Labels like “conservative” and “liberal” provide a shorthand for understanding political positions. So does “bipartisan,” conferring an air of grownup responsibility — someone who won’t throw flames. A new TV ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC working to elect Republicans, says that GOP Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey was “rated among the most bipartisan in Congress.”
The ad seeks to draw a contrast with Lance’s Democratic challenger, Tom Malinowski, a former State Department official for human rights in President Barack Obama’s administration. Although there’s certainly some flame-throwing in this very ad, casting Malinowski as fiercely liberal and Lance as the adult in the room, it raised a good question: Is Lance really that bipartisan?
To understand the answer, understand first that labels comes with certain conditions. Here’s how Lance got that label.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, which has no formal ties with Lance but wants to keep him in Congress, based its claim on rankings from the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. They produce rankings of bipartisanship that are not based on single bills or issues — say, the Affordable Care Act, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act or gun rights. Instead, they assess the frequency with which a lawmaker sponsors bills that draw support from the opposite political party, and how often a member joins as a co-sponsor of a bill introduced on the other side of the partisan aisle.
For all of 2017, Lance ranked 13th most bipartisan in the House of Representatives.
When looking at the entirety of the previous Congress, factoring in 2015 and 2016, Lance ranked 75th. While not in the very top tier, it was high, considering the House of Representatives has 435 members (although only 427 were counted because some members served too short a time for the rankings).
These ranking do not count ceremonial bills or legislation to name a post office. They also are statistically weighted and standardized for such things political party, so as not to unfairly disadvantage scores of the current party in power. That’s because minority-party members generally can’t move legislation without getting a sponsor from the party in power — and therefore, they could appear to be more bipartisan.
But this is just one set of ratings. So we checked others. Interest groups pushing specific agendas show different results, which is natural. For example, the League of Conservation Voters, which supports environmental legislation, says Lance voted for its positions 34 percent of the time in 2017, but he has only a 23 percent lifetime score.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promoting a pro-business agenda, gave Lance an 86 percent score in 2017 but a 90 percent cumulative score.
FreedomWorks, allied with the tea party movement, gives Lance a score of 44 so far this year, and 47 for 2017. That meant Lance had the highest tea party-related score in 2017 of anyone in the New Jersey delegation. For the sake of perspective, New Jersey isn’t a hotbed of tea party activism, and Lance has at times voted against its positions on taxes and healthcare. Yet the Tea Party Express recently announced it would endorse him anyway, saying Lance “has a stellar record of advocating policies that encourage economic growth, job creation, fiscal responsibility and a less intrusive federal government.”
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The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, vowing to maintain reproductive and women’s health rights, gives Lance a rating of only 3 percent this year. The Human Rights Campaign, supporting legislation for LGBT rights, gave Lance a score of 48 for the combined two sessions of the 114th Congress in 2015 and 2016. That was a big leap from his score of 30 in the previous two-year session —and only 15 in the two years before that.
What a difference
How does Lance stack up in New Jersey itself?
GovTrack, a project that gathers data from across the partisan divide, ranked Lance second, not first, for bipartisan leadership in 2017, with Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District, ranked first. Yet the Lugar Center ranked Smith 24th nationally, which is not chopped liver, but it is below Lance’s rank of 13. The explanation: Different groups use different methodologies.
We wondered how Congressional Quarterly, which closely follows the votes and actions of every member of Congress, summed up Lance. In a summary last updated in July 2017, it said Lance “is one of about two dozen moderate-to-mildly conservative Republicans, many of them from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, who wield outsized influence since they can make the difference between victory and defeat for GOP leaders on high-profile legislation.”
He doesn’t consistently vote with the party. For example, Lance was one of a handful of Republicans who voted against the repeal-and-replace healthcare bill in 2017 — and thus, against his party’s position — saying he worried it wouldn’t fully protect people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Lance is also a member of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a group equally divided between Republicans and Democrats who say they want to find bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.
Yet the website FiveThirtyEight said Lance votes in line with President Donald Trump’s positions 87.1 percent of the time.
How one views Lance can depend on ideology and agendas. There are plenty of partisan votes when he sides with his party, as the interest-group ratings show. Yet he crosses the aisle at times, especially on sponsorships and co-sponsorship, and sometimes on important messaging or substantive bills.
How do we put all this together? The Congressional Leadership Fund did not say Lance was the most bipartisan member but, rather, that he was rated among the most bipartisan. Based on one standard — sponsorships and co-sponsorships — he was. Yet it helps to have this additional information, including the views of other rating systems and groups. We rate the claim Mostly True.