That Obama is set to nominate so many former legislators to his Cabinet and senior White House staff provides a rare opportunity for comparing the ideological make-up of the new administration to that of Congress.
With the nomination of Hilda Solis to be Labor Secretary and Ray LaHood to be Transportation Secretary, there will be six former House and Senate members in the cabinet (including Clinton, Daschle, Salazar, and Richardson). Throw in Obama himself, Joe Biden, and Rahm Emanuel, we have a pretty good sample of former legislators to compare to the current composition House and Senate Democratic caucuses.
To gauge the differences between the administration and Congressional democrats, I use Keith Poole’s “common space” measurement of conservatism. This measure is an adjustment of DW-NOMINATE scores designed to facilitate comparison of the House and Senate. Each legislator is given a single conservatism score for her entire career ranging from around -1 (very liberal) to 1 (very conservative). One drawback is that these scores are only available up through the 109th Congress (2005-2006). So I can only compare the cabinet to the Democratic caucuses of that term. Another is that Bill Richardson’s score more than a decade old (but the rest continued to serve through the 110th Congress).
The following table list the conservatism scores for the administration as well as the House and Senate leaders and the medians of the caucuses.
House Democratic Median
Senate Democratic Median
The evidence is pretty strong that the administration lies considerably to the right of the Democrats in the House, but is reasonably representative of Senate Democrats. But only Solis comes from the most liberal wing of the party. The center of the party is well represented in powerful positions by the president, vice-president, secretary of state, and WH chief of staff while the lower cabinet is filled with more moderate Democrats and a Republican. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is worried about being triangulated.
Of course, maybe the table is misleading because it only includes cabinet-designates who served in Congress. Maybe liberals and progressives are better represented in the other positions. Doubtful. Gates is a Republican. Teachers unions were disappointed with Duncan. Geitner is a Robert Rubin/Larry Summers protégé. Napolitano and Vilsack are red state governors. Shinseki is a hero to the left, but probably not of the left. Donovan appears to be a centrist who worked in both the Clinton and Bloomberg administrations. Holder is a corporate lawyer. So think I that leaves Stephen Chu as the only remaining cabinet member with views consonant with the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
There has been a fair amount of grumbling just below the surface about how poorly progressives have fared. Rick Warren’s invitation didn’t help matters. It will be interesting to see how long Obama can keep the lid on it before it boils over.
Although it passed the House easily, the status of the bailout bill negotiated between President Bush appears to be in jeopardy of death by Republican filibuster. The patterns of support and opposition on the House vote make clear how difficult it will be to get enough votes for cloture and passage.
The same principle that purges atheism from foxholes might be thought to drive ideology from an economic crisis. But that appears not to be the case with the auto bailout as ideological differences were the main determinants of voting on the House bill (the maxim may not be true for foxholes either).
Within each party, the opponents are considerably more conservative than the supporters and these differences are statistically significant. This pattern, at least among Democrats, is considerably different from the financial sector bailout this fall. That bill faced significant opposition among liberals. But on the auto bailout bill every member more liberal than the median Democrat voted yes. The strong union backing of the auto bill and provisions appealing to environmental groups probably account for these conversions.
Also unlike the financial services bailout, campaign contributions do not seem to have mattered much. According to data from opensecrets.org, Democratic opponents of the bill got more auto cash than supporters. Republicans who supported the bill did get more cash. But eight of the Republican supporters were from big auto states Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Ignore them and there is no systematic difference in campaign contributions.
So what will the Senate vote look like if ideology dominates the way it did in the House? Assuming the same statistical patterns, I predict that the bill will get only about 52 votes in the Senate. I suspect enough arms will be twisted to get a few more, but it’s a long way to 60.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether the “liberal” Congress will push President Obama’s agenda to the left. Clearly, Republicans raised this fear in the Georgia senate run-off and will certainly run against the liberal Congress in the midterms. But others can point to the fact that the Democratic caucus is diverse and many members can hardly be called liberals or progressives. So the big question is how liberal will the next Congress actually be. Using the standard measure of congressional ideology, DW-NOMINATE scores, I can take a whack at this question.
DW-NOMINATE scores, which are based on roll call voting records, run roughly from -1 to 1 where -1 is a very liberal score and 1 is a very conservative score. So to gauge how liberal a given House is, I simply compute the fraction of members with scores that fall beneath certain thresholds. The thresholds I chose were -.3, -.4, and -.5. To give the reader some context, Charlie Rangel and Nancy Pelosi score at approximately -.5, Rahm Emanuel clocked in just below -.4, and Dan Lipinski is just a little more liberal than -.3 (sorry that part of the ideological spectrum is devoid of household names).
The figure reports simple percentages within each of these categories from the beginning of the New Deal to the last congressional term. Obviously I do not have scores for new members and cannot project into next term. There isn’t much need to go back before the New deal, because the pre-New Deal Democratic caucuses were small and overwhelmingly southern.
The results are somewhat striking. The 110th House was not only the most liberal since the New Deal, but the percentage of liberals has been increasing for some time. The patterns do not vary much with the threshold used.
At first blush, this may seem surprising. But it is worth remembering that the proportion of liberals is directly related to both the percentage of Democrats in the House and how liberal the Democrats are. Before 2006, the percentage of Democrats had been on the historically low side. But because the party has been losing its more moderate and conservative members from the South, it has become a considerably more homogeneous and liberal party in the House.
So what can be said about the incoming 111th House. Unless the Democratic party’s 20 seat gain in the House is composed of almost exclusively moderates and conservatives (highly doubtful), the next House will be the most liberal in history.