Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Effectiveness Myth

A letter from York published here presents Sen. Collins in a way that will be all too familiar to Mainers.

According to the writer, the junior senator is a "hard worker and well-studied legislator"; a "driving force" who has "led the way" and a "rare leader" who "gets things done for Maine and for the country."

We've heard it all before.

And yet it's telling that--as is almost always the case--the characterization lacks any supporting details: We never find out what Collins has accomplished, how she's "led the way" or how all the hard work has translated into results.

It's just sort of known that Collins is great at what she does, and that Maine is better off for it.

In truth, the portrait of Collins as some kind of ace legislator--a master of the Senate--is betrayed by the facts. And it's a portrait in desperate need of scrutiny, even if the Maine media is unwilling to provide it.

Let me be clear, first, that there is a kernel of substance to the idea. And this is surely part of why surrogates in her staff and the press have been so successful at working this bit of branding into the media narrative.

Namely: By all accounts, Susan Collins is an earnest and hard working person. And in so far as the interests of Mainers coincide with her conservative ideology, she does seem to try to look out for her constituents.

The problem--and it's a big one--is that there's no necessary connection between being earnest and being effective; or between hard work and good outcomes. And that's where the facts break down and the myths take over.

To wit:

MYTH #1: Collins' hard work and spirit of cooperation have gained her clout and influence in the Senate that benefits Maine.

The independent, non-partisan Congress watcher (owned by Roll Call) begs to differ. They ranked Sen. Collins #68 out of 100 senators in their data-rich, exhaustively-researched power rankings for 2007. She ranked #10 out of 13 among the the senators first elected with her in 1996, and in the bottom half of Republicans.

(Rankings for 2008 will be out in late October.)

And think about it: Is Sen. Collins the most popular recipient of PAC money from her Republican colleagues because she's especially successful at twisting their arms? Or because they're successful at twisting hers?

Think she's beloved by Karl Rove, Rick Santorum and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)--a first term senator who has already leapfrogged her on the power rankings--because of the influence she wields? Or because she's easily influenced?

MYTH #2: You miss the point. Sen. Collins may not be "powerful" in the conventional, Washington D.C. sense of the term. Rather, she's mastered the art of using a collegial, behind-the-scenes approach to steer projects and dollars to Maine.

If you're talking about earmarks, Collins ranks #63 according to, with about $132 million to her credit. By comparison, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) raked in just under double that amount for his home state. And he's only been in the Senate since 2006.

If you're talking about non-earmarked public projects, by far the most prominent example is, of course, the shipbuilding at Bath Iron Works. And as we all know, the junior senator's clout and influence have led to exactly the result she was lobbying to avoid.

MYTH #3: The fact remains, Collins has repeatedly written landmark legislation that's improved the lives of all Americans. Maybe her bills aren't flashy or expensive, but they're serious and important. And her hard work and skill are why they got done.

Name them. I'm not being facetious. I've been writing this blog for almost two years and the only landmark legislation with her name on it that comes to mind is the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which implemented the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

The uncontroversial bill passed 89-2. And good for her. But surely, the lion's share of the credit goes to the 9/11 Commission itself--for writing the recommendations and then touring the country to build political support for them.

In that instance, Collins didn't come up with the ideas or persuade her colleagues to accept them. She may have helped usher the bill toward passage, but it was bound to become law in any case.

And when you think of some of the truly groundbreaking legislative developments over the last eight years--the Military Commissions Act, the Protect American Act, the Bush tax cuts, etc.--the junior senator's role is far from clear.

Typically, she either has little to say about the bill until the last minute and then hops onto the side of President Bush, whom she's voted with 77% of the time. Or she talks about how the issue is complicated and the bill imperfect before, you guessed it, voting with President Bush.

In either case, she's reacting to events rather than shaping them. She's seeking political cover rather than taking a firm stand and then working to build a consensus behind it.

And whatever else that is, it's no way to be a leader.

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