Do Veterans Decrease Polarization in Congress?

If the timing of this post doesn’t make it obvious, the use of “veteran” refers to lawmakers with prior military experience, not the length of one’s tenure in Congress.  Speaking of which: Happy Veterans Day!

Chris Day—a colleague of mine at the College of Charleston—contributed to this post.  Chris was listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” when Cokie Roberts offered an intriguing explanation of polarization in Congress.  Chris writes:

On today’s Morning Edition, Cokie Roberts observed that only about 20% of today’s Congress are military veterans when compared to the nearly three quarters of the post-Vietnam era.  She suggested that that this decrease may account for the increase in polarization currently facing Congress.  In other words, with the exodus of those with such shared experiences, both on and off the battlefield, so departs the patter, the mutual respect, and the “getting things done together” solidarity associated with veterans.

Chris, a comparative politics scholar who writes on conflict in Africa, notes the theoretical appeal of Roberts’ hypothesis:

We like to think that on Veteran’s Day, Americans of all political varieties can come together to confer well-deserved respect upon America’s armed forces…We particularly admire the fellowship of veterans.  Indeed, recent books such as Sebastian Junger’s “War” remind us of the shared sacrifice and camaraderie so central to surviving extreme experiences in violent environments – they get through things because they get through them together. So let us not forget political polarization.  Even our reverence for military camaraderie raises interesting questions.  In making the transition from soldier to civilian, just how durable is this fellowship?  For those that continue a career in public service after leaving the military, does having such a background matter?

At the blog we’ve detailed the reasons for polarization in Congress in various posts (see here, here, and here).  But while Roberts’ hypothesis isn’t one of the “usual suspects” cited by congressional scholars, it’s certainly testable.

I’ll match the theoretical appeal noted by Chris with the empirical side of things.  According to data from the Congressional Research Service, in the 96th Congress (1979-1981) and 91st Congress (1969-1971), 55% and 75% of representatives (respectively) had past military service.  In the current Congress, by comparison, only 19.9% of representatives previously served in the military according to the data collected for this post.  Now on its face, this supports Roberts’ claim, as military service has declined more or less linearly along with polarization.  However, we’re risking an ecological fallacy here, so we better check the individual-level data.

In the forthcoming analysis, “Polarized”—the dependent variable—is measured as the absolute value of a lawmaker’s DW-Nominate score.  The data is for representatives serving in the 112th Congress.  “D_Polar” represents the polarization of a lawmaker’s district using the absolute value of Obama’s two-party vote share in 2012.  The variable “Party” is coded 1 for Republicans and 0 for Democrats.  And finally, “Military” is coded 1 for representatives with prior military experience and 0 otherwise.

A multivariate regression model is reported below.  Overall, the model performs well, explaining 47% of the variation in polarization in the 112th House of Representatives.  We find (not surprisingly) that Republicans and representatives from partisan-leaning districts are more ideological than Democrats and representatives from moderate districts.  However, and most importantly, military service has no statistically significant effect on polarization in Congress.  The coefficient on military service is negative—consistent with Roberts’ suggestion—but insignificant (p=.27).  Thus, contrary to Cokie Roberts’ hypothesis, veteran lawmakers are no more or less partisan than their non-veteran brethren.  While her hypothesis has some intuitive appeal, and it’s supported by aggregate trends, the effect isn’t borne out when we look at the roll-call record.


Posted in Empirical Theory, Legislative Politics, Polarization, Voting Behavior | Leave a comment

How Likely is an Overthrow of the Speaker?

In the wake of the CR and debt limit debates, some are asking if Boehner will lose his job. I have a post over at the GAI blog outlining the likelihood of various scenarios.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Quick Hit | Leave a comment

What’s Missing in the Polarization Debate? Congress.

Currently, the debate over American polarization is dominated by electoral considerations: gerrymandering, sorting, PACs, campaign finance, etc. Most of these arguments are based on underlying assumption that the American people, or a political process that sorts voters into districts, are driving polarization. For the most part this is true. However, the effect is also hugely overstated. Gerrymandering has an effect, but it is small. Sorting has an effect, but it is also small. What is more perplexing is these explanations fall apart when considering polarization in the Senate. For one, the Senate cannot be gerrymandered. Also, if voter sorting was the primary cause of polarization, then one would have a difficult time explaining the voting histories of Louisiana’s Senators Vitter (R) and Landrieu (D) or Nevada’s Reid (D) and Heller (R). I want to be clear, electoral factors clearly affect polarization. However, they are also not the underlying reason the parties are so far apart.

Focusing too myopically on voters and elections has pushed out other explanations. The major factor often left out in this debate is Congress itself. Recent research shows that polarization is primarily an institutional problem. The current legislative process incentivizes partisan polarization. Sean Theriault’s research on polarization estimates that the modern legislative process (and its counterpart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) accounts for over 70-percent of measured voting polarization in the House and 60-percent of measured voting polarization in the Senate.

How is that possible? Congressional polarization is a combination of procedural organization and political incentives. Today, the majority party leaders, particularly the Speaker, dominate the procedural landscape. While Boehner may be a poor leader to his membership, when it comes to floor scheduling, amendments, and debate, he rules the roost. The current Speaker appoints the Republican members directly to the Rules Committee (Democratic leader “nominates” members to the committee, who are unceremoniously and uncontroversially approved by the caucus). As a result, the Speaker has immense influence over the decisions made by the Rules Committee. If Rules members don’t follow his lead, he can simply replace them with somebody that will.

This is vital because the Rules Committee determines: which bills are considered on the floor (aka, what has the opportunity to be law), which amendments are in order (if any), and the terms of debate. By directing the Rules Committee to issue a rule, Boehner determines the policies and votes in the House. Of course, there is a lot of informal influence and negotiating behind the scenes. Members can pressure the Speaker, get in his/her good graces, or pursue other means to ensure floor action on their bill. But as far as actually pulling the lever, Boehner effectively controls access to the floor.

This process effectively marries the goals of the Republican Party with the legislative process of the House. As the party’s congressional leader, the Speaker has a responsibility to his partisan members. And it is important to note, not all legislative goals are policy goals. In many, if not most cases in the current Congress, votes taken on the floor are political. In other words, they are meant to distinguish the two parties rather than create good public policy. In other words, opportunities to make the opposition party look bad are just as likely to receive votes as those that create good policy. (This example is about the House but the Senate is also guilty of this, just in a different way.)

To make this clearer, let’s consider the story of eight derivatives bills passed in the 113th House. In May, the House Financial Services Committee held a markup for eight derivatives bills. Most, though not all, reformed pending or not yet in place portions of Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 financial reform bill. Seven out of the eight bills flew through committee without much resistance, passing the committee with fewer than 11 votes in opposition out of a total of 60 votes (in fact, most passed with fewer than 6 votes against). Only one, H.R. 1062, the SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, drew a straight party line vote. All Republicans voted in favor. All Democrats voted against. Guess which bill was scheduled for floor action first? H.R. 1062. Rather than pass any of the other bills that would likely receive bipartisan support on the floor, the House leadership scheduled the one bill that divided the parties completely.

The moral of the story is scheduling votes is often a partisan act. As Frances Lee illustrates, party leaders have several incentives to wage partisan war. Therefore, the act of voting is more than just policy. By passing H.R. 1062 first, the Republican leadership sent a signal to those affected by the bill who was on your side and who was not. Therefore, H.R. 1062 was a vehicle to differentiate themselves from Democrats.

In short, legislative process enables the parties to wage partisan wars, not just policy wars. This not only helps explain why the parties diverge more in eras where process empowers party leaders, it also explains the votes taken during the current stalemate on the debt ceiling and CR. In both chambers, leaders are looking for negotiating leverage. This is just one reason why the House passed several mini-CRs for popular programs and departments and the Senate has continually requested a budget conference. It makes political sense even if it doesn’t make policy sense.

Legislative process is arguably the backbone to today’s polarization. A more thorough explanation could undoubtedly speak about the social, media, and other auxiliary effects of congressional polarization on American politics. There is no question they are extensive and substantial. However, the main caveat is that Congress is not the only cause. Elections reinforce this dynamic. Safe Republican and Democratic districts create few incentives to work across the aisle. Additionally, safe districts also make it more likely that extreme candidates emerge from the primary process. So while the process is not the only cause, it is measurably the biggest. The current process enables partisan strategy. And as a result, our voting indices that measure polarization reflect the scheduling and procedural (or tactical) votes that distinguish the parties rather than unite them.

How Congress schedules votes and makes laws should be a centerpiece in the polarization discussion. While it is not the only cause, it is arguably the most important factor that is driving today’s partisan division.

Posted in Electoral Institutions, Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure, Polarization | 2 Comments

Voting Against the Debt Limit Is for Losers!

Greg Koger at the political science blog Mischiefs of Faction has an interesting post this morning entitled “Fiscal Conservatism is for Losers.”  In his post, Koger uses data from DePaul professor Wayne Steger which records “fiscally conservative” keywords used by the National Review (a conservative magazine) from 1994 to 2012.  The keywords include things like “balanced budget,” “cut spending,” and “cut taxes.”

Steger - cut spendingI’ve included the figure for “cut spending” at the right.  The conclusion of the aptly-titled post is that the National Review seems to care more about “fiscal conservatism” when Democrats are in power (and by extension, discussion of cutting spending takes a backseat when Republicans are in power).  And no, the answer isn’t that Republicans are simply more fiscally conservative when controlling the purse strings.

Ok, but that’s just, like, one conservative organization.  Do we know if lawmakers are similarly hypocritical when it comes to spending?

For this post, I examined three distinct roll-call votes in both the House and Senate on raising the debt limit.  On October 17th the United States will crack the so-called debt ceiling, so one of these votes is in our future (at least, most of us hope so).  But what should we expect in the pending debt ceiling vote?  And why are Republicans so against raising the debt limit?  Is it just that they’re fiscally conservative?

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.

With respect to the current debt limit showdown, the results highlight the challenge facing Congress (but mostly, the House).  In particular, because Republicans are the minority (in this analysis), and because they control the chamber with all 435 members up for reelection, getting a majority to support a debt limit increase in the House is going to be particularity difficult.  Stay tuned…

Posted in Bicameralism, Legislative Politics, Voting Behavior | 7 Comments

Government Shutdowns != Thelma and Louise

ThelmaLouise4_001PyxurzAs we watch the Ted Cruz filibuster-ish thingy on CSPAN, I’m reminded of Harry Reid’s claim yesterday that the GOP’s effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, and ultimately risk a government shutdown, is like the movie Thelma and Louise (see picture at right).

In short, I don’t think that’s an apt analogy for an important reason: government shutdowns are short in duration.  The following are state and federal government shutdowns dating back to 1995 (ordered from longest to shortest):

  • Federal Government Shutdown no. 2–12/16/1995 to 1/6/1996 (21 days)
  • Minnesota Shutdown–7/1/2005 to 7/9/2005 (8 days)
  • New Jersey Shutdown–7/1/2006 to 7/8/2006 (7 days)
  • Federal Government Shutdown no. 1–11/14/1995 to 11/19/1995 (5 days)
  • Pennsylvania Shutdown–7/11/2007 to 7/12/2007 (1 day)

The median shutdown lasted for 7 days while the average is just 8 days.  Moreover, during the so-called “fiscal-cliff” crisis in January of this year, the United States plunged over the cliff for…. 1 day.  And then we came back over the cliff.  But we’re now poised to go back over the very same precipice.  So it’s nothing like Thelma and Louise.

Sorry if this doesn’t have a coherent point, but I’m tired of using the “cliff” metaphor to explain how Congress deliberates.  Deadlines play a critical role in breaking legislative gridlock and compelling Congress to act, yes.  But these deadlines are not irreversible precipices.  Got it?

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Funding the Government, Defunding Obamacare, & Innovative Procedure

As Congress steps closer to the various fiscal cliffs over the next week, the pressing question for Republican leadership is how to defund Obamacare. Several Republicans have indicated they will not support any continuing resolution not tied to the defunding the ACA. The law goes into effect on October 1st and many see this as one of the last opportunities to defund the health care law. As a result, legislative procedures are getting increasingly creative as Republicans in both the House and Senate attempt to force a vote on Obamacare.

In the House, Republican leaders want to tie either the continuing resolution or the debt ceiling to an amendment that would force the Senate to vote on Obamacare funding. This is a very unusual ploy that will likely not work out. Senate Democrats and the President have both indicated that no resolution or bill defunding the health care law will pass or be enacted. Regardless of its ultimate fate, here is what House majority leaders are attempting to do.

[Continue Reading Post at GAI blog]

Posted in Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure | Leave a comment

Simulating the Syria Resolution Vote in the Full Senate

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 to approve President Obama’s request to conduct military strikes against Syria (one member of the committee–Ed Markey–courageously voted “present”).

With the Syrian resolution clearing the committee stage, it now heads to the full Senate. But the question is: Will the full Senate pass the resolution?  We will get an answer next week.  But in the mean time, I took a stab at this question by simulating the full chamber vote (spoiler alert, the estimated vote is 56 for – 44 against).

Now, there are some strong caveats that accompany this post.  Namely, this is a difficult question to answer with any certainty.  First, the committee vote didn’t fall along clearly identifiable lines.  For starters, the vote (somewhat) split the parties.  Two Democrats voted against the resolution (Tom Udall and Chris Murphy) while three Republicans supported it (Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain).  Relatedly, the vote crossed ideological lines as well (but as with party, only “somewhat”).  What seemed to matter most are state demographics, reelection, and tenure.  For example, if we eyeball the data, the state normal vote–capturing how Obama performed in 2012–seems to have had a meaningful effect.  Perhaps most notably, Tom Udall is up for reelection and represents a state Obama narrowly won.  I’m positing that both factors are key to explaining yesterday’s vote.  Finally, the length of service in the Senate appears relevant.  Looking at the data, the average number of terms served by those opposed to the resolution is 1.3 while the average terms served by those in favor of the resolution is 4.5.

Nonetheless, the patterns are difficult to eyeball, hence a multivariate analysis is needed (see also Ed O’Keefe’s post at the Washington Post) .  Details on the methods are at the bottom.  Logit results in the table the below (1=vote for the resolution, 0=vote against).


While it’s a little surprising to see most coefficients turn up statistically significant given the limited sample size, each one is in an intuitive direction.  (note: thanks to Brendan Nyhan for pointing out the issues with two clusters.  As he notes, however, this has no effect on the predicted probabilities).

The most substantively important factor is the interaction between the state normal vote and reelection.  The model predicts that a handful of vulnerable Democrats will oppose the resolution in the full Senate.  Indeed, and as Joshua Tucker argues, while national public opinion is unlikely to affect the decision to attack Syria, public sentiment may matter at the state- or district-level.  As an aside, this dynamic may explain whether (when?) the resolution fails in the House.  While the ideological and partisan dynamics of the vote are somewhat tenuous, House Republicans in conservative districts can be expected to vote no–in part–because they’re all running for reelection (unlike in the Senate, what with its staggered terms an all).  Fancy modeling aside, there appears to be tenuous support for the resolution–at best–among Republicans in the lower chamber.

But second, the number of terms served in the Senate seems to have had a substantively meaningful effect on the vote as well.  This could represent a number of things (most likely seems to be an establishment vs. outsider effect).  Thirdly, party mattered somewhat, with Democrats more likely to vote for the resolution than Republicans (once we control for other factors).  This is unsurprising.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I used the above model to simulate the vote in the full chamber.  Based on a senator’s predicted probability (table below, right column), I estimate that the resolution would pass 56-44.  While this is a simple majority, it is not a filibuster proof supermajority.  It’s unclear whether conservatives will filibuster the resolution.  However, Rand Paul walked back this possibility during yesterday’s markup.

Interestingly, the predicted probabilities show a number of Republicans joining Democrats and vice versa.  For example, the model predicts that Democrats Mark Pryor and and Mark Begich will vote “no” in the full chamber while Republicans Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch will vote “yes.”  Indeed, both Pryor and Begich are up for reelection in “red states.” In sum, the model predicts that 17 Republicans and 39 Democrats will vote for the resolution while 29 Republicans will join 15 Democrats in opposition.

Here’s the predicted probabilities.  The data are sorted based on a senator’s estimated probability of voting for the resolution in the full chamber (lowest at the top).

Senator State Party Pr(Vote Yea)
Jim Risch Idaho R 0.00
Ron Johnson Wisconsin R 0.00
Rand Paul Kentucky R 0.00
Marco Rubio Florida R 0.00
John Barrasso Wyoming R 0.00
Tom Udall New Mexico D 0.00
Chris Murphy Connecticut D 0.00
Mike Enzi Wyoming R 0.00
Jim Inhofe Oklahoma R 0.00
Mike Johanns Nebraska R 0.00
Tim Johnson South Dakota D 0.00
Lamar Alexander Tennessee R 0.00
Pat Roberts Kansas R 0.01
Jeff Sessions Alabama R 0.01
Mark Pryor Arkansas D 0.01
Mitch McConnell Kentucky R 0.01
John Cornyn Texas R 0.01
Mark Begich Alaska D 0.01
Jay Rockefeller West Virginia D 0.02
Lindsey Graham South Carolina R 0.03
Saxby Chambliss Georgia R 0.05
Mary Landrieu Louisiana D 0.06
Thad Cochran Mississippi R 0.12
Deb Fischer Nebraska R 0.13
Mark Udall Colorado D 0.14
Ted Cruz Texas R 0.15
Tim Scott South Carolina R 0.16
Kay Hagan North Carolina D 0.20
Mike Lee Utah R 0.20
Max Baucus Montana D 0.21
Angus King Maine D 0.24
John Boozman Arkansas R 0.29
Jerry Moran Kansas R 0.30
John Hoeven North Dakota R 0.31
Carl Levin Michigan D 0.31
Jeffrey Chiesa New Jersey R 0.33
Roy Blunt Missouri R 0.36
Heidi Heitkamp North Dakota D 0.41
Rob Portman Ohio R 0.42
Mark Warner Virginia D 0.42
Pat Toomey Pennsylvania R 0.43
Kelly Ayotte New Hampshire R 0.43
Dean Heller Nevada R 0.43
Joe Donnelly Indiana D 0.46
Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin D 0.55
Martin Heinrich New Mexico D 0.55
Al Franken Minnesota D 0.56
Tom Coburn Oklahoma R 0.58
Roger Wicker Mississippi R 0.60
Elizabeth Warren Massachusetts D 0.63
Mark Kirk Illinois R 0.63
John Thune South Dakota R 0.64
David Vitter Louisiana R 0.65
Johnny Isakson Georgia R 0.69
Jeff Merkley Oregon D 0.70
Lisa Murkowski Alaska R 0.71
Mazie Hirono Hawaii D 0.72
Brian Schatz Hawaii D 0.72
Richard Burr North Carolina R 0.72
Mike Crapo Idaho R 0.73
Joe Manchin West Virginia D 0.76
Dan Coats Indiana R 0.78
Richard Blumenthal Connecticut D 0.81
Richard Shelby Alabama R 0.83
Ed Markey Massachusetts D 0.85
Sherrod Brown Ohio D 0.85
Michael Bennet Colorado D 0.86
Susan Collins Maine R 0.86
Jon Tester Montana D 0.86
Claire McCaskill Missouri D 0.87
Orrin Hatch Utah R 0.88
Bob Casey, Jr. Pennsylvania D 0.90
Amy Klobuchar Minnesota D 0.91
Kirsten Gillibrand New York D 0.91
Tom Harkin Iowa D 0.92
Sheldon Whitehouse Rhode Island D 0.93
Bernie Sanders Vermont D 0.94
Chuck Grassley Iowa R 0.95
Bill Nelson Florida D 0.95
Debbie Stabenow Michigan D 0.96
Maria Cantwell Washington D 0.96
Tom Carper Delaware D 0.97
Ron Wyden Oregon D 0.98
Chuck Schumer New York D 0.98
Patty Murray Washington D 0.98
Dianne Feinstein California D 0.98
Harry Reid Nevada D 0.98
Barbara Mikulski Maryland D 0.99
Patrick Leahy Vermont D 0.99
Jack Reed Rhode Island D 1.00
Jeff Flake Arizona R 1.00
Jeanne Shaheen New Hampshire D 1.00
Tim Kaine Virginia D 1.00
Bob Corker Tennessee R 1.00
John McCain Arizona R 1.00
Chris Coons Delaware D 1.00
Ben Cardin Maryland D 1.00
Bob Menendez New Jersey D 1.00
Dick Durbin Illinois D 1.00
Barbara Boxer California D 1.00


The response is coded 1/0 (1 for, 0 against).  Normal Vote is the two-party vote for Obama in 2012 minus his national average.  Democrat is coded 1 for Democrats, 0 for Republicans.  Terms is a count of how long a senator has served in the Senate (logged).  The standard errors were clustered by party.  If a senator has a predicted probability of greater than 50%, they are estimated to vote “for” the resolution.  Any senator who voted for the resolution is the committee is assigned a probability of 1.0 while any senator who voted against the resolution in committee is assigned a probability of 0.0.

Posted in Filibuster, Legislative Politics, Senate | 4 Comments