Vote Smart’s 30th Anniversary: Trends in Legislation Over Time
Throughout Vote Smart’s 30 year history of monitoring legislation, it has been our responsibility to observe certain trends in the legislation emerging from Congress and state legislatures. Over this extended period, we have noticed several trends in significant pieces of legislation and what they reveal about the most popular types of legislation. Among all the legislation cataloged in our extensive database over the years, we have observed the most movement amongst legislation related to Healthcare, Firearms, and Defense.
The first notable trend we have seen in legislation is in healthcare and the various ways in which the states and federal government have redefined access to and restrictions for medical treatments for emergency or elective purposes. One of the most significant healthcare access bills we have tracked is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the ACA was initially considered a highly partisan bill, it eventually inspired many states with both Democratic and Republican state legislatures to expand their Medicare programs and expand Medicare for several groups including those in the foster care system. Our observations also indicate a steady increase in the passage of abortion restrictions, especially since the notable overturn of Roe v. Wade. Since then, legislation on restricting and expanding abortion access has become more prevalent across state legislatures, particularly in the southern regions of the United States such as Florida. However, we have seen abortion access expand in the northeast and the west coast of the United States, as seen in California. Gender affirming healthcare has also been a prominent aspect of healthcare legislation, with several states seeking to restrict access to certain types of gender affirming healthcare while others have enacted legislation to protect both gender affirming healthcare and reproductive services, including abortion. While the expansion of general healthcare services has been popular in both Republican and Democratic-led states, abortion access and gender affirming healthcare have faced greater restrictions at the state level.
The second trend we have observed over the years is the legislation related to gun control, second amendment protections, and criminal justice reforms concerning access to firearms. The United States owns nearly 46% of the world’s civilian firearms, leading to significant discussions about the role of firearms in society. Numerous states have passed legislation to both protect and restrict firearm rights. This includes various bills in states like Oregon, California, and Colorado. On the national level, one of the most notable pieces of legislation in this regard has been the Safer Communities Act of 2022. This act followed the efforts of many states to implement similar gun safety legislation and has been one of the most comprehensive bills addressing the issue since the 1994 crime bill. Conversely, some states like Iowa, Ohio have expanded access to the right to bear arms in their state constitutions in response to calls for greater gun control legislation. In summary, there has been a divergence among states regarding firearm legislation, with some states expanding gun rights while others, and occasionally Congress, enact more restrictions.
The third trend we have observed in state and national legislation is related to foreign affairs and national security, particularly through defense spending. On the federal level, the most notable trend since 2000 has been annual increases in the National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) and war authorization acts to support the Department of Defense.
The increase in defense appropriations funding after 2000 can mostly be attributed to the global war on terrorism, with a notable dip between 2012-2016 followed by a steady increase since then. Defense spending continues to rise, regardless of the state of the economy or the rate of inflation. The past few years, however, have been an anomaly–according to a report by McKinsey & Company, the rise in inflation outpaced the rise in defense spending, which impacts the purchasing power of anything the Department of Defense (DoD) invests in. The below figure from the McKinsey article shows the relationship between one aspect of the defense budget–military pay–as it relates to both civilian pay and the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is a method of tracking the rate of inflation.
Traditionally, defense spending has not been a contentious piece of legislation. However, with the increasing partisanship in Congress, the content of the NDAA has become a subject of debate. This was particularly evident in the 2020 NDAA when President Donald Trump attempted to veto the bill due to specific concerns regarding “critical national security measures” (the veto was subsequently overridden by both chambers). Nonetheless, there are still moments of bipartisan support for defense legislation, such as the support for providing weapons to Ukraine and the approval of Finland and Sweden’s entry to NATO. While defense policy has become more contentious in recent years, with specific provisions in these large appropriations bills causing disagreements, there have also been instances that demonstrate the possibility of bipartisanship in Congress.
Considering the recent trends in legislation brought up and passed in Congress and state legislatures, it is evident that growing polarization between states led by Republican and Democratic legislatures is shaping the political goals of each party. Therefore, Vote Smart remains committed to protecting against disinformation and providing free factual and unbiased information on politicians, legislation, interest groups, and issue positions. As we approach the upcoming election cycle in 2024, Vote Smart's role in providing unbiased and reliable information is of utmost importance. Our dedication lies in educating and informing voters about legislation that directly affects their lives. By arming voters with the knowledge they need, we empower them to participate actively in the democratic process and make choices that align with their values and interests. In a time when misinformation runs rampant, it is more crucial than ever to have access to factual information that sheds light on politicians, legislation, interest groups, and issue positions. With the complexity of our political system and the ever-increasing spread of misinformation, Vote Smart acts as a beacon of truth and transparency. We are committed to delivering accurate and objective information, allowing citizens to see through the noise and understand the real impact of legislation on their communities and the nation as a whole.
Join us in supporting Vote Smart and its tireless efforts to uphold the principles of democracy. Together, we can ensure that voters have the resources they need to navigate the intricate landscape of politics, enabling them to engage meaningfully, make informed choices, and contribute to a more informed and accountable government. Let us seize this opportunity to build a stronger democracy, where factual information prevails, and the power of the people is truly realized.
“The Affordable Care Act at 10: States Lead the Way.” NASHP, December 27, 2022.
“H 37 - Expands Protections for Legally Protected Healthcare Activities and Regulation for
Healthcare Providers - Vermont Key Vote.” Vote Smart, April 21, 2023.
“HR 6395 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.” Vote Smart, March 26,
Masters, Jonathan. “U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons.” Council on Foreign Relations, June
“S 2938 - Bipartisan Safer Communities Act - National Key Vote.” Vote Smart, October 21,
“U.S. - Defense Outlays and Forecast 2033.” Statista, May 26, 2023.
“The $773 Billion Question: Inflation’s Impact on Defense Spending.” McKinsey & Company, March 28, 2022. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/aerospace-and-defense/our-insights/the-773-billion-question-inflations-impact-on-defense-spending.
Thomas Stone (he/him/his) has been at Vote Smart since the Summer of 2017 working in the Key Votes Department, where he tracks and reviews legislation and voting trends at both national and state levels. Before joining Vote smart Thomas studied History and Sociology at Iowa State University and was a Projectionist for the Science Center of Iowa IMAX Dome theater.
Quinn Newman has been at Vote Smart since the Spring of 2023 working in the Key Votes Department, where he tracks and reviews legislation and voting trends at both national and state levels. Before joining Vote Smart, Quinn studied at Xavier University and was a Campaign Field organizer for Illinois State Representative Janet Yang Rohr.