Voting Against the Debt Limit Is for Losers Redux

A few minutes ago, the House voted 221-201 to approve a “clean” debt limit increase.  What’s interesting about this—aside from all of it—is that this is yet another violation of the so-called “Hastert Rule” which says that party leaders ought to keep bills off the House floor that divide the majority (more specifically, where a majority of the majority party ends up on the losing side of a roll-call vote).  With only 28 Republicans voting for the debt limit increase, this is certainly a violation of said rule.

What follows is a re-blog of a post from October modeling votes for and against the debt limit.  What we find in the data is that debt limit votes are non-ideological (despite the “principled” arguments from conservatives).  Rather, they are very clearly partisan votes, with the party controlling the White House typically voting for raising the debt ceiling while the opposing party typically votes against it (hence the conclusion that voting against the debt limit is for losers).  I’ll take a look at the most recent vote tomorrow and see if these conclusions hold in light of tonight’s vote.

The full post is available here.


For this post, I examined three distinct roll-call votes in both the House and Senate on raising the debt limit. Notably, the votes examined in this post are “clean” in the sense that there aren’t extraneous provisions included in the bill.  Most importantly, the votes occurred during three district periods: (1) in 2009 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, (2) in 2004 when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, and (3) in 2001 when both parties controlled Congress.  The bills are 111 HR 4314, 108 S 2986, and 107 S 2578.

Here’s the results of a logit analysis (1 vote for increasing the debt limit, 0 vote against).  I tested three independent variables: if a lawmaker was in the majority, ideology, and chamber.  In the 107th Congress, Democrats are coded as the minority given that the President was a Republican.  This helps us apply the results to the current Congress.


Who votes for increasing the debt limit?  Lawmakers in the majority.  In other words, voting against the debt limit is for losers!  Specifically, lawmakers in the majority have an 89% probability of voting to raise the debt limit.  By the way, this applies to both Democrats and Republicans.  Notably, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit when he was in the Senate while Mitch McConnell and John Boehner voted to increase the debt ceiling when they were in the majority.

What about ideology?  Despite the conventional wisdom that conservatives are “fiscally prudent” and are more likely to oppose increasing the debt limit for principled reasons, there’s no evidence of that.  Conservatives vote to increase the debt limit just as often as liberals.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the results are the House and Senate differences.  Controlling for the above, we see that representatives are less likely to vote to increase the debt ceiling than senators.  Why would this be?  Well, senators are insulated from public opinion because of their staggered six-year terms.  Voting to raise the nation’s borrowing limit is unpopular.  Thus, representatives have more to fear in voting to raise the debt limit than senators for the simple reason that they’re constantly up for reelection.

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Why Americans “Tune Out” the State of the Union

With the State of the Union just a few hours away, the political science blog-o-sphere is all abuzz.  The essential reading list includes:

  • Can presidential speeches sway public opinion?  Jonathan Bernstein weighs in here.
  • Does the State of the Union help a presidnet’s approval  “No,” according to John Sides.
  • Seth Masekt opines on the media spectacle that is the State of the Union, and notes the symbolic yet important role that Congress plays.
  • And Ben Lauderdale wins “chart of the day” with his graph of the ideology of State of the Union speeches from 1986-2012.

I wanted to address a different question: Is the State of the Union facing an existential threat?

I was asked this question recently, and my answer is generally “no.”  In short, while presidential speeches have witnessed a general decline in viewership of late, the State of the Union still commands considerable media attention.  For example, last year’s SOTU was watched in almost 25 million households according to Nielsen.  Monday’s Grammys, which captured “big ratings,” had a comparable audience, while Wednesday’s episode of American Idol was watched in about half the number of households as last year’s SOTU.

Nonetheless, State of the Union viewership is in decline.  It’s important to note that a general decline in presidential speech viewership began sometime around the early 1980s, so the cause is likely systemic than transitory.  Thus, I’m skeptical that the SOTU drinking game is a long-term solution.  The question is therefore: Why the overall decline in presidential speech viewership?

In an APSR article published in 1999, Matt Baum and Samuel Kernell examine two plausible hypotheses.  First, declining viewership could be a function of political disaffection with the presidency.  In the present context, perhaps fewer people will watch tonight’s speech because they simply disapprove of Obama.  Second, Baum and Kernell hypothesize that with the advent of cable television and greater programming options, more Americans are simply changing the channel.

Baum and Kernell find no evidence for the first hypothesis: political disaffection has no effect on STOU viewership.  Additional research supports this view, finding that presidential approval is not a predictor of whether an individual watches a presidential speech (see a 2000 article by Reed Welch).  However, there is indeed considerable evidence that cable—and it’s greater array of programing options—has decreased the capacity for presidents to communicate “directly” to the American people. As they aptly put it: “What broadcast technology gave the president, cable technology appears to be taking away.”

I think it’s also important to point out the possibility that polarization is to blame as well.  It makes sense that Republicans are more likely to “tune out” tonight’s State of the Union while Democrats are more likely to “tune in.”  And there is, indeed, some evidence to support this view.  For example, in the same study cited above, Welch found that respondents who were on the president’s side of the aisle and referred to themselves as “strong” partisans were more likely to watch a presidential speech while independents and those on the opposite side of the aisle were less likely to tune in.  In short, it seems likely that the usual partisan filtering–evident in numerous studies of media consumption–has decreased overall viewership as our politics have become increasingly polarized.

Finally, while the State of the Union isn’t facing an “existential threat” in the aggregate, the decline in viewership does matter.  According to an JOP article by Garry Young and William Perkins, the increase in alternative viewing choices brought by cable has decreased the impact of presidential rhetoric on public opinion (though I think these effects are small in magnitude).  In addition, according to an AJPS article by Markus Prior, there is evidence that the growth of cable and increase in media choices has led to greater knowledge gaps between those who prefer “news” and “entertainment.”  Jonathan Bernstein notes that the SOTU matters because it helps reveal the president’s policy positions for the coming year (even if the president isn’t able to get those policies through Congress).  And finally, Matt Glassman has an excellent article on the symbolic importance of the State of the Union.  In short, the decline probably matters, just not as far as the president’s agenda or popularity are concerned.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Polarization | 2 Comments

Let’s Pump the Brakes on Congressional Approval Bashing

Let me start with this: yes, America hates Congress. With few exceptions Congress very rarely enjoys high job approval. Job disapproval is in some ways built into the institution’s DNA. However, recently it has been common for people to equate what they – rightly – perceive as poor legislative performance with poor approval. Research tells us this is only part of the case.

Scholars have shown Congressional job approval is influenced by a wide variety factors ranging from economic growth, to partisan conflict, to whether Congress has passed major legislation. Unsurprisingly, several studies show Congress’s job approval drops when the economy is doing poorly. Partisan conflict has also been shown to have a negative effect on congressional approval (Ramirez 2009). And perhaps most interestingly, congressional approval often drops after it passes major legislation.

gallup cong approvalBut there are also structural features that underlie the dismal state of today’s congressional approval. Several years ago scholars linked congressional approval to partisan affiliation. When both chambers are controlled by one party, partisans that identify with that party are more likely to approve of Congress. In the 1990s Republicans had a high opinion of Congress and the job it was doing. When Democrats held the majority, roughly 40 to 60 percent of Democratic identifiers and leaners approved of Congress. The graph above illustrates how trends in partisan approval track – fairly closely – control of both chambers.

Taken together, the last few years have been a perfect storm of congressional disapproval . The economic recession and a weak recovery coupled with high partisan conflict has certainly taken its toll. But exacerbating those underlying factors has been divided control of Congress. Neither party controls the majority in Congress. Therefore, partisan support that normally props up congressional approval when one party controls the institution is gone. If you include the low approval numbers of each party, it is easy to see why approval is dismally low.

If one party controlled all of Congress, it is likely approval would rebound substantially but not overwhelmingly. There are too many factors depressing approval – partisan conflict, weak economy, etc. – for it to reach the levels it enjoyed in the mid-1960s and early-2000s. But this knowledge does temper our opinion of those articles arguing that America hates Congress. Yes, the nation hates Congress. But in many ways, they really hate a Congress divided between the two parties.

Posted in Electoral Institutions, Political Behavior | 1 Comment

Yes, Elections are Cultivating Polarization. But…

Competition for power, gerrymandering, disappearing marginal districts define Congress’s electoral landscape. Today, the American electorate is both closely divided and increasingly uncompetitive. In other words, partisan majorities are narrower today than at any time since the Civil War but congressional districts are also safer – there are fewer competitive seats.

It has been argued that this has a significant effect on polarization. Several political scientists argue that this is a somewhat dubious claim. However, Francis Lee and Sarah Binder wrote maybe the best case for why competitive elections undermine bipartisanship. They argue competitive elections effectively reduce leaders’ incentives to reach across the aisle. Because the parties are more competitive today, they have little incentive to give the other team a win.

This also explains the nasty procedural tactics of recent decades. Filibusters, shutting out minority amendments and dilatory motions are strategies tied to this stiff electoral competition in recent decades. The parties do everything in their power to win on their terms. As a result, bipartisan agreements only emerge after calamity hits (shutdown), or just before (debt ceiling).

My qualm is that these accounts largely ignore the institutional contexts. What often goes unsaid is that the current legislative processes also facilitate partisan competition. Particularly in the House, partisan competition feeds off of the legislative process. For example, a major reason bipartisanship flourished in the mid-20th Century is because Republicans had allies on the Rules Committee. They did not hold the majority (except a few instances), but they could count on conservative Democrats on the Rules Committee to bring bills to the floor that served their interests. Therefore, there was an expectation that bipartisan agreements could be met.

This occurred even in years where electoral competition was tight. For example, in 1952 Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act. Despite a narrow Democratic seat advantage of 235 (with only 225 seats occupied at the time) the bill passed the House, and later overrode Truman’s veto, with more minority than majority votes – 107 Democratic votes and 170 Republican votes. In 1953 a Republican House passed a rule with a Democratic majority to consider a tax exemption bill – 120 Democrats and 71 Republicans.  And in 1955, with a Democratic majority of 232 to 200, the House passed a bill that exempted natural gas producers from utilities regulation by a margin of 209-203. The vote was won with 123 Republican votes and 86 Democratic votes. The ability of minority members to attain floor votes was one reason polarization dipped throughout the mid-20th Century.

Conversely, today partisanship thrives because the institution is designed for it to thrive. Examples like those listed above are unfathomable given the current legislative process. The power of party leaders and their incentive to protect their party brand outweigh incentives to advance bipartisan agreements. In other words, elections and the institution together undermine bipartisan negotiations. Tight electoral competition feeds legislative strategies that are enabled by the legislative process.

Without the current process, the partisan tactics we see today are not as viable. For example, if the Rules Committee were a more independent panel, it would be more difficult for the Speaker to block bills with a chamber majority. Put more directly, the Senate’s immigration package or the clean CR, which was never voted on during the shutdown, would have a better shot of passing the House.

Congressional tactics are the result of an interactive relationship between the institution itself and electoral competition. Lee and Binder give an implicit nod to procedural factors in their APSA chapter. However, throughout political science research this is an underlying factor that is not often brought to the forefront. Deals negotiated in Congress are just as heavily influenced by the process as they are by elections.  In a different institutional context, party leaders would be increasingly unable to protect their party’s brand to the extent they do today.

Posted in American Political Development, Elections, Filibuster, Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure, Polarization | Leave a comment

Rules Changes through Precedent: History and Consequences

Don Wolfensberger wrote a nice piece on the parallels between Majority Leader Reid’s nuclear option  and Speaker Reed’s ruling in 1890 that eliminated dilatory motions in the House. Both are good examples of rules changes through precedent. The two were so similar it was the first example that came to mind as Majority Leader Reid went nuclear and changed the Senate. I mentioned it on twitter but I don’t believe I blogged it. So in addition to Wolfensberger’s post there are some important, though wonky, differences between the two tactics. Unfortunately, the trajectory we’re on has consequences for our system of government.

Speaker Reed and 1890

In the 51st Congress the House was in a similar situation as today’s 60-vote Senate. Republicans held a slim majority in the House. The history books will show that Republicans held 179 to Democrats 152. However, at the beginning of every Congress it was not unusual for contested elections cases to continue well past the first day of Congress. That meant that several members who sat in the 51st Congress did not join the House until well after Congress’s March opening date.

Compounding those absent members were the troubles of 19th Century travel and medicine. Many members were absent due to illness, a sick spouse or child, and difficulty traveling to the nation’s Capitol. In 1889 the travel experience from California to Washington D.C. was neither particularly fast nor carefree.

For House Republicans in the 51st Congress these difficulties contributed to a voting majority much narrower than their official seat advantage. At the very outset of the Congress, the Republicans voting majority was actually just short of the chamber majority required in the Constitution. While they had more seats than Democrats, they often had less than a majority of the House. That meant if Republicans wanted a constitutional majority required to legislate, they had to rely on Democrats to vote. They didn’t need Democratic votes to win the votes. But they did need them to vote “nay,” so that their vote would count toward a chamber majority necessary to pass bills.

As you can imagine, House minorities were not all that keen to let majorities legislate. When a request for the yeas and nays was ordered and the clerks called the roll, minority members would sit silent in the chamber. By not responding, they were considered absent. When the final tally was counted, the House lacked a quorum and could not pass bills. This was how the disappearing quorum – which was also called a filibuster in its day – worked.

In years when the majority had a narrow seat advantage this became the norm. Reed, as the incoming Speaker of the House, knew this was something Democrats planned to use in the 51st Congress. He also knew Republicans would barely, if ever, be able to marshal a chamber majority.

So prior to convening the Congress Reed and his lieutenants devised a plan. First, Republicans did not adopt any rules for the 51st House. This is normally the first order of business in the House. However, adopting new rules reported from the Rules Committee would require a majority vote that Republicans did not have. So instead, they decided to operate under general parliamentary law. Put differently, they operated under Jefferson’s Manual and House precedents. This gave Reed the ability to rule the House based on whatever he assumes to be parliamentary, so long as a majority of voting members sustained his ruling.

This set the stage for Reed to dismantle the disappearing quorum. In January of 1890 Reed called up an elections case from West Virginia. After the vote, Minority Leader, and former Speaker, Crisp (D-GA) made a point of no quorum. Reed then ordered the clerks to count the members that are present but not voting and to add them to the roll call.

Unfortunately for us, the fireworks of the Reid’s nuclear option paled in comparison to the violent response from the Democratic minority in 1890. According to Speaker Reed’s parliamentarian, “pandemonium reigned in the House for several hours.” Members charged the front of the chamber crying foul. Speaker Reed, however, remained cool. At one point, a member charged the Speaker yelling, “I deny you the right to count me as present!” Reed, known for his cool wit, responded, “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the member from Kentucky is here. Does he deny it?” (Alexander 1916, 168).

Later that Congress, Republicans adopted new rules, by majority vote, that included quorum counting among other changes that pinched down on minority rights in the House. From that day forward the House was a different institution.

Differences and Implications

Given this context, there are a couple differences between Speaker Reed’s quorum counting and Majority Leader Reid’s nuclear option. First, the House intentionally refused to adopt rules in order to change precedent. The Senate does not have this luxury. It is a continuing body. Meaning, it does not adopt new rules at the beginning of a new Congress. A new Senate is bound by the rules of the previous Senate. Because there is never a lapse in rules, Reid had to interpret the rules through precedent. This is the inverse of Speaker Reed’s tactic of establishing a precedent and then using that precedent to enact new rules of the House. It also creates a more precarious tension between chamber rules and chamber precedents.

Second, there is a significant trigger point that I imagine will come into play as the Senate continues to debate the filibuster. Senate rules require a two-thirds majority to change chamber rules. At what point will the Senate invoke that clause on future interpretations of the filibuster, for say legislative filibusters? Since interpretations are done through appeals of the chair, which are sustained or overturned by a majority, the voting requirements for a rules change and precedent change do not match. Here is the million dollar question: which is more constitutional? Today’s partisans are obviously willing to reinterpret inconvenient rules. The next question becomes, which take prominence? Do the rules of the chamber or the adoption of a new precedent dictate Senate process?

I don’t believe it will come to this in the near future. There are enough procedure stalwarts in the chamber to ward off this kind of tactic in the short-term. However, partisan guerrilla warfare has been boiling over in the Senate in the last decade. So much so that members of Congress have filed several lawsuits in court to adjudicate their own processes. I would not be surprised if a future majority reinterprets the filibuster entirely. And if that is the case, it may be the first time in congressional history that a court will have to decide which rules and precedents will govern Senate process.

This is a somewhat dangerous trajectory. If this were to happen Congress would not just be losing power to the presidency but also to the courts. Partisan procedural tactics threaten to slide America’s First Branch into third. At that point, the branches furthest from the people will also wield the most power. Anyone who can count and has looked at the articles of the Constitution should be concerned.

Posted in American Political Development, Filibuster, Legislative Procedure, Political Institutions, Senate | Leave a comment

The Senate’s Nuclear Winter… or Not

Since Democrats invoked the nuclear option, reducing cloture on judicial and executive nominations, there are serious concerns that those actions would result in fallout. Would the Republican minority, in retaliation to losing significant leverage in the nominations process, attempt to drag out every nomination and/or bill?

So far, that can’t be answered definitively. Some reporters have suggested otherwise. For example, last night Republicans would not yield back their debate time on the nominations put forward by Reid on Monday. This dragged out the process somewhat. Reid is anxious to get these nominations through before the end of the session (if they don’t, those nominees go back to the President). So Reid forced the Senate to stay in session all night in order to use that debate time and confirm the nominees. This looks like evidence of fallout.

However, there are other instances that do not fit the fallout narrative. Take the Millett and Pillard nominations to the DC Circuit Court. In both cases, the Senate used a unanimous consent agreement to expedite debate (hat tip to @mansfield2016). What could have taken 30 hours actually took a very limited amount of floor time. These are two big instances where Republicans could have objected but didn’t. These cases are particularly significant because they would have taken the longest to confirm. The absences of serious obstruction on these nominations are giant counter examples to the broad narrative currently forming.

That said, the real fallout will most likely occur at the beginning of next Congress. There is a high probability debate time on all nominations will be extended in the 114th Congress. Currently, the filibuster deal brokered at the beginning of the Congress (S.Res.15) limits debate to 8-hours on most non-major nominations and 2-hours on district court judges. Because this is not a standing rule, it will have to be passed again at the outset of next Congress to extend those debate times. However, in the wake of the nuclear option, this probably will not happen. Now that the majority can cut off debate on almost all nominations, there is little incentive for the minority to support the resolution. They will want every opportunity to extend debate and gum up the works in the 114th Congress. This will likely be the most significant fallout from the nuclear option. No matter who is in the minority, there is no reason to bargain on limiting nominee debate time. So expect debate on judicial and executive nominations to return to 30 hours a year from January.

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Our Very Unproductive Congress: Why Today’s Gridlock is Different and more Devastating

One of President Truman’s most repeated lines, the “Do Nothing Congress,” is increasingly being used less as a metaphor and more as a statement of fact. The 112th Congress was the least productive since the Civil War (figure by Political Scientist Tobin Grant). So far, the 113th is on pace to do even worse.

LawsbyCongressWhy has gridlock been so bad recently? Many blame polarization. Certainly polarization has an effect. Bipartisan agreements have become less common as ideological moderates have disappeared from the chambers. That, coupled with a Senate increasingly requiring 60-votes to pass legislation, is a big reason why stalemate has become more common in recent decades.

Polarization is important but I would argue that it should take a back seat to another explanation: inter-chamber disagreement. Research has shown that House and Senate ideological differences are probably the most important indicators of gridlock. Even in instances of unified congressional control policy differences between the chambers can significant increase gridlock. In Binder’s book, Stalemate, she illustrates that bipartisan context is the largest substantive indicator of gridlock and productivity – outperforming both polarization and traditional divided government. The further the chambers are from one another, the more difficult it is for Congress to pass bills.

This means polarization’s effect on productivity is likely to be particularly violent effect when Congress is divided. This is not the same as divided government – when one party controls the White House and the other controls Congress. Divided control of Congress is the condition we find ourselves in today: one party controls the House and the other controls the Senate.

Since 1947, there have been six Congresses with divided party control. From 1981 to 1987 (the 104th to 106th Congresses), Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. The 107th Senate was mostly controlled by Democrats* while Republicans controlled the House. And finally, the 112th and 113th Congresses are divided in the same way. Historically speaking it is rare. The five divided congresses prior to the 113th passed, on average, 27% fewer laws than congresses with unified control regardless of who controlled the White House. Furthermore, as polarization has increased, divided congresses have become less productive.

This is the big reason the last two Congresses appear historically inept. Hyper-polarized parties each control one chamber of Congress. As we have routinely seen in the 113th, laws passed by one chamber are dead-on-arrival in the other. There is virtually no agreement between the chamber on basic policy details. Gridlock is more common today than it was 20 years ago. But even by today’s standards the current levels are dismal.

Polarization matters, but it matters more in context. With split control of Congress the difference between the chambers has become immense. This, more than anything else, has made Truman’s words ring truer today than perhaps ever in our history.

(* With the exception of roughly 4 months)

Posted in Bicameralism, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Institutions | Leave a comment