This week the Web site Congress.org released its “power rankings” of Washington’s most formidable and effective Congressmen and Senators in 2005 — and political print scribes from coast to coast ate up the scorecard like rotisserie-league baseball fans ravenously dissecting a big trade in hot-stove season.
The fact that journalists love lists is nothing new; in the last month, Time magazine alone has published a collection of profiles of “America’s 10 Best Senators” (and five worst), not to mention a special issue devoted to the world’s 100 most influential people. But the rankings that were the subject of so much unthinking copy this week are far more dubious.
Back in January, Washington Technology magazine revealed that Knowlegis, the outfit that runs Congress.org, was a new company that had just been launched to help “government relations professionals” — i.e. lobbyists — “manage their contacts with Capitol Hill.” The parent company of Knowlegis is Capitol Advantage, described last year in CJR as “the country’s largest email lobbying firm” and “the McDonald’s of grassroots public opinion: massive, mechanized, and a little synthetic.”
That said, this week the Washington Post stood out among its peers for doing something rather basic: the simple task of directly stating and emphasizing for its readers the connection between Knowlegis’ rankings and lobbyists.
“A company serving lobbyists published its ‘Power Rankings’ of Congress online yesterday after five months of combing through legislative records, committee assignments, news articles and fundraising documents,” the Post reported Wednesday, pegging Knowlegis as “a new firm that provides software and information to clients who want to influence public policy.” The rankings, the Post added, “take into account such factors as tenure, committee positions, party membership, money contributed to Congressional candidates through leadership PACs and the degree to which a politician was able to shape legislation through amendments.”
In contrast, elsewhere gullibility reigned. The rankings were innocuously said to come “from a new private, nonpartisan company” (U.S. News & World Report), “a private company that tracks legislators and produces Congressional guides and software for the government relations industry” (the Kansas City Star), and “a government relations management firm” (the Appleton Post-Crescent). In an article Wednesday, the Hill described Knowlegis simply as “a software research firm” and “a subsidiary of Capitol Advantage, the nation’s largest publisher of congressional ‘face books.’”
But “nonpartisan” doesn’t necessarily mean “not for profit” — a distinction many journalists evidently brushed aside as they rushed to file their easy stories, consequently helping drive traffic to the Congress.org site.
Whatever the jargon-filled description, nearly every article took the rankings at face value — even though, as the Hill put it, Knowlegis “attempted the nearly impossible” as it formulated its power list by mashing together “15 characteristics of power that are based on 283 variables.”
The result was that some legislators were congratulated for their powerful standing — Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, say, or Hillary Clinton, who can claim an “extraordinary sizzle factor” — while others were picked on for their low rank.
The Star reported that “Kansas City’s Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, must have been wearing his armor-plated epidermis Tuesday when a new scorecard of the most powerful members of Congress ranked him fourth from the bottom.” Of 438 House members (including three delegates) surveyed, said the Star, “Cleaver clocked in at No. 435. That’s not pretty.”
Responded Cleaver, sensibly enough: “I hope no one is terribly surprised that freshmen members of Congress in the minority party would be low on a list of power rankings.”
In Southern California, the Daily Pilot published two pieces emphasizing the bottom-of-the-barrel House finish of Rep. John Campbell, who (unfortunately for him) was sworn in on December 5. The second ran Thursday under the headline “In influence game, our guy is last.”
“Feel like Newport Beach lost any political influence when John Campbell replaced Chris Cox in the House of Representatives?” the paper’s editor wrote. “The website www.congress.org has an answer for you. We lost tons.”
Sounds like Campbell should consider borrowing that “armor-plated epidermis” for his next press conference.