Obama, a Republican Congress, and Impeachment

Some Republicans are eager to impeach the President. Some are so eager that they go on the record saying that impeachment would probably pass the House of Representatives. Barletta (R-LA), Farenthold (R-TX) and Senator Cruz (R-TX) say the only obstacle is the Democratic Senate, which would not convict the President. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart took this a step further and argued Republican control of the Senate could result in President Obama’s impeachment.

Regardless of who controls the Senate, the rationale presented by Cruz, Barletta, and Farenthold makes no sense. In no immediate future will Republicans control enough votes – two-thirds of the Senate – to remove the president from office. In order to reach the 66 vote threshold, Republicans need to win every single Senate election in November. Democrats may lose the Senate majority. However, no one believes Democrats will lose every single Senate race. More reasonable forecasts suggest Republicans will gain 5-6 seats. That is enough for a majority but not close to the amount necessary to remove Obama from office. In sum, there is no situation in which “not having the votes” is the reason impeachment has not been pursued.

However, a Republican Senate majority may embolden impeachment supporters for a different reason. With the majority Republicans could force a vote in the Senate. On the Senate floor, the majority leader has the right of first recognition. This precedent is critical because it is the sole right allowing the majority to control the Senate agenda. It gives the majority the ability to schedule votes, debate, and other aspects of day-to-day operation in the Senate. If Republicans gained the majority, their majority leader (McConnell, assuming he is reelected) could force the Senate to vote on impeachment even if they knew it would fail. However, as I mentioned before, there is virtually no scenario where Republicans pick up the 15-16 votes necessary to remove President Obama from office.

So after this whirlwind of options we end up back where we started. The impeachment decision boils down to one political question: would impeaching the President help or hurt the party in the next election? Would a symbolic vote, which would not result in removal from office, pay electoral dividends or alienate moderate voters?

There is a reasonable argument that the Republican Party, with a House majority insulated from electoral pain through a combination of safe districts packed with conservative constituents, would not hesitate to impeach Obama. He has been enemy number one since he stepped into office.

However, that begs the question: why haven’t they already impeached Obama? The House could impeach the President now and get the same result that they would get after the 2014 Elections regardless of Senate control.

The most likely answer is some form of, “last time we tried this it was a disaster.” Clinton’s impeachment backfired badly on Republicans in the 1998 midterms. It contributed to a loss of seats and the resignation of then Speaker Newt Gingrich. While there are likely several Members in the conference eager to impeach the president, the leaders in both chambers, who witnessed impeachment first-hand in 1998, are almost certainly opposed to it.

In either case, Senate control is almost entirely irrelevant to impeaching Obama. Regardless of the Senate majority, in neither case would Republicans “have the votes” to remove Obama from office.  The constitutional super-majority requirement prevents a majority from taking such brash action. So whether Republicans control the Senate or not does not get them any closer to removing Obama from office. It is all based on a political calculation; one that the leaders appear eager to avoid.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure | Leave a comment

Are Career Politicians “Out of Touch” with Constituents?

downloadOn Tuesday, Republican voters in South Carolina head to the polls to elect a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Lindsey Graham.  Graham, who’s held the position since 2002, is among the candidates.  If Graham wins, it will continue the national trend of establishment Republicans fending off conservative primary challengers.  Spoiler alert: Graham will probably win.

It’s no secret that conservative Republicans are less than thrilled with Graham’s job performance.  During the primary campaign, the main line of attack against Graham is the charge that, after twelve years in Washington D.C., he has morphed into a “career politician” and is therefore “out of touch” with voters in South Carolina.  One of Graham’s main challengers—businesswoman Nancy Mace—lobbied this charge in the recent GOP debate, stating “career politicians are the problem.”  Following this line of attack, in campaign ads she states that one of her goals is to “fix the mess created by career politicians.”

Let’s cut through the lofty campaign rhetoric.  Are career politicians “out of touch” with their constituents?  I feel a chart coming on…

Needless to say, this is an empirical question, one that’s easy to examine with readily available data.  First, we need data on constituents’ preferences.  Political scientists frequently use the two-party vote for president in the two most recent presidential elections.  For example, Obama got just 44% of the vote in South Carolina (it’s a “red state”).  In contrast, he got 51% in Ohio (a “purple state”) and 60% in California (a “blue state”).  Second, we need data on “career politicians.”  I use the number of two-year terms served in the Senate.  And lastly, we need data on the voting behavior of U.S. senators (the dependent variable).  DW-NOMINATE scores are the standard in political science.  Higher values indicate a conservative voting record, lower values a liberal voting record.

predprob1predprob2Figures 1 and 2 tell the story (click to enlarge the images).  Specific methodological details can be found below.

If career politicians become “out of touch” over their career, as the rhetoric suggests, we would expect to observe a steep positively sloped line.  If, on the other hand, career politicians become more responsive over time, we would expect a steep negatively sloped line.  If there’s no difference in the voting record of “career” and “new” senators, the line will be relatively flat.

Here’s what the data show: there’s absolutely no effect!  Indeed, we can see in both figures that the relationship between state partisanship, terms in the senate, and a senator’s voting behavior is very nearly flat (statistically speaking, we cannot reject the null hypotehsis of “no relationship”).  In other words, the data show that career politicians represent their constituents in exactly the same manner as “new” politicians.  Notably, Figures 1 and 2 show this to be true all the way out to twelve two-year terms (you know, when career politicians should be really out of touch).

So, the rhetoric about career politicians doesn’t match reality.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this result.  In fact, it’s easy to turn the “career politician” attack on its head.  What some might call “career politicians” others might call “faithful public servants.”  Indeed, Graham is very likely to win the Republican primary on Tuesday, and while his detractors will dismiss the underlying reasons for his victory, the simple fact is that Graham votes in a manner highly consistent with his conservative constituents.  In a previous blog post, for instance, I noted that Graham has actually become more conservative (not more liberal) during his career.  Simply put, “career politicians” exist in the first place because voters like them reward them for faithfully representing them.

In addition to the theoretical problem with the career politicians charge, there are various of studies which debunk its underlying the causal dynamics.  In political science, we call this behavior “shirking” (defined as members of Congress deviating from their constituents’ preferences).  On this topic I have a published paper (with co-blogger Josh Huder and Dan Smith) looking at one element of shirking: whether ballot measures help educate members of Congress as to the position of their constituents.  Indeed, this is exactly what we find; ballot measures induce members of Congress to align with their voters’ policy preferences.  In short, lawmakers are interested in information about what their constituents want (ballot measures are one source) and career politicians are likely to be pretty well informed in this respect.

Political scientists have also examined shirking by studying lawmakers who are retiring at the end of their term.  As a theoretical matter, these members are free to vote their personal preferences rather than their constituents’ preferences.  However, studies have shown–overwhelmingly–that even exiting members vote in line with their constituents (see for example this study by Carson et al.).  In sum, even under the extreme condition where members of Congress don’t have to worry about reelection, we still find consistent evidence that they faithfully represent their constituents.

Of course, the “symptoms” of career politicians include greater polarization and gridlock.  If only we had new lawmakers (so the logic goes) all of Congress’s problems would be solved.  In reality, however, the exact opposite is true: it’s the replacement of old members with new members that has caused much of Congress’s polarization and gridlock.  According to political scientist Sean Theraiult’s excellent book on party polarization, about 2/3rds of the increase in Congress’s polarization is due to member replacement while only about 1/3rd is due to adaption over time.

Finally and relatedly, career politicians can actually have beneficial effects.  In Artists of the Possible, political scientist Matt Grossman studied policymaking in the post-war Congresses.  Among his findings, Gorssman notes that policy change is facilitated by deep, long-term connections forged among veteran lawmakers.  As note notes:

I argue that policy change results from long-standing productive ties among central policymakers. Institutionalized entrepreneurs, actors with a political and policy skill set as well as an institutional position and ties, are responsible for the bulk of domestic policy change.

In sum, while Congress is very unpopular, and perhaps deservedly so, it’s important to keep the real problems in focus.  In various posts (see for example this post on Rick Perry’s calls for a “citizen legislature”), we’ve tried to debunk the simplistic explanations for how to “fix” Congress.  While it may seem intuitive, career politicians are not the problem.  Yes, it may make voters happier in the short-term, but that “new Congress smell” won’t make the institution run better.

 

Methodological Details

Figures 1 and 2 were produced from a regression analysis interacting the number of terms served in the Senate and the two-party vote for president in the past two elections.  Both figures plot the interaction term (specially the marginal effect of a 1% increase in the Democratic candidate’s share of the two-party vote for senators from their first to twelfth term).  Figure 1 contains a linear interaction effect while Figure 2 uses a binary indicator for every two-year term (allowing the estimates to vary in any functional form).  Each figure was estimated with data from the 93rd Congress to the 112th Congress.  I also examined the data back to 1877; the results are not sensitive to the time period under examination.

Posted in Elections, Electoral Institutions, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Parties, Primaries, Voting Behavior | 4 Comments

Bergdahl, Benghazi, and Beyond: The Politics of Congressional Investigations

Iran-Contra-HearingsIs Bowe Bergdahl the new Benghazi?

It would certainly seem so.  Several Republicans are calling for investigations into the now infamous prisoner swap.  Calls for impeachment exist.  And, of course, Hillary Clinton’s name has been linked to the Bergdahl scandal.

In an even broader sense, we might link the Bergdahl scandal with the IRS targeting investigation, which is still simmering, and the VA scandal, where Congress is almost certain to investigate further.

But which investigation is a “warranted” examination of legislative-executive authority, which is motivated by legislators’ “problem-solving” motivations, and which investigation is simply “political theatre?”

I think most would agree that continued investigations into the VA are warranted.  Even the IRS targeting scandal deserved at least a cursory look in my mind.  Are the Bergdahl and Benghazi investigations warranted?  It depends on your political leanings; scandals are highly subjective creatures.

Does this mean we can’t systematically examine the politics of congressional investigations?  Should we be surprised at the volume and intensity of congressional investigation in the modern Congress?

In both instances, the answer is: No.

In an excellent article appropriately titled “Divided We Quarrel,” political scientists David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull examined the dynamics of divided government, congressional polarization, and congressional investigations of the executive branch.  Parker and Dull collected an impressive dataset of congressional investigations from 1947 to 2004 including their frequency, duration (measured in days), and intensity (measured as the number of published pages).

Here’s what Parker and Dull found:

  • Divided government is indeed associated with more frequent and longer investigations of the executive branch.
  • Legislative polarization is also associated with more intense investigations.
  • However… divided government and polarization increase the frequency and duration of congressional investigations in the House but not the Senate.
  • And finally, when the presidential is popular, Congress initiates fewer and less intensive investigations of the executive branch.

I don’t think Parker and Dull’s results could fit the current Congress’s political environment better.  Indeed, the president is unpopular, Congress is polarized by any measure, we have a situation where both parties are sharing power, and investigations in the House far outpace investigations in the Senate.

So, why is this relevant?  For starters, while we can’t point to a specific investigation or scandal and say it’s “obviously political,” we do know in a general sense that investigations are political endeavors. From a theoretical perspective, this research highlights the critically important role that parties play in the U.S. Congress (for better or worse).  While it may seem surprising to non-political scientists, for decades the prevailing wisdom was that parties didn’t matter all that much.  (In fact, the title of Parker and Dull’s article is a response to David Mayhew’s famous “Divided We Govern.”)  Lastly, while some of the dynamics uncovered are indeed intuitive, others (like presidential approval and the bicameral differences) are not.  In this sense, Parker and Dull’s work helps situate contemporary congressional investigations in a broader institutional framework (including the transition from the era of strong committees to the current era of strong parties) and highlight key determinants of congressional behavior.

Posted in Congressional Absurdity, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Political Parties | Leave a comment

Could Boehner be the first Speaker to Win Seats and Lose Job?

The Fix recently wrote about how “A 2015 rebellion against John Boehner would be unprecedented.” In the piece Philip Bump argues that “no speaker has overseen a pick-up of House seats and subsequently lost his job.”

Setting aside problems in closely connecting congressional elections and the speakership election across this period,* this statement really hangs on the definition of “losing the job” in this context. Bump is essentially arguing that aside from losing their majority, Gingrich is the only sitting Speaker to be pushed out of office. That is not entirely true. In fact, most retiring speakers face revolts of varying degrees and momentum at the time of their retirement. No sitting speaker was literally forced out through a vote. But as I argued before, most retire before a revolt comes to fruition.

For example, Speaker Reed stepped down in 1899 amid multiple rumors that many in his caucus were plotting against him. Henderson faced overthrow rumors throughout his tumultuous four year term. McCormack faced serious challenges to his speakership from young liberal Democrats. He and O’Neill actually faced challengers for the top spot in their final term. Though they won those battles it hastened McCormack’s retirement the following year and likely reaffirmed O’Neill’s decision, since he already announced he would retire in 1984 after one final two-year term. And to a lesser extent, many Democrats were frustrated with Albert’s anachronistic post-war (as in WWII) leadership style, though he did not endure overthrow rumors to the same degree.

What set Gingrich apart from his predecessors was timing. He faced the same overthrow rumors leading up to the 1998 Election. The difference between Gingrich and the rest is he chose to wait until after the election to announce his retirement. In sum, “losing the job” through early retirement is hardly unprecedented. In fact, it is more the rule than the exception.

The second part of Bump’s argument states Boehner would be the only speaker to lose his job after his party picked up seats. This isn’t entirely accurate either. The chart below lists House Speakers since 1900 who did not die in office, did not seek higher office, did not lose their majority, and did not resign due to scandal. This narrows the field to only those speakers who had the option to stay and run for speaker again. In the 20th century, this reduces the list to five speakers.

Speakers who did not die in office, seek higher office, or resign due to scandal
Announced Retirement House Seat Change in final Election
Henderson September 1902 +7
McCormack June 1970 +13
Albert June 1976 +0
O’Neill Oct/Nov 1984 – Retired 1987 +4
Gingrich November 1998 -3

Since 1900, three out of the five speakers who had the option to run for another term gained seats in the election following their retirement. In Albert’s last term as Speaker, the parties drew a dead heat. Again, Gingrich is the exception. His party lost three seats and he waited to retire until after the election. For the rest of the Speakers, their party either drew even or won seats. However, their electoral fortunes did not stop them from preemptively stymieing revolts.

In short, both the nature in which Boehner may lose his job and his party’s electoral fortunes before his retirement have plenty of historical precedence. That said if Boehner wants to make his mark on history (some sarcasm), he could wait until after the election to retire. Given the possible change in power in the Senate, it is more likely than not that he waits until after the Election to decide whether to run for another term in the top spot. Regardless of his decision, this is not uncharted territory.

*There are several issues not addressed in this hypothetical: since 1900 speakership elections were internal battles with little national electoral consequence. For most of the 20th century congressional elections were local, not national, affairs. For most of the 20th century individual candidates were more important than national party platforms in congressional elections. The power of the speaker to dictate policy fluctuated enormously in the last 114 years. Therefore, speakers’ ability to pass policies – or take/avoid blame for failed platforms – has also fluctuated. Parties’ internal makeup/coalitions have changed dramatically. In short, congressional elections are just one factor among several that affect choosing a House leader. That said, the increasing national character of congressional elections is more prevalent today than in previous decades.

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Assessing Congressional Productivity: Getting it Right

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog had a write up on congressional productivity not long ago. Its central thesis is Congress is more productive in election years than in non-election years. This is a good counter-intuitive point. Many pundits discuss congressional productivity only in terms of major bills passed. However, Congress often passes laws that fly under the radar.

There are a lot of reasons why Congress is more productive in election years than in off-years.  Each new Congress must start over from scratch. Therefore, bills that failed in the previous Congress must be re-introduced, committees must re-hold hearings, and the process of reconciling differences between the two chambers must also begin anew. Basically, the first year of a Congress is filled with preliminary steps in the legislative process. In the second year of a Congress, many bills require fewer steps to become law. Also in election years, many bills are passed for campaign fodder. The Senate’s attempts at equal-wage and minimum wage legislation the past few weeks are perfect examples of this strategy.

However, while Wonkblog’s central argument – that the House and Senate pass more bills in election years – is correct, there are a bevy of problems with the article.

First, it uses the wrong metrics. It employs the number of public and private bills “enacted into law” for each chamber. This is a pretty big problem since a single chamber cannot pass a law. So what does this line in the Resume of Congressional Activity actually measure? This line reports the number of laws that originate in the House (bills beginning with H.R.) or Senate (S.) that eventually became law. So really this piece is not capturing productivity in either chamber. Instead, it is measuring how many bills originally introduced in each chamber actually became law. The measure used doesn’t capture productivity–it captures bill origination.

This is hugely problematic for a few reasons. Bills that originate in one chamber are many times merely vehicles for the other chamber’s bill. For example, according to the House’s reading of the constitution, all revenueand spending bills must originate in the lower chamber. However, there are several revenue and spending measures the Senate would like to consider and pass. So rather than wait for the House to initiate the spending bill the Senate would like to pass, it will substitute its text on an old House bill and claim that the constitutional requirement has been met. The same is true vice-versa. A situation like this happened this past February when a Senate bill originally naming a Nashua, NH air traffic control tower after Patricia Clark turned into a bill raising the United States debt ceiling. The House changed the title of the bill to reflect the change.

Chamber productivity should be analyzed by the number of bills passed in the chamber per session of Congress. Or, it should capture the total number of laws. (See below)

bills and laws

As these numbers show, the trend described in the piece holds but not to the same degree. Bills passed in each chamber increases during election years, but only modestly. The number of laws passed, however, is nearly double in election years rather than in non-election years, suggesting that one chamber is likely finishing the work of the other in the second year of the Congress. Regardless, stating that “the volume of bills passed during election years nearly doubles, in both House and Senate” falls well short of reality.

These numbers also fail to distinguish between significant and non-significant bills, which is a big distinction. When discussing congressional productivity abstractly most people are not referring to inconsequential bills such as renaming Post Offices. Yet, to a large extent these numbers capture exactly that. In any given year, most bills are passed with little to no fanfare. The overwhelming majority of bills (over 88% from 1891 to 1994 according to Clinton and Lapinski (2008)) do not even receive a roll call vote in either chamber. In any given Congress the overwhelming majority of bills are passed under super-majority procedures such as unanimous consent or suspension of the rules (which requires 2/3rds majority to pass the House). Just because there are more bills “passed” does not mean Congress has been productive on any substantial front. In this Congress, the notion that Congress will get nothing done of much substance in this election year holds true.

Another problem is that the article includes the passage of private laws. Private laws are fundamentally different from public laws (note: the above chart graphs measured passed in each chamber minus private laws). Public laws apply to all citizens, states, etc. Private laws are bills that directly affect one or a few private citizens. These bills often deal with immigration cases or claims against government. In the more distant past private bills were the means used to dole out government benefits (Jenson 2003). Private laws frequently bestowed disability benefits to wounded veterans and their widows as far back as the Revolutionary War.

private laws

Over the past several decades the practice of passing private bills has declined dramatically. Some of the functions private bills served have been automated through programmatic legislation. Other research suggests new avenues of constituent service emerged, making private bills an antiquated means for representatives to address constituents’ problems. Regardless, conflating public and private bills can overestimate the “productivity” in many of the mid-20th century Congresses.  However, the general trend that Congress is passing fewer laws still holds.

The article was an interesting and counterintuitive look into congressional productivity. However, this is one instance in which the thesis was not resting on the right evidence.

Piece was re-posted from reviseandextend.com.

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Nickelback, Herpes, and Obama’s Vote Share in 2012

Spurious relationships are a serious problem in social scientific research.  But… they’re also fun!  For example, did you know that ice cream causes crime?  Also, global temperature is inversely related to the number of pirates.

Seth Masket provides an excellent example of a spurious relationship asking: Are Democrats perverts?   As he shows, it turns out that there is a strong relationship between porn use and Obama’s vote share in 2012!  But as Seth aptly explains:

For one thing, there’s a big potential ecological inference problem here. We’re making assumptions about individual level behavior by examining data aggregated at the state level… Second, chances are that even if there is an individual relationship here, it’s not a direct one. Porn usage may correlate with something else that also correlates with partisan voting patterns. 

Seth notes that porn pageviews explain 16% of the variation in Obama’s vote share.  In an attempt to outdo him in the “spurious-relationship-a-thon,” I looked at the predictive power of Google search traffic at the state-level for: (1) the rock band “Nickleback” and (2) “cure for herpes.”  Here are the results.*

HerpesNickelbackAccording to the first scatterplot, “Cure for herpes” has a negative relationship with Obama’s vote share in 2012, supposedly indicating that herpes caused people to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.  However, the R2 is just 0.08, which indicates that herpes has little predictive power (in fact, the relationship is not significant (p=.12; n=31)). Nickelback also has a negative effect, supposedly indicating that fans of the Canadian rock band were more likely (!) to vote for Romney in 2012.  Notably, in the second scatterplot, the R2 is 25%, indicating the fully a quarter of the variation in the 2012 election outcome is explained by the state-level variation in Nickelback fans.

While it’s difficult to take the above “findings” seriously, social scientists dedicate their lives to distinguishing between correlation and causation.  In practice, it’s much harder than most people appreciate.  What the world gives us is correlation, so it’s easy to draw faulty conclusions from observational data.  In an undergraduate research methods class of mine, we cover countless examples of correlation and causation.  For example, congressional candidates who spend large amounts of their personal wealth on their campaign actually receive fewer votes.  Also, humanitarian aid is associated with various negative consequences such as higher rates of infant mortality.  Are these causal relationships?  Of course not. Always remember: correlation is not causation.

* Don’t tell my department chair I spent 30 minutes working on this…

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Senatorial Courtesy, Blue Slips Caught in the Fallout

Ian Millhiser has a very good piece on judicial nominations and blue slips over at Think Progress. It covers a lot of ground and is a wonderful read.

However, I do have some bones to pick with his take. At the core of Millhiser’s argument are blue slips and their place in Senate history. He contends that blue slips, the process by which home-state senators grant approval to president’s judicial nominees, has little rooting in Senate process and history. There are a couple problems with this.

First, blue slips are the Judiciary Committee’s extension of senatorial courtesy. While the formal practice of blue slips, with letters from the Committee to the nominee’s home state senators, extends back to at least 1917, senatorial courtesy extends to the 1st Congress (1789-1791). There is no formal rule outlining the practice but it stems from a very rich history of “advice and consent.” In this way, blue slips are not unlike many Senate practices. The Senate is heavily guided by customs and precedents. Blue slips are not an aberration to this principle. Rather, they are a modern example of that history.

Second, it is improper to compare today’s blue slip process with those in prior congresses. Given my training is in congressional development and history, this is not an argument I normally make. However, the advent of the post-nuclear Senate has fundamentally changed the importance of the blue slip process.

For most of Senate history, the blue slip process has not been absolute. Failure to approve of a nominee did not prevent floor consideration, though it often meant the demise of the nominee. Today, floor consideration for judicial nominees is fundamentally different. The minority party no longer has the ability to filibuster judicial nominees (except SCOTUS nominees). Because of this, the majority can run roughshod over minority opposition, effectively ignoring their concerns as they approve judicial nominees by majority vote.

This has shifted minority opposition from the floor to the committee room. With no other place to stop or slow the nomination process, it is not surprising that blue slips are now in the crosshairs.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the first Senator since James Eastland (D-MS) to use blue-slips as an effective veto on a nominee. As Forrest Maltzman and Sarah Binder point out, blue slips were never intended to be a veto. However, Leahy’s position as arbiter of the blue slip is much more precarious post-nuclear option. And in all likelihood it is untenable. Arguments like Millhiser’s illustrate Leahy’s predicament. Either Leahy adheres to his current blue slip practice and hopes Republicans honor it when they retake the majority (either in 2015 or later), or he can ignore it and ensure its demise under Republican majorities.

The nuclear-option has stressed the blue slip process. With no other avenues to object, the minority has turned to its few remaining tools. Unfortunately, the nuclear-option’s collateral damage includes the minority’s role in “advice and consent” on nominations, and now appears to threaten advisory practices that stem from senatorial courtesy.

In a polarized atmosphere it is easy to become frustrated with bipartisan practices, precedents, and customs. However, eroding these customs compromises the Senate’s function as the check on overambitious majorities.

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