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Bill Don't Lie: Congressional Efficiency through the NBA

dwight and bob

This post was compiled and written by Evan Kalikow, known as @killakow on Twitter. During the recent shutdown, Evan had some free time. Instead of posting #ObstructionIsNotGovernance every day (love you, Amin), Evan chose to connect his love of the NBA with the curious working habits of our United States legislative branch. What follows is the resulting piece. Happy reading!

Like most sports, basketball is a game of efficiency. If your team has players that can score more often and on fewer attempts than your opponents, you’re in pretty good shape. Ever since basketball became a fully-realized sport, scouts, coaches, and general managers have used shot efficiency (in one form or another) to evaluate players.

Hey, maybe the same is true of U.S. politics!

Just like NBA players, Congress talks a big game. But does it deliver? Can we use similar measures to evaluate politicians? How efficient are our members of Congress, though? Are they more like James Harden or more like 2011 Mike Bibby? I found myself wondering these questions the other day, when it became apparent to me (and countless others) that Congress can’t get a dang thing done... more like the 2011 vintage of Mike Bibby. I decided to dive into the data and figure out how efficient our men and women of Congress really are, comparing the 113th U.S. Congress (January 2013 to October 2013) to NBA players from the 2012-2013 season (October 2012 to April 2013).

First, to define the measures of efficiency that I will be using. For NBA players, efficiency is measured simply by Field Goal Percentage, or FG% (field goals made divided by field goals attempted). We'll look at every NBA player who took at least 100 shots during the 2012-2013 regular season. I hear you -- FG% isn't a perfect measure of player quality or player efficiency, and the metric is biased toward certain types of players (more on that later), but look at it this way: when U.S. Senators were young enough to play basketball without immediately tearing every ligament and tendon in their body simultaneously, Field Goal Percentage was state-of-the-art. And I'm all about communication.

Things get slightly trickier for measuring congressional efficiency. To get these values, I took all 538 members of both houses of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) and created a similar measure; essentially, Congressional Efficiency is defined as bills and resolutions passed divided by bills and resolutions proposed*. Again, this measure has flaws -- some of them hilarious -- and simply measures efficiency, not difficulty.

*NOTE CONTAINING GORY DEFINITIONAL DETAILS: Bills are considered passed if they passed the House, passed the Senate, agreed to as a simple resolution, passed the House with changes, passed the Senate with changes, agreed to as a concurrent resolution, enrolled (i.e. passed by the House and Senate and presented to the President to sign), or signed by the President. Conversely, bills with a most recent status of introduced, referred to committee, reported by committee, failed under suspension, failed cloture, failed House, or failed Senate are considered not passed. Although this definition of success is relatively broad, it works well for our purposes.

After compiling and organizing the data, the first thing that struck me was how much less efficient Congress was than the NBA, even though I was using the lowest-skewed NBA field goal statistic. To wit: the average efficiency of a Congressperson was 8.06%... compared to an average field goal percentage of 44.55% for an NBA player. Statistically, that notorious bill on Capitol Hill probably should have died on the steps. To make it a bit easier to see comparisons between the two, I took the difference between the two averages and added it to each Congressperson’s efficiency, giving us equivalent averages and comparable agents. Adjusted Congressional Efficiency (ACE) I'll call it, but only this one time.

The Senators, Representatives, and Delegates of the 113th Congress naturally separated themselves into seven distinct groups based on their adjusted efficiencies. Let’s take a look.

To access the spreadsheet with the data for all congressmen and NBA players, click here.

• • •

Group 1: The No-Shows

Description: These four Congresspeople alone - out of all of Congress - have proposed exactly 0 bills or resolutions so far. Not a single one. This makes sense for Brown and Scott, who are in their first terms. It makes extra sense for Chiesa, who was only appointed in June and has barely set up his office. But John Boehner, Speaker of the House? That’s downright pathetic, man. Write a bill or something, dork!

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Andrew Bynum, Charles Barkley, you, your grandma, anyone you saw on the street today, a baby who was literally born yesterday.

Best One-On-One Comparison: John Boehner (0%) is exactly as efficient as an orange (0%).

 • • •

Group 2: League Minimum

Description: The Senators and Representatives in this group all proposed at least one bill, but passed none. Due to the fact that we're equalizing the averages by adding, their 0% actual efficiency gets adjusted into an ACE of 36.5%. In basketball terms, that is horrendous. To put this into perspective, Austin Rivers -- a man who put together one of the all-time worst rookie seasons ever last year -- had a FG% of 37.2%, which is higher than every single senator or representative that graces this list. And make no mistake: there's a lot of them. A total of 331 Congresspeople ended up in this group with absolutely zero bills passed, which just goes to show you (a) how difficult it is to get a bill passed, and (b) how much less efficient Congress is than the NBA.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Austin Rivers, Ricky Rubio, Kirk Hinrich, Kent Bazemore, Ason Kidd.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Ted Cruz (36.5%) is slightly less efficient than Sixth Man of the Year vote recipient Luke Babbitt (36.8%). Ted for 6MOTY!

 • • •

Group 3: Point Guards and Role Players

Description: The NBA players in this group are slightly below league average in terms of FG%. You’ll find some stinkers in there (Royal Ivey), but also a lot of excellent point guards (Russell Westbrook, for one). PGs tend to shoot the ball a lot, so their FG% drops accordingly. The men and women of Congress in this group mostly follow the high-usage PG model, with high-usage, low-efficiency Senators like Bob Casey and David Vitter, as well as Representatives like Diane Black and Cody Gardner. This makes sense--over half of the Senators and Representatives in this study didn’t get a single bill passed, so you see more Congressional Goran Dragics and fewer congressional Jodie Meekses.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Rudy Gay, Jordan Crawford, Kemba Walker, Jrue Holiday, Russell Westbrook

Best One-On-One Comparison: TIE. On one hand, you have Diane Feinstein (38.7%) doing her best Rasheed Wallace (38.7%) impression. But on the other hand, Chuck Grassley (42.8%), everyone’s favorite tweeter, is a slightly better Ray Felton (42.7%). It’s tough to say which one of these comparisons is better. Which will happen first: Diane Feinstein getting a T on the Senate floor, or Chuck Grassley dropping 50 on the Dems?

 • • •

Group 4: Very Good Players

Description: This is the first group of NBA players that are all above the league-average in FG%. Lots of these players are, as the group name would suggest, very good. You have guys like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving who are better shooters than the PGs in the last group, and you have guys like Jeff Green and Jimmy Butler, who are solid. There are also some higher-usage Centers like Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, as well as classic big men in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. On the Congressional side, there are some heavy-hitters, like Richard Blumenthal. But a lot of this group is made up of low-usage, high-efficiency types, who propose fewer than 10 bills but can get at least one passed. This is exemplified by Rodney Davis and Richard Hanna, who each only proposed 8 bills, but each also got 1 passed, giving them both 49.0% adjusted efficiencies.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Roy Hibbert, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Josh Smith, Chris Paul, Paul Millsap.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Michele Bachmann (47.6%) comes out of the pack as a slightly more efficient version of DeMarcus Cousins (46.5%). I’m buying $1000 worth of stock in whatever TV network can get them to live in a house together and videotape the results.

 • • •

Group 5: Lots of Tall People

Description: I mentioned earlier that FG%, as a measurement, is biased toward a certain group of NBA players. By that, I of course meant tall people. The kinds of shots that Centers take and make are generally close to the basket and highly efficient on their own. This gives Centers a leg up when comparing FG% data, and it shows in this group. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Ed Davis’ or Tiago Splitter’s immediate families who say that those are better players than Kevin Durant, but that’s what the rankings in this group say. A similar phenomenon develops with the Congressional members of this group, where even more low-usage, high-success rate candidates emerge. Patrick Leahy, who proposed 23 bills and passed 4 of them, is one of the exceptions. Good on you, pal.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Kevin Durant, Larry Sanders, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin.

Best One-On-One Comparison: I don’t know too much about Senator Mike Johanns (55.3%), but the Personal Life section of his Wikipedia page is pretty dull; he had some kids and grandkids, got divorced, and then remarried. This dullness makes him a perfect complement to Kenneth Faried (55.2%), who has been described as many things but never dull.

 • • •

Group 6: Even More Tall People (and LeBron!)

Description: Every single player on here either plays Center or is named LeBron James. They take a lot of close-range and low-risk shots, they’re at or near 7 feet tall, or they’re LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet. At the top of this list is Chris Wilcox, who took 153 shots and made 110 of them, earning an FG% of 71.9%. At the bottom of the list is LeBron James, 4x winner of the Most Valuable Player award, who made a paltry 56.5% of his shots (he also made exactly 5 times as many shots as Chris Wilcox, but who’s counting?). Basically what I’m trying to say is that a lot of very tall people who make a high proportion of their low-risk shots make up this group, a group that also contains perhaps the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan. LeBron James. I’m talking about LeBron James in that last part. As for Congress, more of the same. Many props to Candace Miller of Michigan’s 10th district for hitting 7 of 20 and posing a 71.5% adjusted efficiency.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Arnett Moultrie, JaVale McGee, Serge Ibaka.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Robert Menendez (58.1%) is only slightly more efficient than Dwight Howard (57.8%). Fun fact: Robert Menendez is the size of a regulation basketball. Take that, Dwight!

 • • •

Group 7: The MonSTARS

Description: This group of Congresspeople is small, but it’s ridiculously efficient. The least efficient member of this group, Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, had an adjusted efficiency ranking of 72.9%. And that’s the worst of this group. Major props are also due for Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Rob Woodall, Pete Sessions, and Xavier Becerra, who each posted adjusted efficiencies of over 100% with at least 7 proposed bills each. Let’s put it in basketball terms. To get an adjusted efficiency as high as Becerra’s 125.4%, an NBA player would have to make 5 out of 4 baskets, which is capital-I Impossible. That’s why these ladies and gentlemen are the MonSTARS: like the popular Space Jam villains, they can defy time and space to be incredibly efficient.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: The MonSTARS, Superman flying around the world quickly to turn back time, Michael Jordan at the end of Space Jam, two LeBrons playing at the same time.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Harry Reid (100.3%) is slightly more efficient than Al Horford was from the 3 point line during the 2009-2010 season (100%).

 • • •

There were a few interesting takeaways. In Congress, like the NBA, high-efficiency "centers" are rare to come by and highly desirable. The Congressional Centers take few chances, low-risk chances, or some combination of the two when proposing legislation, and as a result are highly efficient at getting their priorities legislated. If you’re a Democrat or Republican, that's the type of Congressperson that you hope gets elected.

Lots of people take issue with the NBA (and basketball in general) as a superstar-driven sport. It’s easy to see how that can be, but it’s nothing compared to Congress. Over half of the Congresspeople barely get any of their legislation passed! At all! Then again, maybe the 113th Congress is a poor example--it’s on pace to be the least productive ever, after all. In any event, we can take a small bit of comfort in the concept of DeMarcus Cousins and Michele Bachmann living together, right?

NBA data courtesy of basketball-reference.com. Congressional data courtesy of GovTrack.us; current as of October 3, 2013.

Alex Dewey
The co-founder of the blog, Alex is an unemployed jack of all trades, if you redefine "all trades" to mean "computer science, not owning a car, and mathematics." Writes ace book reviews as well as disturbing Lovecraftian horrors. Has a strange sense of humor that's part Posnanski, part coyote, and part Butta. "See you space cowboy."

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