Many years ago I worked on a congressional election campaign in South Dakota. I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades with the tiny campaign staff and fortunately not a part of the strategic planning for the campaign, as the candidate lost by a very large margin. One task that I was assigned was opposition research. Our opposition candidate was a very savvy incumbent who skillfully managed the unique differences between Washington, D.C. party politics and the local preferences of South Dakotans, although a look at his votes yielded a wealth of possibilities. The Congressman's statements on the record on topics yielded little dirt, the bills he introduced provided even less, but there was, in fact, a treasure trove out there: his voting history.
Trying to find votes that would be embarrassing, or that just provided proof of the profligate ways of the incumbent, was like shooting fish in a barrel. This was not because the congressperson was really bad, but because voting records are like statistics: I can find a vote or statistic to prove any point. To casual observers, a vote is a great objective measurement on the behavior of the congressperson; it can't lie. But, as I found, there is much more to voting records. Senator Kerry fell into this classic trap in the last Presidential election. He tried to explain why he voted against funding the war in Iraq and confused things even more when he claimed he voted for it before he voted against it. It sounded like he couldn't make up his mind, but what actually occurred can be easily explained. Then again, you have to go into the details of voting for things in Congress. Voting often needs to be explained, but like jokes, if you have to explain it, much is lost in the explanation.
Senator Kerry was in 2003 voting on an $87 billion appropriation for the Iraq War and voted against the measure. When challenged as to why he would vote to cut off funds to troops in the field, he responded that he had really voted 'for the 87 billion before he voted against it.' He was referring to having voted for an alternative measure that funded the troops but did not have the votes to pass. Try explaining that to the people back home; all they see is the vote to not pay the soldiers, which is accurate…he did vote against the funding. It doesn't tell the whole story, however, and the Senator did a very poor job of explaining the circumstances surrounding the votes. Voting records have the annoying tendency to be very literal; they do not reflect the nuances of actions in Congress.
I located a range of interesting votes by the incumbent congresspersons while researching this issue. One vote taken out of context could be quite devastating and still be technically accurate. Every sitting Congressperson or Senator has this problem however: how to explain effectively their specific votes in Congress. My candidate was nowhere near capable of taking up such discussions with the voters and was mercifully defeated on Election Day. Very few people make it to the White House directly from the Congress, and a major part of the reason are those pesky voting records.
There are two different places a Congressperson can vote, either in Committee or on the Floor. There are also several different types of votes: Voice (and Division), and Yea and Nay (Recorded) votes. The majority of votes taken are Voice Votes where the presiding officer will ask for a verbal - "Aye" or "Nay" from the members present. The particular votes of a member in such cases are not recorded. In these cases, of course, the item in question is obviously not controversial. Votes of more substance and controversy are recorded votes, either by electronic machine in the House of Representatives or by calling the roll in the Senate. These are the votes are recorded for people like me to analyze.
These voting records are now very easy to find. In South Dakota years ago I had to go to the library and dust off some old copies off the Congressional Quarterly. Now, there are voting records all over the place and on the Internet. The Library of Congress portal to legislation, THOMAS, is popular resource for voting record research [Editor's note: see also the following resources: the Senate Legislation and Records homepage, the Washington Post Congress votes database, and well as the Legislative Activities homepage, Office of the Clerk, House of Representatives.] Also dozens of advocacy groups list specific votes on their key issues on their web sites Specialized services such as mine not only have the votes, but also let you analyze them for patterns.
Congressional voting analysis is a high art. Labor unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Americans for Democratic Action and the American Conservative Union are famous for their ranking of members' voting based upon their specific interests. The concept is very simple, but the devil is in the voting details for these rankings (or scorecards). By the time a bill has gone through both chambers, there may be dozens of recorded votes - on procedure, on amendments and on passage. Each one of them means something very specific at the time of the vote, sometimes which is easily lost to history. For example, a procedural vote to delay the vote may be a way to make time to twist arms, a cloture vote in the Senate often provides an opportunity for a Senator to avoid an embarrassing vote. An amendment may completely change a bill, so a vote for an amendment that dilutes the bill may provide a member the opportunity to vote on passage, and avoid a possible embarrassment without any consequences. Of course, it could happen the other way around, like what happened to Senator Kerry. The biggest component of a vote analysis is the selection of the specific votes to analyze; once that is done, a computer can then process the list of friends and foes on your issue.
There are some quirks relating to voting. The Constitution requires a quorum (one half plus one) to be present during a vote. Do you really think they are all there in the chamber for every vote? This is Congress; they have lots of other things to do. The House has a mechanism to avoid this burdensome requirement - they created a committee (which is subject to House rules, not the Constitution), called the Committee of the Whole. Many votes take place in the House when it is sitting as the Committee of the Whole. The Senate has a cloture requirement, which means that a vote may need to be taken to determine if a vote can be taken (and two thirds of the Senate must agree to invoke cloture). Sometimes when analyzing Senate votes, the cloture vote is the critical vote to analyze, while the vote on final passage may proceed on a party line vote which you already know. By looking at the cloture vote, you can determine which Senator in the opposing party may be your friend or foe.
Voting also takes place in Committee. I have mentioned several times before and will re-emphasize it again - watch out for committee action as that is where the action is. The same concepts apply to committee (or subcommittee) votes; they are either voice (most of them) or recorded. Of course only the members of the committee vote. Usually it is party line, but not always. The problem with committee votes is access to them. You really need some eyes in the Capitol to get them, or be there in person, or have some sophisticated resources (see: me).
Voting is really the main reason Congress exists. Members are elected to Congress to cast a vote representing their constituents (and state). It is also provides an apparently clear marker on the members position. Of course we all know there is more to it and that the real reason a certain vote was cast a certain way can be influenced by the sometimes subtle nuances of the legislative process. Researching and analyzing a vote in Congress properly requires more than counting the Yeas and Nays.