Tag Archives: Senate

Catching Up

Because I gave several talks in the UK last week, it has been some time since I updated the blog. Events have unfolded so quickly that it seems like an eternity. So let me play the lightning round to catch up.

Taxing Appointments

I have to say I’m fairly shocked at how quickly the promised smooth transition unraveled over tax and ethics problems. Stuff happens so Richardson’s withdrawal didn’t seem like a big deal in the big picture. But Obama’s vaunted vetting process was supposed to weed out annoying distractions like tax evasion. Is evasion too strong a word? For Geitner, no. He failed to give the U.S. government money that the IMF explicitly gave him to pay U.S. taxes. What did he think the extra money was for? Daschle’s case is more complicated, but only slightly. Unlike Geitner, it may be that no one ever explicitly told him he had top pay money on his perks. But a senator who wrote tax law ought to have known better. Assuming that Killefer’s only indiscretion was $900 in D.C. unemployment tax, I have much more sympathy for her. D.C., like many states, treat families with nannies as a small business and require not just social security taxes but payments into disability and unemployment funds. From experience, I know it is almost impossible to comply without a professional accountant. But Obama couldn’t push all three nominees and hers was the least important (I’m really not sure what a Chief Compliance Officer is supposed to do.)

Hitting the Ground Running

Several years ago Rose Razaghian and I published a chapter in an edited volume analyzing how quickly presidents make their first appointments to high executive office positions and how quickly the Senate confirmed them. Our argument was that increasing partisan polarization had slowed both processes. Early on I thought the Team Obama was going to reverse the tide and move more quickly than recent presidents. Just eyeballing things, I’m pretty sure that I was wrong. In a week or so, I hope to produce a report card detailing exactly how Obama is doing.

The Stimulus Package

I have very mixed feelings about the stimulus package. I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that now is the ideal time for the U.S. to make very significant investments in infrastructure, education, and energy conservation. But that is not what this package looks like. First, it has two many small tax cuts that seem likely to be saved rather than spent by consumers. Some tax cuts are very desirable, however. I would especially like to see a cut in payroll taxes. Those taxes are very regressive so lowering them would quickly get money in the hands of people most ready to spend it. It also makes sense on tax equity grounds. But a hodge-podge of new credits and deductions just lowers revenues and make the tax system more complicated. Nobody will be able to spend in anticipation of a tax cut that they can’t anticipate. The projects that the bill includes also don’t seem to be the sort that I want to put on my son and daughter’s credit card. I’d be happy to tell them that they will have to pay up big for a bunch of stuff that is going to make their lives better. But I don’t see a lot of those things in the package.


President Obama is taking heat in some quarters for reaching out to Republicans and getting so few votes to show for it. Nevertheless, I still think it was the right thing to do. First, he obviously has to get some votes in the Senate. Second, I think there may still be political rewards for having offered the hand and putting the Republicans in the position to spurn it. After all, the ultimate goal of “post-partisanship” is not to make nice, but to reclaim the center and build a permanent majority. In fact, I think he might have done more to give at least a few Republicans a stake in the House version of the bill. By securing only that the two most non-germane programs (family planning and sodding the Mall) were dropped, he gave Republicans the opportunity to continue to say they were ignored.


I’m certainly not alone in thinking that one of the biggest long term fears is that the financial crisis will rekindle economic nationalism and protectionism. Certainly those pressures were evident when the House version of the stimulus bill included a “Buy American” provision. If we go down that path, other countries are sure to follow. Protectionist sentiment has also flared up significantly in the UK. There have been several unauthorized “wildcat” strikes protesting that subcontractors at a UK power plant plan to use foreign workers (in this case Spanish). The union claims that the foreign workers are intended to undercut wages. The foreign companies have intimated that there are concerns about the productivity of British workers (not the least of which is their penchant for illegal strikes). In response, there have been rolling sympathy strikes leading to labor unrest similar to that 1970s. So Gordon Brown’s government has not given into striker demands, but protectionist sentiment seems certain to grow there, here, and everywhere else.

Amending the Constitution

Given my ranting about gubernatorial appointments to fill Senate vacancies, I have to profess support for Russell Feingold’s proposed amendment to require special elections. My only concern is that amending the Constitution is (rightly) hard and would take several years even if successful. The way I see it, its in the interests of the voters of each state individually to make this change. So states should just do it themselves and not wait for the amendment. (P.S. The negotiations over Judd Gregg’s replacement were just as objectionable as what went on elsewhere.)

I Heart NY Politics

I thought that the l’affaire Blagojevich was the best argument for my belief that Senate vacancies should be filled only by special election. But witnessing what has transpired with Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, I have changed my mind — New York, not Illinois, should be Exhibit A.

As illustrated by Governor Rod, any institution designed by humans can be corrupted by corrupt individuals. But the process that let to Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment shows that gubernatorial Senate appointments are a bad idea even when otherwise decent and well-meaning people are involved.

I have no particular beef with Senator-appoint Gillibrand. By all accounts, she is a talented up-and-comer. Her centrism will probably be a boost both to New York and to the Democratic ticket in 2010. But the average New Yorker certainly knows far less about her than they do about Caroline Kennedy, Carolyn Maloney, Andrew Cuomo, or any of the other leading contenders.

Although I never thought it was a good idea to appoint Kennedy to the seat, there is something terribly unseemly about the insinuations and innuendo that are now flying back and forth between her people and Patterson’s people. Whether she had a nanny or tax problem, wouldn’t it have been better to have it in the open before a voting public rather than have David Patterson be the judge and jury about whether it disqualified her from office?

It will be interesting to see whether Carolyn McCarthy carries through with her threat to challenge Gillibrand in the Democratic primary over her support for gun rights. Based on DW-NOMINATE scores, Gillibrand is the most conservative Democrat in the NY delgation while McCarthy is 4th most (of 23). So I suspect guns is one of only a handful of issues that divide them. It is not in the Democratic Party’s best interest to have a contested primary focused exclusively on gun control.

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.

Continue reading

Senate Retirements

These are indeed gloomy days for the Republican Party. Just two months after a disastrous election, ten percent of their Senate contingency is calling it quits for 2010 (twenty percent of those up for reelection). Those retiring are Kit Bond (MO), Sam Brownback (KS), Mel Martinez (FL), and George Voinovich (OH). So far the only Democratic “retirement” is that of seat warmer Ted Kauffman who plans to make way for Biden fils.

What is perhaps more troubling for the party is the difficulty the party will have in retaining all but the Kansas seat. Obama won Florida and Ohio and barely lost in Missouri. But the longer term damage may be even greater. All of the retirements are members from the most moderate half of the Republican party (Brownback is indeed socially conservative, but significantly more moderate on other issues). Thus, these retirements will further erode moderate wing of the Republican party and further polarize the Senate.

Update: Chris Bowers makes the point that the four retiring senators may be more likely to support President Obama’s economic iniatives than the non-retiring senators. He bases this prediction in part on behavior of retirees on the TARP and Auto Bailout votes. I also found evidence for such an effect here and here.


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.

The Good Old Days

Maybe it’s a sign that I am finally getting old, but I seem to recall a quaint time in years past where governors seemed content to fill Senate vacancies with caretakers who served out the term and did not seek reelection. The norm against using the appointment to launch a Senate career was so strong that many serious politicians shied away from accepting.

Fortunately, the useful people at the Senate Historical Office have compiled a list of all appointed Senators since the adoption of the 17th amendment and whether they ran for and won election to a full term. So I can test my recollections against hard data.

The list contains 180 appointed Senators. More than a third, 63 to be exact, chose not to run for election to a full term (one died in office). And many of those that did run suffered an ignominious fate. Twenty-two were not nominated by their party and 34 were defeated in the general election for a full term. So only 60 appointees, less than a third, actually won a full term as senator.

So how have things changed over time? To see, I have broken up the data by decade.

Decade Total Appointees Did Not Run Lost Nomination Lost General Won
1910’s 16 7 1 2 6
1920’s 26 7 2 6 11
1930’s 29 10 5 3 11
1940’s 38 19 4 5 10
1950’s 21 11 2 5 3
1960’s 20 3 3 7 7
1970’s 9 3 4 1 1
1980’s 6 1 0 2 3
1990’s 8 2 1 2 3
2000’s 7 1 0 1 5

Some interesting patterns emerge. The number of vacancies filled by gubernatorial appointment has fallen. I’m not sure, but I suspect it is some combination of the increasing use of special elections and increased longevity of senators (fewer die in office). There is also some evidence in favor of my recollections of the good old days. A greater percentage of appointed senators run for a full term over the past several decades than before (full discloser: I’m actually not old enough to remember those good old days). The appointees have fared significantly better in elections over time (especially in the last decade). If Blago is right and an appointed Senate seat is “an f—-ing valuable thing”, it appears that its appreciation is quite recent.

It seems to me that the changing expectations about how this appointment power is to be used calls further into question the continuance of this practice. Back in the day when most appointed senators were placeholders and caretakers, granting this power to a governor seemed okay. Now that the norm is that appointed senators are expected to run for reelection and hold the seat, the practice creates more opportunities for corruption and conflicts of interest than we really ought to tolerate.

The Senate Vote

I would like to take credit for exactly predicting that there would be only 52 votes for cloture. Unfortunately, it is not the same 52 votes that I predicted. More Republicans voted in favor and more Democrats voted against than my quick-and-dirty projection based on the House vote. But ideology still seems to have been a major factor. Democratic moderates Baucus, Lincoln, and Tester voted against (Reid did also to preserve the right to bring a motion to reconsider). Republican moderates like Collins, Snow, and Specter voted in favor.

The factor I didn’t consider in the House vote was the behavior of lame ducks (too much work), but defeated and retiring Senators tended to vote in favor (e.g. Domenici, Dole, and Warner).

Regardless of how one feels about the bailout, it is really disturbing that 12 senators didn’t even bother to show up to vote.

Absolutely Shocking (not)

Illinois politics has never been a font of civic virtue, but (if true) the charges that Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Obama’s Senate seat may represent a new low.

Not to absolve Blagojevich, but much of the problem lays in the anachronistic powers that allow many state governors to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. This may be one of the most unfettered and unaccountable powers vested in most governors. Even pardon and commutation powers are often subject to more procedural openness and limitations. While I’m unaware of an abuse as extraordinary as the one Blogojevich was allegedly perpetrating, recently we’ve seen the appointment of family members and speculation about the appointment of semi-qualified celebrities. (Can someone explain why other than the fact that she can pay for her own reelection Caroline Kennedy is the most qualified New Yorker to serve in the Senate?).

It is not clear why most governors still retain the unilateral power to fill Senate vacancies. The typical argument is that states are at a large disadvantage if they are even temporarily underrepresented in the Senate. But this argument seems very weak. Why is Senate under-representation so much more disadvantageous than House under-representation that special elections are okay for the House but not for the Senate? Second, the delays associated with a special election need not be that great. After all, in the time Blagojevich has taken to create a market for the Illinois Senate seat, the state of Georgia has already successfully completed a runoff election for Senate. Of course, running statewide special elections are expensive. But it is hard to think of anything as expensive as the debasing of the public trust that appears to have happened in Illinois.

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.