Tag Archives: filibuster

The Price of Principle

In this era of polarized politics, the ideologically-driven behavior of our political leaders is often lamented. But in the end, both progressives and conservatives normally make short-term compromises with their principles in order to achieve some of their long-term goals. Senator Feingold’s unwillingness to do the same has resulted in the equivalent of yet another bank bailout.

On HuffPo with Keith Poole, Tom Romer, and Howard Rosenthal.

Brookings Report on the 110th Congress

Brookings has released a report written by Sarah Binder, Thomas Mann, Norman Ornstein and Molly Reynolds that reviews the performance of the 110th Congress and compares it to recent Republican-led congresses. To compare apples to apples, much of the report concentrates on the performance of the 110th compared to the 104th as both terms mark the ascendancy of a new partisan majority and the establishment of divided government.

The report is negative for the most part. Many of the positives of the 110th are faint praise comparisons with the era of Republican control.

The highlights after the jump.

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The Bailout

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).

Using the DW-NOMINATE measures of conservatism, I can compute the average conservatism of supporters and opponents of the bill from each party.

Democrats Republicans
Supporters -.422 .413
Opponents -.198 .556

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.

Georgia Senate Race

Saxby Chambliss won reelection in the Georgia Senate run-off by a somewhat surprising margin 57-43% margin over Democrat Jim Martin. Some random thoughts:

  1. I wouldn’t yet call it an “Iron Law,” but there seems to be an emerging pattern of the newly elected president’s party losing in run-off elections. Of course, the closest parallel was in Georgia in 1992 when republican Paul Coverdell beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler following Bill Clinton’s presidential victory. Of course, there are big differences between the two cases. First, Chambliss, unlike Coverdell, won the plurality of the votes in November. Second, Clinton, unlike Obama, won Georgia’s electoral votes. So Chambliss’s victory is not nearly surprising as Coverdell’s was.
  2. Political scientists and economists such as Alberto Alesina, Howard Rosenthal, and Mo Fiorina have offered a “balancing” explanation as to why the new president’s party performs poorly in these special elections and in midterm elections generally. The basic idea is that most voters are more ideological moderate than the two parties and therefore would like to balance them through divided government. Such balancing is hard to do during a presidential election due to the uncertainty surrounding the presidential contest. If a voter splits her ticket to obtain balance but guesses wrong on the presidential race, she’s only made matters worse. But in a special or midterm election, voters have a clear opportunity to promote balance by voting against the president’s party.
  3. There may be other explanations as well for the presidential slump. Perhaps there is buyer’s remorse. Probably not the case here. Obama seems just as popular now as when he was elected. Perhaps winners get lazy and losers get fired up. Because it was a fairly exhilarating victory for the Democrats and a very disheartening loss for the Republicans, this doesn’t seem that plausible either.
  4. Much of the focus on the runoff centered on its potential to create a “filibuster-proof” Democratic majority in the Senate. I’ve been fairly skeptical that getting to 60 is somehow magical. Yes, 60 is better than 59 and 60 may be more better than 59 than 59 is better than 58. But I don’t think there was nearly so much riding on this race as some have suggested. First, the academic literature on the Senate has failed to find a discontinuous advantage in reaching the filibuster margin. The best book on the subject (written by Eric Schickler of Berkeley and Greg Wawro of Columbia) finds that many important piece of legislation pass with a less than 60 vote margin (in other words, the opponents of legislation often fail to fully exploit there opportunity to obstruct). Second, it seems plausible that Maine’s Olympia Snow and Susan Collins will be almost as reliable a vote for Obama’s initiatives than the southern moderate Martin.
  5. A lot of heavy hitters campaigned in Georgia during the runoff (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, etc). But the heaviest hitter of them all, President-elect Obama, sat this one out except for making some radio ads. This contrasts to Bill Clinton’s extensive activities on behalf of Fowler in 1992. I have lots of hypotheses (but alas little data) as to why Obama stayed in Chicago. The first is that he believes the “balancing” theory and didn’t want to remind voters of this opportunity. The second is that he agrees with me about relative unimportance of the 60th vote in the Senate (or he knows something about the Minnesota recount that I don’t). The third is the most plausible. He’s worked very hard in his transition to live up to his post-partisan promises. Travelling to Georgia in the midst of an economic crisis to give a partisan political speech would have undone much of this.