What makes a "liberal"? National Journal says: support for 9-11 Commission recommendations, health care for more kids, and stem-cell research funding

››› ››› BRIAN FREDERICK

Among the "liberal" votes Sen. Barack Obama took that purportedly earned him "the most liberal senator in 2007" label in the National Journal's "2007 Vote Ratings" were: to implement the 9-11 Commission's homeland security recommendations, provide more children with health insurance, permit federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and maintain a federal minimum wage.

On January 31, the National Journal released its "2007 Vote Ratings," which ranked Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "the most liberal senator in 2007." Among the "liberal" positions Obama took to earn the distinction were his votes to implement the bipartisan 9-11 Commission's homeland security recommendations, provide more children with health insurance, permit federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, and maintain a federal minimum wage.

According to the Journal, its 27th annual vote ratings of members of Congress were based on "a computer-assisted analysis that used 99 key Senate votes, selected by Journal reporters and editors, to place every senator on a liberal-to-conservative scale in each of three issue categories": economic, social, and foreign policy. Among the Senate votes the National Journal considered in ranking Obama the "most liberal senator in 2007" were:

  • Vote No. 24: on an amendment to "[r]epeal the federal minimum wage by giving states the authority to set minimum wages," according to the Journal. The magazine determined that the liberal position was to vote against the amendment, as Obama did.
  • Vote No. 56: to "[t]able an amendment that would require the Homeland Security Department to screen 100 percent of cargo containers entering the country within five years," according to the Journal. Obama voted against tabling the amendment to the Improving America's Security Act of 2007, which the magazine considered to be the liberal position; the conservative position was to kill the amendment.
  • Vote No. 73: on passage of the Improving America's Security Act of 2007 itself, which the Journal described as "a bill implementing the 9/11 commission's homeland-security recommendations, including a provision extending collective bargaining rights to federal security screeners." The liberal position, according to the magazine, was to vote for the bill, as Obama did.
  • Vote No. 307: concerning "legislation reauthorizing and expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program," as the Journal noted. The liberal position, according to the magazine, was to vote for the bill, as Obama did.

Following the Journal's release of its ratings, some bloggers criticized the report's methodology. As Media Matters for America has noted, the National Journal Group recently sent out an email to readers calling attention to the 2007 ratings and touting the results of its 2003 ratings, which labeled then-presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) as the most liberal senator, despite its recent admission that the 2003 ratings were flawed because Kerry had missed a significant number of the votes that the study had analyzed. According to Journal editor Charles Green, the magazine was aware of the issue at the time, but decided to publish the ratings anyway and change its methodology later, rather than "change the rules in the middle of the game ... after we learned Kerry's ranking." Under the new methodology applied in the 2007 study, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did not receive a rating because he missed too many votes; Media Matters has documented that numerous media outlets have reported Obama's rating while not mentioning that McCain missed too many votes to be evaluated.

The Journal's full 2007 ratings have yet to be released. According to the initial January 31 article about the study on the Journal's website, "The full results for both chambers will be published in our March 8 issue." Only the ratings for nine senators (including McCain's non-rating) were mentioned in the article: the five most liberal senators, presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), and the two senators who received the closest rating to Clinton -- Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Charles Schumer (D-NY). The rating of Rep. Ron Paul (TX) -- the one House member who is still in the race for the Republican nomination -- was also mentioned in the January 31 article.

In a January 31 "explanation of the vote ratings," Green explained why the findings for Clinton and Obama were released before other members of Congress:

Q: Why are you releasing the scores for Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton before you release the scores for all other members of Congress?

Green: Back in December, we decided that we would publish the ratings of the presidential candidates as soon as they became available, rather than wait until our annual Vote Ratings issue on March 8. We thought it would be irresponsible to keep those scores under wraps during the height of the presidential primary season.

Q: Can't you be accused of trying to influence the Super Tuesday election results by releasing the ratings now?

Green: The Super Tuesday timing is coincidental. We received the final vote ratings from Brookings on January 25. We decided to publish the Obama and Clinton scores in the next issue of National Journal. We spent the time between January 25 and January 31, when the magazine was sent to the printer, double-checking the ratings and preparing stories and tables about them.

Network/Outlet
National Journal Group
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.