Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Did Congress Really Become More Partisan?

If you've been watching the post-election coverage, one of the main storylines you've heard is that Congress has become more partisan. Conservative Democrats lost their seats to more conservative Republicans, thus the remaining congressional Democrats are more liberal, while Republicans remained strongly conservative, or so the story goes. Let us take a closer look at this hypothesis.

First, in the Senate, Republicans picked up six seats-AR (Boozman), IL (Kirk), IN (Coats), ND (Hoeven), PA (Toomey), and WI (Johnson). In addition to these, there are seven new Republicans in the Senate—Ayotte (NH), Blunt (MO), Lee (UT), Moran (KS), Paul (KY), Portman (OH), and Rubio (FL). (Alaska is yet to be decided, but will either be Murkowski, the incumbent, or Miller, the Tea Party backed candidate. Both are Republican.)

A typical media story on the growing partisanship of Republicans in the Senate will usually start with Rand Paul. The story will point out that, though Paul is the son of longtime congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, he had never run for office before. Like his father, his ideology tends toward libertarianism. He favors a much smaller federal government and would prefer to do away with many social service programs. At one point in the campaign, he suggested that parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional. A position he later backed away from. Some are concerned that Paul will use his position in the Senate, where every senator has the power to obstruct Senate business, to prevent Congress from raising its debt ceiling.

Paul appears to fit well with the story line that Senate Republicans have become more partisan, and will seek more radical policies. After discussing Rand Paul, the typical media story will then discuss....uh...well...Rand Paul some more, because, out of the 13 new Senate Republicans, only one fits the story line! (Miller could be another, but Murkowski is currently favored to win that race.) The rest of the less experienced, and more partisan, Republican candidates all lost—Angle in Nevada, Buck in Colorado, and O'Donnell in Delaware. (Based upon the amount of news coverage, you may have thought that O'Donnell was in the lead in her race, but she was always behind by double-digits and lost by 16 points.)

The rest of the new Senate Republican line up are establishment Republicans. They have previous government experience and are aware of the necessity of compromise to democratic governance. Here are some examples. Toomey has served in the US House. Blunt has served as Majority Leader and Majority Whip in the US House. Portman served in the US House and was head of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. Rubio was Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. These swing state Republicans will make the Senate Repulican caucus more moderate, not less.

What about the Democratic caucus in the Senate. Have they become more liberal? Democrats gained their current majority status by winning races in 2006 and 2008. Some of these were won by conservative Democrats in red states. Since they have six year terms, none of these Democrats were even up for election this year so are still in the Senate. These conservative Democratic Senators include Casey (PA), Conrad (ND), McCaskill (MO), Nelson (NE), Nelson (FL), Tester (MT), Webb (VA), Baucus (MT), Begich (AK), Hagan (NC), Johnson (SD), Landrieu (LA), Pryor (AR), and Warner (VA). So, conservative Democrats in the Senate remain a hearty bunch, while Senate Republicans have become more moderate. We have the recipe for a more moderate, not less moderate Senate. So, what about the House? Does it fit the story line?

With Republican gains in the House, we see a similar story as the Senate. Almost any time a party expands its numbers, it becomes more moderate simply by becoming more diverse. With more voices in the party it must seek positions that will temper the various coalitions in the party. Plus, even with all the talk of new Tea Party backed candidates, most of the new Republican House candidates came with political experience in state or local government.

The House Democratic caucus, on the other hand, does fit the story line well. House Democrats became more moderate with its gains in 2006 and 2008. As pointed out by Matthew DeSantis in a previous post, these gains came from Rahm Emanuel's conservative Democrat recruits running in Republican districts. Most of the GOP gains in 2010 came from retaking those districts. Thus, by losing many of its more conservative members, the House Democratic caucus has become more liberal.

Thus, of the four congressional party caucuses (House Republican, House Democrat, Senate Republican, Senate Democrat), only one, the House Democrats, has become more partisan. Whether this will make the next House more or less partisan, we should wait and see. My best guess is that there won't be much difference between the two. This is a period where the parties are more united and the gap between them is large compared to other periods in US history. One election will not do much to change that fact.

So, why does the media perpetuate the storyline of a more partisan Congress? Talking about characters like Paul, O'Donnell, and Angle, is certainly more interesting than talking about someone like the relatively boring Senator-elect John Boozman, and interesting stories sell more ad space. There also seems to be a herd mentality with the media. When a particular storyline gains steam, most of the media tend to follow what everyone else is saying and the storyline becomes self perpetuating. The truth, however, isn't best determined by the loudest or most frequent voices.

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