Government & Politics

by Ronald Brownstein Updated: February 27, :42 a.m. February 24, :40 p.m.

VOTE RATINGS Pulling Apart Congress was more polarized last year than in any other year since National Journal began compiling its vote ratings. Overlap between the parties is disappearing. by Ronald Brownstein
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VOTE RATINGS Pulling Apart Congress was more polarized last year than in any other year since National Journal began compiling its vote ratings. Overlap between the parties is disappearing. by Ronald Brownstein Updated: February 27, :42 a.m. February 24, :40 p.m. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES Republicans in lockstep: House Speaker John Boehner, flanked by GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (left) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, presides over a polarized House. In the long march toward a more parliamentary and partisan Washington, National Journal s 2010 congressional vote ratings mark a new peak of polarization. For only the second time since 1982, when NJ began calculating the ratings in their current form, every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat. Even Nebraska s Ben Nelson, the most conservative Democrat in the rankings, produced an overall voting record slightly to the left of the most moderate Republicans last year: Ohio s George Voinovich and Maine s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The Senate had been that divided only once before, in But the overall level of congressional polarization last year was the highest the index has recorded, because the House was much more divided in 2010 than it was in Back then, more than half of the chamber s members compiled voting records between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. In 2010, however, the overlap between the parties in the House was less than in any previous index. Just five House Republicans in 2010 generated vote ratings more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat, Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Just four Democrats produced ratings more conservative than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao of Louisiana. Every other House Republican produced a more conservative vote rating than every other House Democrat, even though a substantial number of those Democrats pursued a relatively moderate course overall. Of the nine members who were outliers last year, only one Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina is still in Congress. That makes him the only lawmaker in the House or Senate this year to have a 2010 vote rating out of sync with his party. The results document another leap forward in the fusion of ideology and partisanship that has remade Congress over the past three decades, the period tracked by NJ s vote ratings. For most of American history, the two parties operated as ramshackle coalitions that harbored diverse and even antithetical views. Each party s Senate caucus housed ideological antagonists, such as progressive Democratic titan Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and segregationist stalwart Richard Russell of Georgia, or New Right Republican firebrand Jesse Helms of North Carolina and silk-stocking New York City liberal Jacob Javits. Such contrasts are not extinct. But since the early 1980s, they have vastly diminished as the differences within each party have narrowed and the distance between them has widened. Over that period, it s just a straight, linear increase in congressional polarization, says Gary Jacobson, a University of California (San Diego) political scientist who specializes in Congress. There s a little bit of bumping around in the numbers here and there, but the basic movement is toward the parties moving further and further apart. The 1970s are a high point of all the crossparty [coalitions]. The last three decades are ones of pulling apart. In 2010, the vote ratings show, the ideological consolidation was greater among Republicans than Democrats. Almost without exception House Republicans generated strongly conservative voting records, regardless of the demography or political leanings of their districts. By contrast, House Democrats from districts that voted for John McCain in 2008 or are dominated by working-class whites produced much less liberal records than their colleagues from districts that strongly supported Barack Obama or are more racially diverse and well educated. In the Senate, just eight Republicans notched a composite conservative score of less than 70, while 21 Democrats received a liberal ranking of less than 70. The results capture the continued remaking of Congress into an institution defined by much greater partisan discipline and philosophical conformity. Occasionally, legislators can still build idiosyncratic coalitions across party lines, as occurred during some of the votes on the freewheeling House debate over spending earlier this month. Likewise, a bipartisan group of senators is attempting to build a cross-party alliance to advance the recommendations of President Obama s debt-reduction commission. But increasingly, on the biggest issues, the parties line up in virtual lockstep against each other, as they did on many of the key measures in the 2010 rankings, such as the Senate votes on health care and financial-services reform. (Even on the House s final vote last weekend on funding the government through September, every Democrat voted in opposition and all but three Republicans voted in support.) All of this is fundamentally changing the way Congress gets things done when it gets things done at all. If you are the whip in either party you are liking this, [because] it makes your job easier, says Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader (and before that the GOP Senate whip). In terms of getting things done for the country, that s not the case. THE LOST WORLD For those who have come of age in today s hyperpartisan Congress with its near-parliamentary levels of party discipline on floor votes, jagged ideological confrontations, and dominant role for leadership it s easy to forget how different the institution looked as recently as the early 1980s, when NJ began measuring members votes on a liberal-to-conservative scale. The first time NJ calculated congressional votes using the scale it employs now, in 1982, the results revealed a Congress that operated in a manner that would be unrecognizable today. John Danforth, a moderate Republican senator from Missouri, was finishing his first term in He remembers that soon after he arrived, Russell Long of Louisiana, the venerable Democratic powerhouse who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, gave him a singular piece of advice. Don t ever hold grudges, because your strongest opponent today could be your ally tomorrow, Danforth, who retired in 1994, recalled in a recent interview. That advice made sense in the Senate of those years, because both caucuses were much more diverse and unpredictable than they are today. In NJ s 1982 vote ratings, fully 36 Senate Democrats compiled records at least as conservative as the most liberal Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. From the other direction, 24 Senate Republicans compiled voting records at least as liberal as the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. Zorinsky, in fact, received a rating exactly as conservative as Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential campaign ignited the modern conservative revival. The senators with voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat represented a pool of idiosyncratic, unattached pieces that could be assembled and reassembled in constantly shifting coalitions to pass or block legislation. In such a fluid environment, it virtually defied conceptualization to define a typical Democrat or typical Republican senator. The Democrats who generated less liberal records than Weicker included New South moderates such as David Boren of Oklahoma and Sam Nunn of Georgia and Old South conservatives such as ancient John Stennis of Mississippi and Harry Byrd of Virginia, as well as coastal neoliberals such as Bill Bradley of New Jersey. The Republicans more liberal than Zorinsky included a phalanx of brainy New England moderates, among them Weicker, William Cohen of Maine, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Robert Stafford of Vermont, a champion of the modern environmental movement. Issues frequently divided the parties along ideological and regional lines. When Helms pushed a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer, Weicker and Danforth helped lead the fight to stop him. The overarching point is that the Senate was comprised of 100 individuals who had a loose binding with the respective parties, says Weicker, who left the GOP in 1990 to win the Connecticut governorship as an independent. There were more conservative Democrats, more liberal Republicans. You had people who stood on their own two feet. In the three decades since, NJ s vote ratings have tracked the narrowing of that Senate center. By 1994, the second year of Bill Clinton s presidency, 27 Democrats compiled more conservative NJvoting records than the most liberal Republican, James Jeffords of Vermont (who also later left the GOP to become an independent). Just nine Republicans compiled voting records more liberal than the most conservative Democrat that year Richard Shelby of Alabama; Shelby, too, later switched parties, joining the GOP. In 1999, with Clinton s impeachment looming over the chamber and the parties recoiling in the aftermath of the grassroots conservative backlash against the 1997 balanced-budget deal, NJ found no Senate crossover between the parties for the only other time. By 2002, the second year of George W. Bush s presidency, some overlap returned, but just two Democrats compiled a more conservative voting record than the most liberal Republican, Rhode Island s Lincoln Chafee. (Continuing the pattern, Chafee was elected governor as an independent last November.) Just seven Republicans racked up voting records more liberal than the most conservative Democrat, Georgia s Zell Miller (who never switched parties but did endorse Bush at the 2004 GOP convention). In 2010, the second year of Obama s term, this process of separation reached another apex, with no overlap between the ideological scores of senators from the two parties. Taking the long view, the trajectory from Ronald Reagan s second year to Obama s is stark: In 1982, 58 senators compiled voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. By 1994, the number was down to 34. By 2002 (after touching zero in 1999), it stood at just seven. And now it has returned to zero. Over the years, there is no question that the middle in the Senate has shrunk considerably, says Lott, now a Washington lobbyist and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. In the House, as noted earlier, some ideological overlap remains. But the basic story is the same and in some ways is even more dramatic. In 1982, the days of conservative Democratic Boll Weevils and liberal Republican Gypsy Moths, fully 344 House members received NJ vote ratings between the most liberal Republican (Rhode Island s Claudine Schneider) and the most conservative Democrat (Georgia s Larry McDonald). Even as recently as 1999, 226 House lawmakers compiled ratings between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. By 2005, the number between those two poles fell to 54. By 2010, the number of members between those two boundaries had shriveled to seven. The separation between the parties might not always be as pronounced as in the 2010 ratings. Some Senate Republicans (Scott Brown of Massachusetts, say, or Mark Kirk of Illinois) might easily compile more-moderate voting records than Democrats Nelson of Nebraska or Joe Manchin of West Virginia, particularly if both tilt to the right in anticipation of tough 2012 reelection campaigns. As Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, notes, it may have been easier for Republicans to achieve unanimity in opposition to Obama s agenda than it will be for them to do so while trying to pass their own programs. Yet, the underlying trend toward the parties pulling apart in Congress is unmistakable, and, in the eyes of many analysts, probably irreversible. The two parties, says Washington lobbyist Vic Fazio, the former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, increasingly are at polar opposites. LINES OF DIVISION Though the dominant trend is increasing convergence within the parties, and widening divergence between them, the 2010 vote ratings reveal enduring fault lines in each chamber, particularly among Democrats. The ratings measured 427 House members and 94 senators; the missing House and Senate seats were held by a person (or persons) who did not cast enough votes last year to warrant a score. The results reaffirm the link between senators voting records and the behavior of their states in presidential elections. Senators whose states reliably support candidates from the lawmakers party in White House races have consistently compiled more-ideological voting records than senators whose states often prefer the other party or swing between them. (See Serving Behind Enemy Lines, NJ, 4/24/10, p. 25.) That pattern was vivid again in Of the 21 Democratic senators with the most-liberal overall voting records, according to the ratings, 18 were elected from blue wall states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five presidential elections. The only exceptions to the pattern are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Ohio s Sherrod Brown, who tied with seven others for the most liberal Democratic score; and first-termer Tom Udall of New Mexico, who tied for the 15th-most-liberal score. Among Republicans, the 22 senators with the most-conservative vote ratings were all elected in states that voted Republican in at least the past three presidential elections. That group includes the eight who tied for the most conservative score among them Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, and Mike Crapo of Idaho. In a striking measure of his repositioning since 2008, Arizona s McCain also tied for the most conservative score among Republicans; as recently as 2001, in the aftermath of his defeat by Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries, McCain had generated the 39th-most-conservative record in the Senate. In both parties, dissent is more common among the senators elected, in effect, behind enemy lines. These are the lawmakers who are often most interested in exploring compromises that round off the sharp edges of partisan conflict. Overall, the 30 GOP senators, for instance, elected from states that voted Republican in each of the past three presidential elections compiled an average composite liberal score of 17, meaning that as a group they were more liberal than 17 percent of their Senate colleagues. But the three GOP senators elected from states that voted Democratic in each of the presidential contests since 2000 Collins and Snowe of Maine and Brown of Massachusetts generated an average liberal score more than twice that, 37 percent. The same holds true for Democrats. The 30 Democratic senators elected from states that voted Democratic in the past three presidential elections compiled an average liberal score of nearly 76. By contrast, the eight Democrats elected from states that voted Democratic for president only once since 2000 compiled an average liberal score of 67, and the dozen from states that have not voted Democratic since at least 2000 amassed an average liberal score of only 60. Except for iconoclastic Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman (who is retiring after next year), all 14 of the Senate Democrats with the most-conservative voting records, relatively speaking, represent states that have not voted Democratic more than once since 2000 a list that includes Nelson of Nebraska, Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado. Those pairings underscore another striking trend in the Senate results: the convergence among the ratings of senators from the same party who represent the same state. Although the gap between senators from opposite parties who hail from the same state (say Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa) remains large, partisan pairs increasingly follow the same course. For instance, Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland all tied for the most liberal ranking (as did Democrat Patrick Leahy and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont). The other end of the ideological scale finds the overlap between Tester and Baucus, Webb and Warner, Bennet and Udall. Similar patterns are evident among Republicans. In all, 22 states were represented by senators whose vote ratings were within 5 percentage points of each other. In only 12 states did senators have vote ratings more than 25 percentage points apart. This convergence may illustrate the diminished ability of senators to sail a distinct course, independent of the dominant political currents in their state. The frequent pairings suggest that senators are aligning more closely with their state s underlying political balance, or at least the consensus in their party within their state. Those who break from that consensus face an increasing risk of primaries driven by activists of the Left or Right; three senators two Republicans and one Democrat were denied renomination in 2010, almost as many as in the previous 26 years combined. There is more of a demand in each party for a degree of purity or inflexibility that was not there before, says Danforth, now a lawyer in St. Louis. Lott notes that the growing threat of such primary challenges (at least three more Senate Republicans could face serious opponents in 2012) powerfully reinforces the trend toward partisan and ideological conformity evident in the ratings. You really need to toe the line, he says. That affects people s thinking both Democrats and Republicans. A TALE OF TWO PARTIES In the House, as in the Senate, Republicans pursued a more unified course in 2010 than Democrats did. The contrast between the parties was arguably even greater in the lower chamber. What s more, many House Republicans compiled conservative voting records regardless of the demographic or political bent of their districts, while Democrats differed substantially based on those factors. Among Democrats, for instance, there was a clear relationship between their 2010 vote rating and the way their district voted for president in The 124 House Democrats representing districts where Obama won at least 60 percent of the vote compiled an average liberal score of nearly 81, well above the party average of 70. In stair-step fashion, the average liberal score dropped to 69 for the 48 House Democrats in districts where Obama won between 55 and 59 percent, and to 63 for the 35 in districts that he carried with less than 55 percent of the vote. Most strikingly, the average liberal score of the 47 House Democrats from districts that McCain carried in 2008 stood at just 50 fully 30 percentage points below the number for those holding the safest seats. Of the 50 House Democrats with the most-conservative voting records, 35 were from districts that McCain carried. There is no question that the middle in the Senate has shrunk considerably. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott Among Republicans, the variation was much smaller. The 52 House Republicans from districts where McCain won at least 60 percent of the vote produced an average conservative score of nearly 83. The 33 members from districts where he won between 55 and 59 percent generated a slightly more conservative ranking of 84, and the number fell only slightly, to 78, among the 54 lawmakers in districts that McCain won with less than 55 percent of the vote. Even the 34 House Republicans from districts that Obama carried compiled an average conservative score of 72 only about 10 percentage points less th
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