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Liberal Voting Record Released: 2009 Mirrors 1961

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A dynamic young, progressive president offering hope and change enters the White House with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, following a two-term Republican president. After the Administration's first year, the best known scorekeeper of liberal legislative accomplishment--Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)--is not pleased.

"Callous Neglect of Real National Needs Shown By Congress" angrily reads the headline on ADA's annual voting scorecard of Hill votes. The White House gets a failing grade, too: through a cramped view of presidential power and willingness to compromise too early, "The president chose not to seek more than the barely possible from the Congress."

2010? Try 1961. And if the ADA I lead today cuts Congressional leaders and the President a little more slack than our predecessors did during the Kennedy years, it may be because we've seen in the intervening decades just how difficult real change can be. But we're still scoring Congressional voting records, just as we have since 1947, when we pioneered what's now a ubiquitous advocacy tool. The newest scorecard is available now.

Judging by our scorecard, all the talk about growing political polarization has a basis in fact. We score 20 votes in each house, on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues. In 2007, there were 53 House members who achieved a perfect score (our "ADA Heroes"), and 43 who got every vote wrong (the Zeros). In the latest survey, the ranks of the Heroes swelled to 98, but there were also a lot more Zeros--75. In the Senate, the three Heroes of '07 became 16 last year. (Zeros are generally scarcer in the Upper Chamber: 3 in '07, 1 last year.)

Increasing party cohesion is a reality, too. Back in the Kennedy years, progressives struggled against an "Unholy Alliance" of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats, and often found support from a hardy band of liberal Republicans. The 1961 survey revealed an average positive voting record--or Liberal Quotient--among Democrats of 72, among Republicans, 18. By 2009, Southern conservatives had completed their migration to the GOP, and liberal Republicans are as scarce as, well, liberal Republicans. In the latest survey, the Democratic caucus had an LQ of roughly 90, the GOP, below 10.

What's it all mean for progressive politics? The most obvious answer is you don't know who to support if you don't know what they've done. In politics, just like in baseball, you really do need a scorecard to get the most out of the exercise. Unlike the production of most of our imitators, the ADA scorecard gives you a wide-spectrum analysis of progressivism, not a single-issue focus. Of course, the voting record alone is not enough information. The votes that were not taken and the public positions of Senators and Representatives adds to the full political picture. Sen. Lincoln's opposition to the public option in health care, the employee free choice act, and climate change are not reflected in her voting record, but are a part of the record nonetheless.

And our scoring is not just broad, but deep--as in historically deep. You can troll through the earlier scorecards, dating back to the Truman Administration. You will begin to see certain familiar patterns, especially at similar points in history. Like last year and 1961, 1993 was the first year of a Democratic administration with a Democratic Congress, following two or more terms of Republican administration. Guess what? ADA complains in the '93 legislative wrap-up that the minority GOP in the first year of the Clinton Administration was turning more and more to the filibuster to block progressive change. (For that matter, Kennedy is blamed in '61 for not leading the charge against the filibuster.)

The more things change...