- It is incredibly problematic to include the current Congress (113th) in the chart. Doing so exaggerates the trend in an unfair way. Every other Congress has been completed. We haven’t even made it to the end of the first session of the 113th Congress.
- The chronology is reversed. Reading left to right, we travel backward in time from the current Congress to the 105th Congress (1997-98). Time series should go forward.
- Only Congress nerds (and I am happy to be one) know the dates for each Congress. Everyone else has to rely on tables like this one. If you are going to make a time series, use commonly known labels for the time periods.
- Why separate the two sessions of each Congress instead of stacking them? The overall trend would still be there (if anything it would appear stronger), and people would still be able to see that most of the action has come in the second session of each Congress.
- Don’t stagger the axis tick labels. If the labels won’t fit horizontally, rotate them.
- Why start the y-axis at 20 instead of zero? Is the difference that large? Starting the axis at 20 because that’s what Excel defaulted to is just lazy.
- Label your axes in ways that people will understand. What does “Public laws enacted” mean? Why not just say “number of laws?”
Here’s another stab at the chart using the same data:
The Senate Democrats did it. Presidential nominations for executive appointments and lower court seats can no longer be filibustered. Instead, these nominations will be subject to a simple majority vote. I agree with Ezra Klein–today’s vote effectively ends the filibuster as an institution in American politics. The Senate, from this point forward, will be more like the House. I don’t know if means the ability to move the previous question will be reintroduced in the Senate, though.
Here’s some of Sarah Binder’s take:
1. Is today’s change as landmark as reporters say? Yes, this is big. Jeremy Peters in the New York Timesargues that “The change is the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.” Peters is probably correct. To be sure, Senate majorities have nibbled away at parts of the Senate’s Rule 22 (the cloture rule) since the threshold was last changed in 1975. Some of those changes (such as imposing and then reducing a post-cloture debate cap) were achieved by following the formal rules of the Senate. Others (such as banning filibusters of motions to proceed to particular nominations) were changed by mini-nuclear options, if you will. In contrast, this is the first reform of Senate rules that changes the number of votes required to invoke cloture. And the Democrats did it in an institutionally-gutsy way. Senate majorities will still have to go through the steps of filing for cloture (I think!), but now a simple majority suffices to end debate to bring the Senate to an up-or-down vote on nominees. This is what Senate Republicans called for 2005; Harry Reid has delivered it. (Careful what you wish for.)
4. Will GOP senators retaliate by blowing up every remaining bridge in sight? This has historically been a viable threat that has undermined majorities’ efforts to go nuclear. But such retaliation clearly did not dissuade Reid and his colleagues from going forward. As he said on more than one occasion, how much worse can the Senate get? Or as Greg Koger has suggested, senators are already exploiting the least costly avenues of obstruction. To be more obstructive would likely begin to impose more costs on the minority that they might not want to absorb. Hanging around the chamber to cast votes just to slow down the majority might not be worth it for the minority. And at some point, the risk of being tagged as obstructionist could hurt GOP senators in 2014 (though this remains to be seen of course).
This really is big. It’s difficult to understate how significant this change is and will be.
I did a quick interview with NBC News last week, and the piece is finally up here.
“The effect [of Prop. 14] was to remove all minor parties from the ballot, because almost none of the minor parties are going to be able to meet these rules,” said Keith Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Limiting party power?
Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic parties are also trying to find their way in this new system. Smith says parties can still be influential, even with the majority runoff system.
“The logic behind Prop 14 gets only part of the polarization [story] right,” he said. “It completely leaves out all of the other partisan actors like the parties, affiliated groups, and activists.”
The point I was trying to make in the second part is this: The gerrymandering and the primary stories about polarization are built on a theory of elections that includes just two sets of actors–candidates and voters. Candidates, in these stories, are able to take extreme positions because they are electorally secure. They do not have to worry about losing to someone from the other party. Voters are then left choosing among extremes.
The gerrymandering solution is to make legislative districts more competitive. The hope is that by constructing districts that either party can win, candidates will have to compete for the center in order to win the election. The primary solution is similar. By opening up primaries to all voters, not just those within a given party, the hope is that candidates will have to compete for the center.
Both stories, however, miss a lot of the complexity of modern electoral politics. In particular, both stories miss the role of party organizations, activists, and benefit seekers, all of which push candidates and voters toward more extreme positions. As long as the party label is important in electoral politics and as long as the parties, activists, and benefit seekers try to influence who can have that label legitimately, then electoral reforms like redistricting commissions and the top two system will only have a limited impact on partisan polarization.
Gerrymandering is a popular topic right now. Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have an important reminder to everyone who wants to blame the current shutdown/debt ceiling on electorally insulated members of Congress: gerrymandering isn’t the cause of the problem.
What if we told you that the gerrymandering of congressional districts has nothing to do with political polarization in Washington? Gerrymandering didn’t have anything to do with the shutdown, or the battles over the debt ceiling, or Obamacare. In fact, the accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly.
The real reason for our increasingly divided political system is much simpler: The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism andsucceeded in winning elections. (The Democrats have moved to the left, but less so.)
The Republican shift is the result of several factors. The realignment of Southern white voters into the Republican Party, the branch of conservative activism created by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the party’s increasingly firm stance on issues such as income inequality and immigration, can all be important to Republicans’ rightward shift.
The “blame it on the gerrymanders” argument mistakenly assumes that because redistricting created more comfortable seats for each party, polarization became inevitable. Our research, however, casts serious doubt on that idea.
Did you hear that: There is no necessary connection between gerrymandering, the creation of safe seats, and polarization.
Still more good stuff:
The most important element affecting polarization in the House of Representatives is the divergent approaches that Democrats and Republicans take to representing districts that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics and presidential voting. Even in moderate districts, Democratic representatives are still very liberal and Republican representatives are very conservative. This reflects a widening ideological gap, not different lines on a map.
If could magically switch the party of the person representing a district, you would observe dramatically different behavior (voting and otherwise) in Congress. It’s not that Congress is polarized because the districts are polarized. The parties have fundamentally different views of governing and seek to act on those views when in Congress. They do so, in some cases, in spite of the district.
One last bit:
There is another distinction. Many districts are safe for one party or the other because of how Americans have sorted themselves geographically — choosing to live closer to people who are politically or culturally like-minded. In Florida, for example, Palm Beach County will be reliably Democratic and the Panhandle will consistently vote for Republicans. These geographic shifts mean that state legislatures, which approve congressional district lines, can tweak but not fundamentally alter the ideological makeup of Congress.
Congress also has a handful of representatives from one-district states such as Vermont and Wyoming that can’t be subject to gerrymandering. Yet they are just as partisan as their colleagues from gerrymandered districts in other states.
According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, California’s Democrats appear to be learning from their mistakes and making sure that they don’t repeat them in 2014.
Most observers thought that the Democrats would pick up the CA-31 congressional district in 2012. Democrats had a moderate registration advantage, and the new district tended to vote more Democratic than Republican. Yet, when voters went to the polls on last November, there was no Democrat on the ballot.
What happened? Under the new Prop. 14 system, the top two vote getters in the June election face each other in November. Normally, in a moderately competitive district like CD-31, we would expect one Republican and one Democrat to make the runoff election. In 2012, however, the Democrats couldn’t settle on a candidate and so four candidates split the Democratic vote. As the table below (taken from my article; gated) shows, the top two vote getters ended up both being Republicans.*
Pete Aguilar, now the Mayor of Redlands (my hometown!), is not repeating the mistake this time. This time, he is wrapping up the local party endorsements in order to forestall any intra-party challengers. With the local party endorsement in hand, I would expect him to go to the California Democratic Party’s convention and try to win its endorsement as well. As Thad Kousser, Scott Lucas, Eric McGhee, and Seth Masket demonstrate, these party endorsements have important electoral effects. A candidate who wins the party endorsement tends to win a larger portion of the vote than one who does not.
So the incumbent, Gary Miller (R), will face stiffer competition next year. He’ll at least likely have to face a Democrat in the November election.
* As I note in my article: “The astute observer will note that the Republican percentage of the vote in Table 2 totals more than the Democratic vote. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Republican presidential primary was the dominant race in the election and that primaries tend to have relatively more Republican voters, one should not take this total as a sign that the district is really Republican and not Democratic.”
So this response is a day late (and maybe a dollar short). Yesterday, one of the deans of the California politics press, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, published a column lauding the recent California legislative session as a turning point. He wrote, “It’s a new era in Sacramento — a markedly improved one, so far. Watching the lawmakers, you don’t cringe nearly as much. They’re actually getting things done in the state Capitol. You can set aside that old label ‘dysfunctional.’”
Skelton argues that the legislature’s new found functionality comes from three recent reforms approved by voters:
- Term limit reform (Prop. 28, 2012), which he argues allows legislators to develop a sense of stability
- The top-two primary (Prop. 14, 2010), which he argues makes it easier to elect new blood into the legislature
- The work of the California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission in drawing legislative district (Prop. 20, 2010), which he argues reduced the degree of strident partisanship in the legislature
While, admittedly, I don’t live and breath Sacramento politics the way that Mr. Skelton does, my response is, “No, no, and no!”
The study of Congress has taught us that there are two primary causes of legislative gridlock: (1) ideological differences between the two chambers of the legislature and (2) divided government. The greater the ideological distance between the two chambers (see Congress right now, where Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate) the greater the degree of legislative gridlock. If the legislature and the executive are controlled by different parties (see President Obama (D) versus the House Republicans), then we can expect still more legislative gridlock. Some would add a third cause: The number of seats that the majority party holds relative to those held by the minor party. The bigger the difference in the number of seats held by the two parties, the less gridlock we should see.
If we look at the California legislature following the 2012 elections, what do we see? We see both chambers dominated by Democrats, which minimizes degree to which there will be significant ideological differences between the two chambers. Moreover, Democrats have a 2/3 voting majority in both chambers, which means they have a huge seat margin relative to the Republicans. In an era of simple majority budgeting (Prop. 25, 2010) the Democrats don’t have to worry about negotiating with recalcitrant Republicans. They don’t even need to worry about Democratic defections on most votes. At the same time, we also see that Democrats control both the Governor’s office and the legislature, which minimizes the likelihood of significant conflict between the two branches of government (especially in an age of hyper-partisanship).
I personally would add in the fact that the state’s fiscal situation has improved sufficiently that legislators no longer feel that they have to protect their preferred policies and programs from budget cuts, which makes everyone feel better in the abstract. (The literature on Congress, however, doesn’t suggest this is important in determining the level of gridlock.)
So what, then, do I think has led to the improved situation in Sacramento? The fact that the Democrats now control all the levers of power. (And, by the way, I would expect similar stories of a miraculous change in the culture of Sacramento if Republicans somehow magically controlled all the levers too.) The institutional reforms enacted by California voters may yet create a change in the Capitol’s culture and behavior, but I don’t think they have done so yet.
Hey, I bet you didn’t know that the 2014 congressional campaign season has already started, but it has! Just this morning I received the following email:
And since congressional campaign season has seemingly started, let’s lay out some initial observations:
- Based on his official biography, Steve Anthony Colangelo is an amateur candidate. He has never held elected office. He may be an incredibly successful businessman, but business success does not carry over to political success. In fact, political science has demonstrated repeatedly that amateur candidates rarely win against incumbents; they tend to lose by very large margins.
- CD-9 is a moderately Democratic district. Any Republican is going to struggle to beat McNerney. McNerney (a weak incumbent) beat Gill (a strong challenger with lots of party and affiliated money) 56% to 44% in 2012. Obama also beat Romney 58% to 40%. Go back to 2010, and Brown would have beat Whitman 55-45.
- At least initially, Colangelo is pursuing Ricky Gill’s strategy of emphasizing his connection to the Central Valley. That’s all well and good, and it’s a reasonable attack on McNerney who moved to the Valley from the Bay Area when his district was redrawn. It also ignores the part of the district that is in Contra Costa County, which makes up about 30 percent of the district’s population. The Contra Costa section of the district is event more Democratic than the San Joaquin and Sacramento county portions.
All of this means that Colangelo faces a steep climb if he is going to beat McNerney. But who knows? He may not even make it to the November run-off. Another Republican might beat him in the initial, June election.
So after not posting anything new for a while, you get a couple posts one right after the other.
My article, “Proposition 14 and California’s Minor Parties: A Case Study of Electoral Reform and Party Response,” is now available from the California Journal of Politics and Policy here (gated unfortunately; here’s the version I will be presenting at MPSA next month). Here’s the abstract:
In 2010, California voters enacted Proposition 14, the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, which changed California’s electoral system from single-member, plurality district elections to a top two (majority) runoff system. Although literature in comparative politics and formal theory suggests this change should help third parties in California, almost 80% fewer minor-party candidates filed for office in 2012 than in 2010. Indeed, 2012 saw the smallest number of minor-party candidates in California since 1966. Employing a mixed-methods approach, this paper examines different explanations for the decline in minor-party candidacies. Although most observers argue that Proposition 14 directly discouraged minor-party candidates from filing for office (because they likely would not make the runoff ballot), I argue that the decline results from three other factors: (1) a long-run decline in the California Libertarian Party, (2) a legislature-driven increase in the filing fee required from minor-party candidates, and, most importantly, (3) party elites foregoing candidate recruitment in 2012.
If their publishing schedule looks like last year’s, it will be in the upcoming June issue.
Andrew Gelman is much better at this than I am, but in light of recent events I thought I would bring the following bad chart to your attention. How many errors (factual or otherwise) can you find?
Yes, I realize that Yglasias is trying to be funny with the chart.
The DW-NOMINATE scores for the 112th Congress were released by VoteView yesterday (original post). The title of this post gives the punchline away, but according to the NOMINATE measure the 112th Congress was the most polarized since Reconstruction. Here’s the graph to go with it:
NOMINATE uses every vote cast during a congress to estimate the ideological positions of each member. Since membership overlaps and individual members’ ideologies do not change much over time, it is possible to compare
comparing the ideology of members today with members from the past. The measure is scaled from -1 (the most liberal member) to +1 (the most conservative member). What you see above is the ideological distance between the average Republican and the average Democrat in the House and Senate over time.
Where does all that polarization come from? Mostly the Republican Party, though note that this is not anything new. The average Republican has been getting more conservative since the mid-1970′s.
Here’s VoteView’s statement:
The 112th Congress closed unceremoniously this month with a series of votes (by the House and Senate) to avert the “fiscal cliff”. With this data, we can now analyze roll call voting in the 112th Congress in its entirety and place the amount of Congressional polarization seen over the last two years in historical context. … And … this phenomenon has been asymmetric: contemporary polarization of the parties is almost entirely due to the movement of congressional Republicans to the right. Polarization is measured as the difference between the Republican and Democratic means on the first DW-NOMINATE dimension, which represents the ideological (liberal-conservative) scale.
- Jeff Becker
- Prof. Keith Smith
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