New Republican rule complicates Rep. Paul Ryan’s future

New House Republican Conference rules prevent members seeking higher office to hold committee and subcommittee chairs. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said, the “idea is not to have major committees, appropriations or subcommittees chaired by people who are running for the Senate. If you’re shuttling back and forth, that’s just a huge problem for us.”

My colleague Mark Harkins argued this rule was likely the product of Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R-GA) run for Georgia’s Senate seat. Though he lost the primary, his bid for the Senate took the Labor-HHS subcommittee chair away from his legislative duties in the 113th. Labor-HHS was the only appropriations subcommittee not to report its appropriations bill in 2014, and only one of two subcommittees not to report its bill in 2013.

Several commentators noticed the rule could have consequences for other members, specifically Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). In addition to his potential ambition for higher office he also has his sights on the Ways and Means gavel. If he does decide to run for higher office in 2016, he would need a waiver exempting his chairmanship from the new restriction.

However, it is unclear leadership would grant him one. Ways and Means figures to be at the center of Republicans’ legislative strategy in the 114th Congress. Without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, many bills will have to go through the reconciliation process, which allows bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority. This places Ryan’s political and policy ambitions at a crossroads.

Reconciliation has limited applicability. It can only be used on measures that affect direct spending, revenue, or the debt ceiling. In other words, most of the bills the reconciliation process would instigate fall in Ways and Means’ jurisdiction in the House. Since 1989, 11 of the 12 reconciliation instructions directed Ways and Means to draft and report bills. In short, the primary process Republicans will use to pass policies changing everything from Obamacare to tax reform would go through Paul Ryan’s presumptive committee.

If Republicans thought Kingston’s absence was a nuisance to the appropriations process, Ryan’s absence would surely be intolerable, particularly in the run up to the 2016 elections. Failing to chair the preeminent committee Republicans’ political and policy strategy centers upon would fundamentally undermine their majority. Today House leaders may lay this rule at Kingston’s feet. But it is not likely an accident the rule also complicates Ryan’s political future.

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Income inequality did not affect the midterms – unless this was a very weird election.

Democrats are searching for explanations to Tuesday’s thorough defeat. Aside from obvious considerations – low turnout, 6th year election, etc. – there are several arguments that the economy was a big reason Democrats lost so thoroughly. It was polled, once again, as the most important issue concerning voters this election.

However, this stance presents a bit of a paradox. For one, the economy is not all that bad. In fact, it’s doing pretty well. The US is outperforming other economies recovering from the global recession. The US has steadily added jobs each month for several years. Unemployment is below 6% for the first time since 2008. The stock market has been breaking records in recent months and performing well generally for the last few years. Gas prices are low. The housing market is recovering. Factory production and jobs are up. Corporations are enjoying record breaking profits. Economic confidence is higher than it has been since 2008. Despite a slow recover, the economy is relatively strong.

This normally bodes well for the incumbent president’s party in election years. That was obviously not the case Tuesday.

Some argue this disjuncture is because of income inequality. Many pollsters, political analysts, and reporters are arguing that while the economy may be improving individual voters are not reaping the benefits. And therefore, they are not rewarding the incumbent party in the way that they normally would.

This is almost certainly not the case. The overwhelming majority of research shows voters are much more likely to consider the national economy than their pocketbook. Individual economic circumstances may play a small role, but for the most part perceptions of national economic conditions overwhelm other economic considerations.

Similarly, inequality is not new. The income gap started growing in the early-1970s. Unless the US has reached some unseen tipping point, it is unclear why income inequality would matter in this election and not in others. For example if inequality was to have affected voting decisions, the relationship between the economy and voting would have likely started to decouple in the 1990s when inequality increased sharply under Clinton. However, that hasn’t occurred.

It’s more likely that Democrats’ failed to affect voters’ perceptions of the national economy. As Lynn Vavreck points out, voters’ perceptions of the economy matter more in midterm elections than in presidential years. And further, partisanship has an effect on perceptions of the economy. It acts “as a lens through which perceptions of the state of the nation’s economy are filtered.” Democrats’ ability to change Republicans’ perceptions of the economy was likely minimal.

However, it is also possible they failed to convince their own partisans that the economy was, in fact, performing well. Democrats’ attempts to localize their races and distance themselves from the President also put distance between them and a solid national economy. During the campaigns we heard very little about steady growth, lower unemployment, or the other factors that could have played well for Democrats. It’s entirely possible many did not believe these trends were good enough to campaign on. It’s also likely that many states in which these races took place still had struggling economies, which according to a new paper by Ansolabehere, Meredith, and Snowberg (2014) can affect perceptions of the national economy. However, that wasn’t the case in Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Virginia, all of which have unemployment below the national average. It’s also possible that so many fundamentals pointed away from Democrats it was never a messaging battle they could have won.

Regardless, the key takeaway is that income inequality was almost certainly not one of the structural issues that contributed to the Democrats defeat this Tuesday.

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Can the midterm outcome “solve” Washington’s problems? No. But it can make things worse.

An old adage is that lawmakers win reelection by “running against Washington.”  According to a recent Gallup poll, just 14% of Americans approve of Congress’s job performance. So while there’s something absurd about incumbents and major party candidates running against themselves, it’s a winning strategy for sure.

In some ways Congress’s remarkably low approval is undeserved.  We know, for example, that congressional approval fluctuates along with macroeconomic conditions.  We also have an arrangement where both parties are sharing power, so everyone has a reason to hate at least half of Congress.  Research even shows that the passage of legislation has a negative effect on approval (you know, when Congress actually does its job).

Nonetheless, in running against Washington, lawmakers regularly promise to “fix Congress,” work “collaboratively” with the other side, and “break the logjam” of legislation.  Unfortunately, research suggests that none of these problems will be solved based on tonight’s midterm outcome.  In fact, there are good reasons why some problems will get worse, not better.


Let’s start with polarization, which is part and parcel to Congress’s dysfunction.  For starters, polarization is a process whereby lawmakers in both parties move to the ideological extremes (leftward for Democrats, rightward for Republicans).  And as a theoretical matter, that process can happen in two ways: either (1) new members enter Congress to the left or right of the lawmaker they replaced or (2) continuing members drift to the left or right over the course of their career.

Based on numerous studies, #1 is the larger cause of polarization.  In other words, it’s the replacement of old members with new members that has caused Congress’s movement to the extremes.

In an old post (see here), I wrote about why the logic of “throwing the bums” out is wrong.  If you read that article, the exact same logic applies here: If polarization is the “problem,” electing a large volume of “new lawmakers” will make things worse, not better.


Gridlock is defined as the inability of Congress to pass legislation.  We can tackle the question of whether today’s midterm results can alleviate gridlock from multiple angles.  I’m assuming that the House will remain in Republican hands (and extremely safe assumption), so the real question is what happens in the Senate (where current projections give anywhere from a 98% chance to a 70% chance).

For starters, it’s often assumed that “new members” will “break the logjam” and usher in a new era of collaboration and compromise.  Unfortunately, the lessons of polarization apply here too: At best the volume of new members is Untitledunrelated to the passage of legislation and, at worst, new lawmakers make passing legislation harder.  For those details, see here.  But see the chart to the left (click for larger image) comparing the percentage of new lawmakers elected (x-axis) and the number of landmark laws passed (y-axis):

Second, the fact that the House and Senate are controlled by rival parties is often cited as a reason for the current Congress’s gridlock.  It is certainly logical that if Republicans win the Senate tonight, gridlock should go down.  However this, too, is wrong.

Control of the Senate is what’s known as a “necessary but not sufficient” condition for breaking gridlock.  While Republicans will indeed be better able to coordinate the passage of legislation across chambers, Democrats will retain two very powerful weapons that promote gridlock.

First, baring an upset of epic proportions, Democrats will maintain the ability to filibuster Republican proposals.  Second, remember that President Obama has the power to veto any laws that survive a Democratic filibuster.  I know that’s painfully obvious, but Republicans could circumvent the filibuster in two important ways: (1) by using a procedure known as “reconciliation” or (2) by eliminating the filibuster altogether.  Both are very real possibilities, making Obama’s veto power that much more consequential.  And according to these data, there have been 2564 vetoes dating back to George Washington’s presidency.  Among these, only 110 have been overridden by Congress, a success rate of just 4%.

But also, there is empirical research exploring these very questions.  In a paper published in the American Political Science Review, Sarah Binder tests the effect of “quasi-divided government” (defined as when the parties share control of Congress) on the occurrence of gridlock.  She finds that periods of quasi-divided government have absolutely no effect on the volume of important legislation Congress passes.  In sum, Binder’s research suggests that tonight’s outcome in the battle for control of the Senate won’t have much of an effect on the passage of legislation in the next Congress.  What does matter, according to Binder’s results?  “Pure divided government” (when the president opposes Congress, so see above), polarization (also see above), and the ideological distance between the House and Senate.  While the final one could be alleviated by tonight’s outcome, the result of a race or two won’t move the location of the median senator enough to make a sizable difference on the occurrence of gridlock.


Politicians are not “bad” for running against Congress and for over promising to “fix” Washington’s dysfunction.  And the public isn’t “stupid” for buying into these promises.  But we tend to have unrealistic expectations in even numbered years, focusing myopically on the idea that a single election is the antidote legislative paralysis and hyper partisanship.  Washington wasn’t broken over night, and it won’t be fixed this evening.

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Vote Scores are hurting Vulnerable Senate Democrats

Several Senate Democrats are running their campaigns as far away from the President as possible. Democrats are defending six states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Three Democratic incumbents find themselves in toss-up races in states Mitt Romney won by landslide margins. The President’s approval numbers in those states are dismal, forcing Democrats to deny policy agreement the Chief Executive.

However, many Democratic incumbents have had difficulty doing so. Unsurprisingly, many of them are tripping over their voting records. In 2013 Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) was the Democrat who voted with the President the least- and his presidential support score is 90%.

To many liberals, Sen. Pryor barely counts as a Democrat. So why is his presidential support score so high? In many ways the combination of gridlock and legislative campaigning in the 113th has limited conservative Democrats’ ability to distance themselves from Obama.

First, gridlock over policy has pushed Reid to schedule executive nominee confirmation votes. When the House and Senate are controlled by different parties it often stymies congressional production. That effect is particularly pronounced when the parties are polarized. The 113th Congress, so far, has passed 98 fewer laws than the 112th, which was the least productive Congress since the Civil War. Gridlock, in part, pushed Democrats to shift their governing strategy. After the nuclear option was invoked last November, the Senate could confirm executive nominees by a simple majority. This procedural change gave Democrats a useful outlet to accomplish some of their governing goals in the face of legislative gridlock.

However, this tactic had a downside. It had the effect of boosting presidential vote scores of many vulnerable Democrats. Votes on confirming nominees made up the overwhelming majority of votes in the Senate. Fifty-two percent of all votes cast in the 113th Congress were on presidential nominees. In the 2nd session a whopping 182 out of 270 votes (67%) confirmed (in most cases) presidential nominees. And in many cases those nominees were confirmed on party line votes. This boosted presidential support scores for many conservative Democrats who were seeking distance from the president, not demonstrate a cozy relationship.

Second, as is often the case in election years, the Senate scheduled campaign votes. Majority parties have political incentives to make their majority party look good at the expense of the minority party. Therefore, majority leaders (or the Speaker in the House) schedule votes that highlight that distinction. Campaign votes were prominent in the 113th Congress. In 2nd session (2014), 26 of the 88 non-nominee votes in the Senate, just under 30-percent, were for bills that had practically no chance to pass the Senate and zero chance at passing the House. Votes on a constitutional amendment to limit money in politics, the Paycheck Fairness Act, raising the minimum wage, and the Sportsman’s Act are all bills that had little opportunity to become law in this Congress. If you are outraged that seemingly common sense measures had no chance of becoming law, then scheduling these votes had their desired effect. These bills were never intended to pass. They were scheduled for members to use on the campaign trail. Yet again, they pulled many vulnerable Democrats’ vote history closer to the President’s agenda.

The remaining votes in the 113th Congress were on must pass or important legislation (such as WRDA, Highway funding extension, the FARM bill). These were bills the president may not have liked but did not outwardly oppose or threaten with a veto.

The legislative schedule, affected by gridlock and campaign incentives, artificially boosted many Democrats’ voting scores in an election year when that trend is very damaging. The irony here is Harry Reid’s attempt to protect his vulnerable colleagues – preventing difficult amendments and scheduling messaging bills – inadvertently pushed them closer to an unpopular president. In hindsight many may have like an opportunity to illustrate policy differences with Obama. Regardless, today many Democratic candidates in red states are now forced to stringently highlight a mere 5-10% “policy” disagreement between them and the President.

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Congressional Abdication at its Finest

Ebola is the most recent “crisis” (footnote: “crisis” is a loose term given Ebola’s relative lack of impact on the health of individual Americans) is highlighting a severe abdication of duty. Rather than produce a solution to the “crisis,” both parties appear content to campaign on the issue.

Republicans’ talking points mirror those that arose during the immigration debate: solving the problem relies on preventing people in the affected regions from getting access to the US. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) plans to introduce a bill that will suspend issuing travel visas to those traveling from affected areas. The Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans wrote a letter urging President Obama to ban travel visas through executive action. Rep. Pete Session (R-TX), Chair of the House Rules Committee (the one committee responsible for bringing bills to a vote on the floor), has recommended the same. These calls for executive action come on the heels of a House authorized lawsuit against the President for taking executive action.

Democrats have geared up their appropriators and staff to push for additional funding that may or may not be necessary to stem a currently non-existent Ebola outbreak in the U.S. Democrats are arguing that drastic budget cuts have reduced agencies’ ability to deal with the problem, despite $88 million in supplemental funding passed in the September continuing resolution and $750 million in reprogrammed money to mobilize over 3,000 troops to Ebola stricken regions. Democratic senate candidates, in turn, have attempted to paint their opponents as budget extremists failing to provide government with the means necessary to combat the Ebola crisis.

The broader point is there is a lot of talk and little real action. This Congress in particular has been all too happy to cry wolf while passing responsibility to an executive branch that is overburdened, underfunded, and often legally incapable of doing what it requests.

The only real certainty in this story is that absolutely nothing will be done before the midterm election. And, in all likelihood very little will be done after the election outside of some hearings and possibly a small funding package. Of course, all of that is contingent on Ebola remaining in the news cycle after the election. If the child migrant crisis is any precursory indication, that is far from a guarantee.

The last time Congress seriously debated NIH and CDC funding (i.e. not as part of a giant omnibus package or CR) was 2006. Ebola is a serious issue and should be treated that way. However, a long history of failed process combined with a historically unproductive legislative branch is likely to deter legislative action when it’s needed.

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Food Fight! Can Food Brands Predict Elections?

UntitledA few weeks ago on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd proposed that the fate of the Senate could come down to the distribution of Starbucks coffee shops (an elitist, urban chain) vs. Chick-fil-A restaurants (propagated by rural, social conservatives).  He predicted “it could be advantage to the chicken” this November. Click here for a video of Todd’s segment.

David Wasserman of FiveThirtyEight went one step further, taking the time to actually map Chick-fil-A and Starbucks locations.  Because, you know, data!  He then compared the distribution of both restaurants and compared them with Obama’s vote share in 2008. Here’s what Wasserman found:

When I mapped Chick-fil-A’s 1,845 stores, what I found surprised me: A majority (52 percent) are located in counties President Obama won in 2008 and 49 percent are in counties he carried in 2012. On the flip side, it might surprise Todd’s viewers that 57 percent of the 976 American counties with a Starbucks voted for John McCain in 2008 and 63 percent voted for Romney in 2012.

Wasserman proceeds to remind voters of an earlier post of his (see here) showing that, unlike Chick-fil-A and Starbucks locations, the number of of Whole Foods stores and Cracker Barrel restaurants does correlate highly with Obama’s vote share.  He notes:

In 2012, Obama won 77 percent of all counties with a Whole Foods and just 29 percent of all counties with a Cracker Barrel.

Now, yes, food can be political.  Look no further than pizza, where we can easily find not one, but two examples of this.  BrandIndex (a company that tracks the reputations of food chains) reports that perceptions of Godfater’s Pizza soared with Republicans and dropped with Democrats after their former CEO–the one and only Herman Cain–decided to run for president.  We saw the same pattern with pizza chain Papa John’s, after it’s CEO–John Schnatter–promised to reduce workers hours and increase pizza prices after Obama’s 2012 victory.

But while food can be political, I’m not satisfied with either Chuck Todd or David Wasserman’s dichotomy.  Let’s have a food fight!

What follows is a summary of a 2011 post of mine on this very issue.  In that post, I proposed a better way to correlate peoples’ culinary habits with their voting behavior. Rather than examine the volume of restaurants in a geographic area, let’s look at Google search traffic for these eateries.

I see three advantages with this approach.  First, it’s easy!  Just play with Google Trends for a few minutes and you’ll see why.  Second, the number of restaurants in a geographic area is pretty far removed from the unit of analysis (people).  In contrast, voting behavior and search traffic both derive from individual level behaviors.  And third,  the geographic location of a restaurant (Cracker Barrel) vs. a large grocery store (Whole Foods) has more to do with geographic dispersion and population density than anything else.  It’s not surprising that Cracker Barrels are more numerous in less populated, rural settings: they cost less to build and operate!  In contrast, you wouldn’t put a 35,000 square foot Whole Foods in small town (irrespective of whether people in that town are staunch social conservatives or big government lefties).

In this old post, I proposed two more reliably partisan food chains: Chick-fil-A (like Chuck Todd) and Ben and Jerry’s?  Chick-fil-A, afterall, gave Tea Party Protestors free iced tea on April 15th, has donated nearly $2 million to anti-gay rights groups and is closed on Sundays so their employees can “rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.”  Ben and Jerry, by contrast, are two self-described “liberal lefties” who fed ice cream to600 Occupy Wall Street protestors and adopt (gasp) fair trade practices.  In short, these two chains exhibit clear ideological differences (rather than simply correlate with it).

In order to examine this issue, and pit the two typologies against each other on a comparable scale, I coded Google Trends data for the states with the top 10 search results for each of the four chains.  I then merged that with Obama’s share of the two-party vote.  Here are the results.


It appears that my typology with Chick-fil-A vs. Ben and Jerry’s stacks up favorably—if not better—than the Cracker Barrel vs. Whole Foods divide.  By my count, Obama received 64% of the two-party vote in top 10 states for Ben and Jerry’s searches and only 62% in the top 10 states for Whole Foods searches.  Clearly this difference isn’t statistically significant, but it’s a marginal improvement.  In contrast, Obama only received 46% of the two-party vote in top 10 states for Chick-fil-A searches and 50% in top 10 states for Cracker Barrel searches.

Of course there are perfectly good explanations for these effects.  And to his credit, in his old post Wasserman notes one study: Bishop’s “The Big Sort”, which argues that Americans are geographically sorting into homogenous clusters (and the factors which drive this clustering correlate with political ideology).


Posted in Elections, Political Behavior, Voting Behavior | Leave a comment

Don’t like the president’s “power grab” on ISIS? Blame Congress.

Pundits on both sides of the aisle are criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to bomb ISIS targets without seeking congressional approval.  For example, Andrew Sullivan compares Obama’s actions to those of his predecessor, George Bush, calling the president’s decision a “dangerous executive power-grab.”

As someone who favors a strong legislative branch, I agree with Sullivan’s normative point.  Obama should seek Congress’s approval.  But I’m more interested in why he hasn’t.

Here’s my position on the balance of power between the legislative and executive branch: If you don’t like presidential “power grabs,” blame Congress.  Granted, this argument isn’t entirely mine.  See two excellent pieces by Jonathan Bernstein (here) and Doug Mataconis (here) making the same basic point.  Nonetheless, I’d like to add a few additional points to this important discussion.

Let’s start with the broader institutional landscape before focusing on the specifics of this case.  Regarding the broader dynamics, it’s important to keep in mind that what we’re talking about is a systemic transfer of power between branches dating back almost a hundred years.  And in each instance, much of the blame lies with Congress itself.

For example, we could draw upon the so-called “Two Presidencies” thesis.  Fifty years ago, Aaron Wildavsky published an influential article arguing that the “foreign policy president” has greater authority compared to the “domestic policy president.”  At the heart of Wildavsky’s argument is his view that, while presidents have more formal power in foreign policy, Congress (in both WWII and the Cold War ) ceded much of it’s power over foreign policy (adding to the disparity) rather than the president exercising a naked power grab.

Scholars have made similar claims about the Congresses of 1960s and 1970s.  In “Congress, the Constitution, and the Crisis of Legitimation,” Larry Dodd argued that Congress’s decentralized structure (where, in this period, committee chairmen reigned supreme) hurt the institution in a series of power struggles with the president. Simply put, with a decentralized framework, Congress undermined its own legitimacy and the belief that it should act.

If we fast forward, we can see that the modern Congress has the exact opposite problem.  While Congress is a highly centralized body today (where party leaders reign supreme), the institution is hamstrung by polarization and, ultimately, gridlock.  In the “Broken Branch,” Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein contend that representatives and senators lack “institutional patriotism.”  Rather than defend the institution they serve in from executive encroachments, lawmakers identify as partisans first and foremost and do little to enhance the legislature’s institutional capacity.  As an example, consider the so-called “nuclear option” (both instances, in 2005 and 2013) where partisan goals clearly trumped institutional norms.

So in sum, the simple point is that executive “power grabs” are not unique to Obama or modern-day presidents.  Political scientists have noted that Congress has gradually abdicated its own authority in every decade since at least the 1940s.

On the specifics of this controversy, there are a number of things to keep in mind too.  For starters, the president’s justification for bombing ISIS targets comes from prior authorizations passed in 2001 and 2003.  Furthermore, and as Tim Kaine noted in his New York Times editorial, Congress worded these authorizations broadly, without temporal or geographic restrictions.  So in this respect, the Obama administration’s “authority” came from Congress (not some unfounded power grab).

Is Congress powerless in this respect?  No.  Congress can simply revoke the president’s authority.  How?  By passing a law!  In a more general sense, Congress could defund the war effort or impeach the president.  Will lawmakers do any of this?  Of course not.  Less than a month ago, Congress voted overwhelmingly to approve Obama’s proposal to arm moderate Syrian rebels.  Just 22 senators and 156 representatives voted no (with an even balance of Democrats and Republicans in opposition).  In my mind, that’s a sufficient proxy for how a vote on bombing ISIS would turn out.

So, it’s not that Congress is “incapable” or “powerless” against a tyrannical president.  Rather, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are simply “unwilling” to act.  On this issue, retiring Representative Jack Kingston summed it up perfectly:

A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later.’ It’s an election year. A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.

A final counter argument is that the president should force Congress back from its recess (see for example Eugene Robinson if the Washington Post here).  First of all, there’s nothing stopping the Congress from calling itself back into session.  But second, and more importantly, the president’s power to call Congress back into session is a very powerful tool.  As such, it should be used sparingly.  In fact, since the passage of the 20th Amendment (which moved the start of Congress’s session from March 4 to January 3), there have only been four instances where the president called Congress back into session.  Since 1950, there have been none!

So while the president certainly could call Congress back, that power should be reserved for national emergencies.  Besides, if the president called Congress back for an emergency session, that would be yet another instance of the executive branch exercising its constitutional authority over the legislative branch.  If you’re opposed to presidential “power grabs,” is that really what you want?  As a proponent of a strong legislative branch, I’d much rather Congress call itself back and exert its own constitutional powers.  I don’t blame the president, I blame Congress.

Posted in American Political Development, Legislative Politics, Separation of Powers, The Presidency | 1 Comment