Spotlight Exclusives

First Focus Recognizes 2023 Champions and Defenders of Children

Bruce Lesley Bruce Lesley, posted on

Given the stalemate on so many important issues on Capitol Hill, it’s easy to overlook the work that IS being done. To identify and publicly acknowledge those lawmakers who step up, commit, and prioritize the needs of children in their work in the Senate and House, First Focus Campaign for Children has created a Legislative Scorecard that highlights the votes taken and bills introduced in Congress that impact the lives of children in either positive or negative ways. To publicly acknowledge and provide an accountability measure, the Legislative Scorecard identifies 120 of the very best members of the House and Senate as Champions and Defenders of Children. First Focus President Bruce Lesley spoke with Spotlight recently about the recently released 2023 roster of Champions and Defenders. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You just published your Legislative Scorecard for 2023. How long have you been doing that?

We’ve been doing the Legislative Scorecard, I believe, since 2008 and we’ve been doing the Champions part for a while as well. What we’ve done over time is get more granular and sophisticated in the scoring. We score bills introduced and co-sponsorship. We score votes. And we also score other things that members of Congress do where they speak up for kids. And the reason why we don’t just do votes, like most scorecards, is there’s really very few votes that are specific to kids in Congress. And so, whereas other groups might then score a big general vote on an immigration policy or a tax policy, we don’t do that because what we’re trying to ascertain is who’s for kids and who’s not. And often when you’re voting on these bigger, broader things, you’re not even taking kids into account. So, we really look at the votes that have a very specific effect on kids—education bills and child care bills and things like that are obvious and then there are amendments as well.

And then once you come up with those rankings, how do the Champions and Defenders then get chosen?

We have this whole point system, and so the higher the points you have, you’re then deemed to be a Champion for children. It’s the highest 60 members of Congress. And then the next set we call Defenders of children, and those are the next 60. So, we basically give awards out to the top 120 members of Congress. Because it’s a pretty elaborate scoring system. we don’t give out letter grades.

And how do you recognize those folks?

We’ve done various things, but what we mostly do is we give people awards. We go in and meet with them and give them a plaque. Our sort of a theory of action behind it is that most other groups can give campaign contributions, whether they have PACS or they have membership organizations, whereas kids just don’t have any of that. They don’t vote. They don’t have PACs and they don’t have lobbyists for the most part. And so consequently, what we’re trying to do is get publicity because we believe that people generally think it’s good to be supportive of kids. For those that do, there’s often not a real political incentive to do so, so we’re trying to reward them or at least make the public aware that hey, these are the good guys. We give them rewards, we highlight their work on social media, and we do op-eds.

And how has the bipartisan nature of this list changed or not changed over time? I noticed there are a few Republicans, but only a few. Has that been an increasing trend?

That’s an excellent question. And the answer to that is yes. In the early days, we definitely had a higher percentage of Republicans. We’ve made an adjustment in our scorecard, and even with that adjustment, it’s still declining. The adjustment is that we try to recognize the political polarization that’s happening in Congress. It’s really hard to vote against your leadership. Sometimes when these votes take place, people tell us, we’re with you but we can’t vote against our leadership.

And so, to reward those people who really step up, we actually give increased points for people who vote opposite their leadership. If the Democrats are all voting for something, that’s an easy vote. Whereas if someone like Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania, votes against his leadership on a kids issue, that’s a tougher vote. So, we give him added points, or people like Don Bacon from Nebraska and some others who will do that. But it’s really hard because the polarization is happening increasingly, and there’s fewer and fewer and moderates. Consequently, in this Congress, for example, I think we had the fewest House Republicans we’ve had in a while.

Do you see this phenomenon in both the House and Senate or mostly just the House?

Mostly in the House. Because of the nature of the Senate, there’s really hardly ever focused votes on kids. You have to come up with a package and we often don’t score these bigger packages. But in these House amendments, there’s been some really anti LGBTQ amendments and things like that that we’ve scored as negative toward towards kids. There was a parents’ Bill of Rights, for example, and we would argue that education is a children’s issue, and yet there was so many of those amendments that were actually really negative toward kids in the name of parents’ rights.

And is there any version of this that you do during a campaign year in terms of scoring any marquee races or trying to hold candidates accountable?

What we do during elections is a little different. We have something that we do on social media called Vote Kids and what we try to do is select as many races as we can, and we analyze their websites and provide information. We don’t say necessarily, this is good or bad—we just point out positions and then leave it to people to make their own decisions. We want to educate the public about where the candidates stand on kids issues and we encourage candidates to actually have a page on their website on children’s issues.

And what about the presidential candidates? Do you do a similar thing there?

Yes, exactly. In addition to that work where we analyze their websites and highlight anything they have said publicly, we in the past have spent a lot of time trying to do campaigns with other kid groups to try to get questions asked at presidential debates. Our point there is that kids are a quarter of the population and almost rarely discussed or debated.

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