marks voted on such critical issues as opposing a blank check for the occupation of Iraq, blocking the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, and fully funding nonproliferation programs, foreign assistance and other important civilian security tools. Peace Action and Peace Action West’s Congressional Scorecard for the 110th Congress is available for download here:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.