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Why the American Conservative Union — the group behind CPAC — rates Rep. Ilhan Omar slightly higher than Rep. Betty McCollum

Omar’s a frequent target for conservative attacks, but she actually earns a higher conservative rating from ACU than McCollum, who earned a perfect 0%.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a favorite target of conservative attacks, is not Minnesota’s lowest-rated politician on the conservative group’s scale.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, a favorite target of conservative attacks, is not Minnesota’s lowest-rated politician on the conservative group’s scale.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

It’s no surprise that the American Conservative Union, the organization that puts on the annual CPAC conference, isn’t fond of Minnesota’s Democratic politicians. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, often noted for her willingness to compromise with Republicans, garnered a paltry 5% on ACU’s 2020 vote rating, which is used to determine who gets invited to CPAC and other ACU regional events.

What is surprising, though, is that Minneapolis Rep. Ilhan Omar, a favorite target of conservative attacks, is not Minnesota’s lowest-rated politician on the conservative group’s scale. That honor belongs to St. Paul’s Betty McCollum, who racks up a 0% score as opposed to Omar’s 4%.

(Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn, Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber were rated at 81%, 77%, and 68%, respectively. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith rated 4%, as did Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips. Rep. Michelle Fischbach was not in Congress in 2020, so there is no data yet for Minnesota’s freshman representative.)

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Omar has been a target for attacks from the right since she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2018. She’s been featured in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s attempts to discredit lawmakers even in out-of-state races. She even caught the attention of  former President Donald Trump, who accused her of professing a “love” for al Qaeda and talking about “how great” and “how wonderful” al Qaeda is. Those claims are false.

Why, then, does the ACU say Omar is more conservative than McCollum?

How the ratings work

It comes down to the way the organization calculates its ratings.

The ratings break down voting records of historical and active lawmakers, identifying each member of Congress’ strengths and weaknesses. The ratings are used to determine who will be invited to CPAC and other ACU regional events, and they can be an important campaign mention for Republicans running for reelection.

“We just do voting,” said Ian Walters, communications director at the ACU. “The other organizations that rate [lawmakers] sometimes calculate something that was said in the press, that they didn’t like so we’re going to come from a B+ down to a C… It strikes us as somewhat arbitrary compared to ours, and it’s just based on votes. It’s straight math.”

But the ACU does not factor in every single vote in Congress. In fact, the 2020 rating system only considered 26 votes cast by members of the House of Representatives.

“We go through all of the votes and try to find ones where there is a clear conservative position and a clear non-conservative position,” Walters said.

Not all votes are equal, though. In the ACU ratings system, some votes are double counted for their “devastating impact” they would have on society, Walters said. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, for example, which the ACU describes as “Advancing the Left’s All-Out Attack on the Police,” is double-counted in the ratings system, giving it eight points in the overall calculation rather than four.

The Minnesota delegation voted along party lines for that piece of legislation, with the exception of Rep. Emmer, who was absent for that vote.

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Why Omar rated higher than McCollum

The reason for Omar’s 4% rating is a vote related to the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020. This bill was an attempt to reform certain parts of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, which was passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to modernize and expand the government’s surveillance capabilities. In 2015, Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act to address issues they found with the government’s collection of phone records.

Among other things, the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act would have banned a controversial program that allowed the National Security Agency to obtain Americans’ phone records in FBI counterterrorism investigations. It also would have renewed a lapsed authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allowed the government to obtain “any tangible thing” without a probable-cause warrant as long as it shows the information is “relevant” to a national security investigation.

Rep. Betty McCollum
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull
Rep. Betty McCollum: “A 0% rating from the ACU is not something that concerns me — helping struggling Americans during a pandemic and after a natural disaster is the right thing to do, and they are votes that I’m proud of.”
The original bill passed in the House with bipartisan support. In the Senate, an amendment was added that would’ve required the FISA Surveillance Court to appoint an amicus (a third-party observer), in any case involving a “sensitive investigative matter.” The ACU listed this amendment as a conservative priority, citing the Obama administration’s FBI being “caught red handed exploiting FISA courts to spy on the 2016 Trump campaign.”

After the Senate passed its amended version of the bill, it went back to the House. This is where the vote that led to ACU’s rating for Omar came in: The vote in question was a vote to disagree with the amendments added by the Senate and to form a conference committee with the Senate to work out differences and create a compromise version of the bill.

Most Democrats — including every Democrat from Minnesota other than Omar — favored this course of action, voting 211 to 21 against the amendment and in favor of a conference. Republicans were more split, many of them favoring the bill as amended in the Republican-controlled Senate. (Minnesota’s Republicans all voted, with Omar, in favor of accepting the Senate amendments and against forming a conference committee.)

So did Omar vote the way she did because she shared her conservative colleagues’ disgust with the way the FBI had monitored the 2016 Trump presidential campaign? Not so much. The small minority of Democrats voting with conservatives on the motion included some of the House’s most progressive members.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) — who along with Rep. Omar are members of “The Squad,” a group of progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives — both joined Rep. Omar in voting against the conference committee. Their reasoning? Progressives were skeptical that a conference committee would make the reforms they wanted to FISA and the Patriot Act. They preferred to just have the House vote on the Senate bill as amended since it would likely fail, killing the bill.

“This was a procedural vote to conference with the Senate on the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and portions of the Patriot Act. Rep. Omar and other progressives opposed a conference committee because it was unlikely to include necessary reforms to the Patriot Act to prevent civil liberties violations and mass surveillance of the American people,” said Jeremy Slevin, senior communications director for Rep. Omar.

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Since the ACU just bases its ratings on the votes themselves, but not the reasoning behind the votes, Omar got credit for voting conservatively here — even though her purpose was actually to prevent passage of the policy the ACU favored. (In the end, the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020 failed to pass.)

As to this (very slight) mark of approval from the world of arch conservatism, Slevin said “Rep. Omar is proud of her legislative record, which includes working to end child hunger in Minnesota, provide more housing stability, tackle student debt, and stand up for civil liberties at home and abroad. She will work with anyone to advance those goals.”

For her part, McCollum was unfazed by the ACU’s disapproval of her record: “A 0% rating from the ACU is not something that concerns me — helping struggling Americans during a pandemic and after a natural disaster is the right thing to do, and they are votes that I’m proud of.”