Tag Archives: House of Representatives

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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In the aftermath of the 2006 election, the era of polarization was declared over in such astute analyses as this one:


The impetus behind such conclusions was the extraordinary success of “Red State” Democrats such as Jon Tester and Heath Shuler. But few pundits took note of the fact the these Red Democrats were only moderate or conservative on a few social issues, but quite populist on economics and trade. Even fewer considered the consequences of the extinction of “Blue State” Republicans for polarization in Congress.

But now that Congress has adjourned sine die, Keith Poole has fired up the NOMINATE machine, and we can look at what impact, in any, the 2006 elections had on the level of party polarization in the House and Senate.

This first figure is an update of the data presented in our book with Howard Rosenthal showing the average difference between Democrats and Republicans on the DW-NOMINATE conservatism scale.


Do you see the dramatic collapse of polarization in congressional term beginning in 2007? Me neither. In fact, polarization rose in the 110th Congress just as it has almost every term since 1975. The House had set a record for polarization in the 109th, but the 110th broke it. The Senate broke its own record set in 1867.

So what might the future bring? To get a prediction that is hopefully at least as accurate as Joe Klein’s, I have forecast the average conservatism of Democrats and Republicans for the next congressional term in the following way:

  1. Assigned all returning members their DW-NOMINATE score from the preceding term.
  2. Assigned all new members the average DW-NOMINATE score for their party and region. In other words, a new Democrat from the Midwest gets the average of all midwestern Democrats and a new Republican from the South is assigned the average of all southern Republicans.

Essentially, this procedure captures the effects of the regional distribution of partisan seat shifts. A seat shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the Northeast increases polarization whereas a Democratic pickup in the South decreases it. So here is what the House and Senate may look like next term.


senate_fc.jpgIn each of the figures, the red line is the average conservatism of Republicans, and the blue line is the average conservatism of the Democrats for each term since 1969. The triangles are my prediction for the next term. The Democratic average is expected to change very little, but the Republicans will be considerably more conservative. This, of course, is due to their continued hemorrhaging of seats outside the South. The net effect is again an increase in polarization.

All of this is predicated on the assumption that there will not be any major deviations from recent historical patterns. Of course, things could change. In the conclusion of our book (written in January 2005), Keith, Howard, and I speculate that a financial crisis triggered by a housing bubble might lead to a swing in the public’s partisanship and ideology that might cause the Republicans to moderate. So we have the crisis, a modest swing in public attitudes, but if the congressional votes on the bailouts are any indication, the Republicans haven’t take that last step.

More on Balancing

Boris Shor, Andrew Gelman, and I have had a couple of exchanges about the role of “balancing” in the Georgia Senate runoff. Gelman is skeptical of balancing and stresses the importance of low turnout in runoff and special elections. The problem with turnout explanations (as I pointed out in my original post) is that it is hard to predict who benefits from a low turnout election.

I thought it might be useful to bring in a little bit of data on special elections. Fortunately, someone has compiled a list of special House elections and put it on Wikipedia. From WWII onward, the list contains 163 special House elections with the name and party of the winner and the previous holder of the seat. Of these elections, 95 were won by Democrats and 68 by Republicans.

The “balancing hypothesis” would predict that the president’s party would do worse in these elections than the out party. Looking at all of these elections, the president’s party lost 97 of the 163 (about 60%). For those of you who care, the p-value for the hypothesis that the president’s party does no worse than the out party is just .03.

But looking at all special elections may underestimate the president’s disadvantage. After all, many House districts are not competitive so the incumbent party will win easily no matter who is president. Ideally, I would collect data on district partisanship to use as a control. But that is too much work for a blog. So let’s just look at the pattern of districts that switched from one party to another. In such cases, the president’s party lost 29 seats and only picked up 11.

So I’m not wedded to the balancing hypothesis, but it seems to me any explanation about special and runoff elections ought to account for how poorly the president’s party performs. Maybe there is a theory of turnout that does that, but I am unaware of it.

The Most Liberal Congress in History?

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.