More Adventures in Bad Chart Making

December 2, 2013 2 comments

I still think Andrew Gelman does this kind of thing better, but it’s hard not to comment on the following chart from the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan:

oimgThe larger point that Sean is trying to make is important: There has been a significant decline in the production of federal legislation. That said, this chart is horrible. Among the many problems:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Don’t stagger the axis tick labels. If the labels won’t fit horizontally, rotate them.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:


A Reduced Filibuster

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.

The Beginning of the End of the Filibuster?

The Senate is currently debating whether to impose the “nuclear option” on presidential nominees for executive branch offices and for  nominees to the district and appellate courts. Nominees to the Supreme Court would, for now, still be subject to the filibuster. Senate Democrats threatened to make similar changes at the start of the current Congress and again over the past summer. (See here for a quick summary of the timeline.) Each time, however, they were able to reach a deal with the Republicans to allow some nominations to proceed without changing the rules.

While there will be protests that Senate Democrats have broken the rules if they do restrict the use of the filibuster (this is currently Mitch McConnell’s favorite talking point), most observers agree that it can be done. Gregory Koger, for example, writes:

Bottom line: a simple majority has—and has always had—the power to restrict filibustering if senators are willing to take extreme measures to achieve their goals. Although parliamentary rules are discussed as if they are LAWS (with “rules” and “precedents” and “rulings from the chair”) in the final analysis the rules can be interpreted however a majority of the legislature prefer.

The basic logic of filibuster reform is this: Is it worth enough for me today, as I sit in the majority, to lose the filibuster in the future should my party become the minority? Am I willing to give up the potential to obstruct in the future so that I can get my way today? (Yes, there are reputation and potential electoral costs that I will incur if I change the rules, but these are relatively minor. PR wars happen all the time over bigger issues that have little to no effect on elections.)

It’s unclear what the outcome of this change would be. Would Senate Republicans follow through on the MAD (mutually assured destruction) aspect of the nuclear option and grind the Senate to a complete halt by obstructing everything else? Honestly, the reason the Senate Democrats are willing to even discuss the nuclear option is that over the last five years the Republicans have already largely adopted this policy. Yes, there is more that could happen in the way of obstruction, but the level of Republican obstruction has become so great that Democrats feel it is now worth paying the price.

I do think, however, that any change in the filibuster today would signal the beginning of the end of the filibuster has we have known and loved it. If it is okay to change the filibuster today because of minority party obstruction of nominees, it becomes easier to change the filibuster tomorrow because of minority party obstruction of a bill.

BTW, my go to sources for analysis of any such proposal are Sarah Binder and Gregory Koger, both of whom have written extensively on the filibuster (see here, here, and here for examples of Binder’s work and here, here, and here for examples of Koger’s work). They don’t always agree on their analysis.

It’s always fun to talk with the national media

November 15, 2013 1 comment

I did a quick interview with NBC News last week, and the piece is finally up here.

My contributions:

“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.

Fun with Numbers

Like many in America on Tuesday, voters in Stockton went to the polls. As expected–this was an off-year, local election–turnout was pretty low, only 21% of registered voters cast a ballot.

In Stockton, we voted on two ballot measures proposed by the city council. Measure A was a general sales tax increase: if passed, the city’s sales tax rate would increase by 0.75 cents on the dollar, bringing the total sales tax paid in Stockton up to 9%, for at least 10 years. Measure B was an advisory measure instructing the city how to spend the money raised by Measure A. Specifically, Measure B says:

If Measure A is approved by the voters, shall (i) 65% of its proceeds be used only to pay for law enforcement and crime prevention services in the City such as those described in the City’s Marshall Plan on Crime and (ii) 35% of its proceeds be used only to pay for the City’s efforts to end the bankruptcy and for services to residents, businesses, and property owners?

The key words that I want to draw your attention to here are, “If Measure A is approved by the voters …”

According to the numbers posted on the San Joaquin Registrar of Voters web site, 13,273 people voted for Measure A. (It passed with 52.5% of the vote.) At the same time, 14,809 people voted for Measure B. (It passed with 59.7% of the vote.)

Assuming that everyone who voted for A also voted for B and that everyone who voted against B also voted against A (these seem reasonable assumptions but could be wrong), the following are true:

1) A little more than 1,500 more people voted against Measure A but for Measure B. I think these voters were saying, “I don’t want the tax increase, but if it does pass then I want the money used according to Measure B.”

2) About 450 people voted no on Measure A and then didn’t bother to vote on Measure B. These voters were saying, “My vote against the tax increase is enough.” Maybe they didn’t think Measure A would pass. Maybe they didn’t care what the city did with the money if it did pass.

As for the Measures themselves, I think Mike Fitzgerald of the Record got it right: “There are uncertainties. But voters chose increased public safety certainty over possibly chimeric increased fiscal certainty. They were probably right to do so.”

Gerrymandering and the Shutdown

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.

They write:

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.

See also Seth Masket’s recent post on the subject. Or my earlier post.

Federal Spending

The federal deficit at the end of FY 2012 was $1,087,000,000,000. If you want to make a dent in the level of national debt, you have to turn that number positive. Here’s where we spent money in FY 2012. Can you make enough cuts to get to $1,087,000,000,000? Of course, your other option is to increase revenue (i.e., raise taxes).



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