Keeping score: will politicians 'walk the walk?'

Nov 17 2017

Keeping score: will politicians ‘walk the walk?’

In recent months, members of the U.S. Congress have been “talking the talk” in regard to the country’s opiate addiction epidemic. Now, with the 2018 midterm elections approaching, will they “walk the walk” and commit funding and other resources to do something about the crisis?

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) announced recently he is working with advocacy groups and former Surgeons General Vivek Murthy and David Satcher to craft a legislative scorecard system to hold lawmakers accountable for their response to the opioid crisis.  

Kennedy told Politico he will meet with various groups to develop metrics to measure lawmakers’ commitment to fighting the epidemic, including voting records, and to show who is donating to their campaigns. Kennedy said he also wants to explore how to score agency secretaries’ efforts to carry out the recommendations made by the president’s opioid commission, of which he is a member.

Now we need to hold them to their words,” Kennedy said.

The opioid epidemic was a key issue in several 2016 congressional races, and in some 2017 state and local elections. Advocates for addiciton treatment and recovery are hoping Kennedy and others will be successful in stimulating Congressional action.

Kennedy has had a special interest in mental health and addiction issues, based on his own experiences, and a family history of addiction. Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy –who served in Congress for 50 years – and nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, is himself in recovery from addiction and mental health issues.

A former Commissioner on the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, he is the founder of The Kennedy Forum, a convening think tank focused on mental health and addiction policy; and co-founder of One Mind, a Seattle-based nonprofit which promotes open science collaboration for brain research.

In 2015, he co-authored, A Common Struggle, a New York Times best seller, which details his personal journey and offers a roadmap for the future of mental health policy. Kennedy has been pushing for full enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. He was the lead sponsor of the legislation, which requires health plans to cover mental health, eating disorders, and addiction care health benefits the same way they cover physical health benefits. His father sponsored the companion bill in the Senate.

Andrew Kessler, a Washington lobbyist who advocates for behavioral health organizations, thinks “it’s a great idea. Accountability is important in all policy matters. I’ve actually been wondering if instead of a focus only on health care, challengers and incumbents will focus specifically on opioids,” Kessler told The Influence. Kessler, the founder and principal of Slingshot Solutions LLC,  says he has “no idea as to how effective these campaigns are. It depends greatly on how widely they can disseminate it. If a tree falls in a forest…”

Also in favor of the scorecard idea is Marvin Ventrell, executive director of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. “Holding our lawmakers accountable through an objective process is a fine idea,” Ventrell told The Influence.

The term “legislative scorecard” refers to any ranked balanced scorecard used to rank sitting legislators or candidates for legislative office on their voting record. It is also used to refer to ranked indexes of introduced or ratified legislation on certain criteria.

Scorecards are usually aggregated on an annual basis, and are often composed by political advocacy groups as educative tools for voters in their decision-making at the ballot box. They are also useful for endorsement of candidates by other organizations.

Most of the major advocacy groups and political action committees maintain scorecards to keep track of how politicians are voting, guide campaign contributors, and further their positions on important issues. Some of the better known scorecards are used by The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, American Conservative Union, the National Rifle Association, Americans for Democratic Action, the Human Rights Campaign, the Humane Society’s scorecard, League of Conservation Voters, and National Taxpayers Union.