On Rating the Legislature
On Monday of this week, members of the New Jersey legislature met in one of the more comfortable corners of Trenton to congratulate themselves on being named heroes by a national conservative organization. No Democrats were present of course, but even so, a few of the named did raise more than a snicker from those intimately acquainted with their public records.
The organization issuing the awards was the American Conservative Union (ACU), which is run by lobbyist Al Cardenas. In fact, if The Hill newspaper is to be believed, Cardenas is one of the top lobbyists in all of Washington, D.C. Now isn’t that comforting?
The truth be told, the ACU is jammed full with lobbyists. It left its activist roots a long time ago. And sometimes those lobbyists forget that their personal financial interests are not always the same interests as those of the conservative grassroots they purport to speak for.
We need look no further than David Keene, the lobbyist who ran the ACU before Cardenas. In 2009, Keene offered to have the ACU lobby for the Federal Express corporation - including “an aggressive grass-roots campaign” and “op-eds and articles” written by Keene and “other members of the ACU’s Board of Directors.” Politico picks up the story:
The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s support in a bitter legislative dispute, then the group’s chairman flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay.
… The conservative group’s remarkable demand - black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as “pay for play” - was contained in a private letter to FedEx , which was provided to POLITICO.
The letter exposes the practice by some political interest groups of taking stands not for reasons of pure principle, as their members and supporters might assume, but also in part because a sponsor is paying big money.
So the ACU equals “pay to play.” Not sure how that’s going to go down.
Now back to our heroes in Trenton. On Monday, the ACU issued a laudatory statement by lobbyist Cardenas, portions of which are reprinted below:
“‘On behalf of the American Conservative Union, I am pleased to present our 2012 State Legislative Ratings for members of the New Jersey State Legislature,’ said ACU Chairman Al Cardenas. ‘For 40 years ACU has set the gold standard for Congressional ratings, and we are now able to offer that same level of transparent information to the voters of the Garden State so they can hold their elected officials accountable at the state level as well.’”
“ACU today announced the winners of the “Defender of Liberty” award, given to those members of the New Jersey State Legislature who were present and cast a vote for each adjudicated roll call and scored 100 percent on the ACU 2012 State Legislative Ratings. In the State Senate, these members included Anthony R. Bucco, Michael J. Doherty, Steven V. Oroho, and Joseph Pennacchio. In the General Assembly, winners were Jon M. Bramnick, Chris A. Brown, Anthony M. Bucco, Gary R. Chiusano, Sean T. Kean, Gregory P. McGuckin, Alison Littell McHose, Nancy F. Munoz, David P. Rible, Donna M. Simon, and Jay Webber.”
“Founded in 1964, the ACU represents the views of Americans who are concerned with economic growth through lower taxes and reduced government spending and the issues of liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values and national security. ACU first began rating members of Congress on key conservative voting issues in 1971, and since then their ratings system has become the most important conservative measuring stick in American politics.”
We see a lot of the usual suspects there but wait a minute. . . Jon Bramnick, Sean Kean, Nancy Munoz, Dave Rible???? How are they 100% conservatives when Bramnick, Munoz, and Rible received “F” ratings by the National Rifle Association (NRA) when they were up for re-election in 2011? Kean, the best of the lot, managed a C+. Does the ACU no longer support the Second Amendment?
Which “traditional values” does the ACU mean when two of their 100% conservatives were denied the endorsement of New Jersey Right to Life because of their pro-abortion statements on its questionnaire? That is correct. Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz are not pro-life, so how does the “traditional values” ACU rate them as 100% conservatives?
The answer is simple: The fix was in. Everyone knows that you can rate any legislator a “conservative” if you select the right votes to rate him on and ignore the inconvenient ones. It all comes down to who you select to do the rating.
Word has it that the ACU’s person in New Jersey is Trenton lobbyist Rob Nixon. Nixon is an old legislative hand who once worked for Senate President Donny D’Francesco and for the Assembly Republicans. Nixon has been a lobbyist since 1995. For 15 years he worked for a big lobbying firm with a number of eyebrow-raising clients. Today Nixon works for a smaller firm and teaches a college course on lobbying. He describes himself as “one of Trenton’s leading legislative lobbyists”.
Now don’t get us wrong. Rob Nixon is a nice enough person. So are those 100% conservatives who would never with a straight face describe themselves as 100% conservatives. But something is very wrong with a rating system that describes Jon Bramnick as more conservative than Michael Patrick Carroll.
Now we agree that Assemblyman Carroll might not be as amenable to the blandishments of a Trenton lobbyist as is Republican Leader Bramnick, nevertheless, few thinking observers in Trenton would disagree that Carroll is the Assembly’s most reliably conservative member, bar none. And that should tell you something about the reliability of the ACU’s legislative ratings for New Jersey.
These votes were carefully selected with an outcome in mind and we had to chuckle over what was left out. For starters, there are two important votes on bonding without voter approval that apparently ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe increased debt no longer counts with the ACU.
It will be funny if someone decides to take the ACU’s Cardenas to task with these unaccountably missing votes. Will he offer an opinion? Will the ACU’s individual board members? Or will they hide? After all, they made the mistake of doing this six months before the action. There is lots of time. And that board. . . but that is a story for another day.