The Myth of "Polarization-" Part 1: The House

As we enter this midterm election cycle in earnest, we are hearing a lot of noise about the “do nothing” Congress, about Republican “obstruction,” about the “Party of No,” etc.  A simple Google search of that last phrase returns over 2 BILLION hits.  As this article and the next article will try to illustrate, this phenomena is nothing new in politics.  Also, I will try to illustrate that it is not necessarily the Republican Party that is the most partisan nor that the Republican wave of 2010 laid the groundwork for the current state of politics.  This has nothing to do with the emergence of the Tea Party or, as the Democrats characterize it, the GOP leadership being beholden to a few stalwart conservatives or a small bloc of people.

Using a variety of sources, I first analyzed the current House membership and essentially classified all members, where applicable, into eight broad groups- hard core conservative, hard core liberal, libertarian conservative, libertarian-leaning liberal, populist leaning conservative, populist liberal, moderate conservative and moderate liberal.  Using this analysis and classification, 25% of Republicans were classified as hard core conservative while 38% of Democrats were classified as hard core liberals.  To underscore the fact that it is the Democratic Party that is more polarizing, 37% of Republicans are moderate compared to a dismal 17% of Democrats who can be described as moderate.

Looking at the retiring (for whatever reason) crop of incumbents, 52% of the retiring Republicans are hard core conservatives- 11 congressmen in all.  Six of the 13 retiring Democrats- or 46%- are hard core liberals.  Of course, we will have to wait until Election Day to actually see who will replace these hard core conservatives and, equally important, the 9 retiring moderate Republicans.  However, we do know that in the case of the hard core liberals, they are likely to be liberal since most hail from strong, liberal Democratic districts.  Of the 11 hard core retiring Republicans, eight hail from strong, conservative, Republican districts.  The net result is that the GOP should change very little while the Democrats in the House will be even more hard core liberal overall.  At any rate, the GOP should become ever so slightly less hard core conservative, but fear not- the difference will not be that great.

Another method is to look at crossover districts where that district voted for the president of one party, but a representative of the opposing party.  In 2012, there were only 25 such districts, most of them districts that voted for Obama, but elected a Republican representative.  Part of this is the power of incumbency, part demographic, and part the result of redistricting.  With Republicans basically controlling the redistricting process in most states, incumbent Republican districts were shored up.  Obviously, in states where Democrats controlled the process, they did the same with the most notable example being the Maryland district formerly held by Roscoe Bartlette.  Even in states that purport to have independent means of redistricting, political persuasions played an important role.  For example, in California their” independent” process put more Republican districts at risk than Democratic districts.  Furthermore, they use the open primary system where the top two primary vote-getters move on to the general election.  Considering the fact that California has a Democratic governor and Democratic legislature, it is not surprise that redistricting favored Democrats in California.

Conversely, New Jersey also uses an independent commission.  In the census, the state lost a seat, unlike California.  Therefore, a more serious realignment of the district boundaries was required.  There is no doubt that New Jersey is a decidedly blue state.  Yet of the 12 representatives from New Jersey, six are Republican.  There is no way that correctly reflects the party affiliation numbers of the state.  One would expect an 8-4 Democratic split in New Jersey, but such is not the case.  Independent commission redistricting sounds nice, but it is hardly apolitical.

Regardless, these 25 crossover districts represented only 5.7% of all contested congressional districts in 2012.  However, that is nowhere near the low experienced in 1904 when only 5 of 310 contested congressional districts were crossover- or 1.6%.  In 1900, only 3.4% of 295 districts were crossover while 1920 saw only 3.2% of 344 districts being crossover.  Generally speaking, we see, in presidential election years, large crossover numbers in landslide situations.  The largest on record is Richard Nixon’s 1972 election when 44.1% of districts crossed over and second best is Ronald Reagan’s reelection in 1984 with a 43.7% crossover rate.  As for Obama who won in a landslide in 2008, his crossover rate is not even in the top 8 since 1900 at only 19.1% (or 83 districts).  In fact, in 2012 since 1952, Obama carried the fewest number of districts at only 201.  In those districts won by Obama and by a Democratic House candidate, the House candidate exceeded Obama’s performance in 134 of 192 districts.  The conclusion?  Obama was “popular” (or his policies) in only a handful of hard-core liberal, largely urban districts.

There is also the erroneous perception and assumption that the South gives us the most hard core conservative House members.  Of the 52 Republicans from southern states (I included Texas in the Southwest), only 19% are hard core conservative.  In fact, the South is exceeded by Border states (24%), the Upper Midwest (21%), the Southwest mainly because  of Texas’ inclusion here (59%), the Pacific West (33%) and the Midwest/Plains (27%).   There is the corollary perception that the west coast gives us the most liberal representatives.  In fact, this analysis proves they do.  Of the 46 Democratic representatives from the Pacific West region, 46% are hard core liberal.  The Middle Atlantic states (mainly because of New York) is not far behind at 44% of 34 Democrats and then New England at 42% of 19 representatives and New England has NO Republican representatives at all.  Hence, conservative perceptions are more accurate than those of the Democratic Party, liberals in general, and the political pundit talking heads in the mainstream media.

As for the do-nothing Congress, the totals are not in for the 113th current Congress, but in terms of raw numbers the 112th does hold the record since 1947 for passing the fewest bills at 561.  However, this is not that far from the 104th Congress under Bill Clinton which passed 611 bills.  Taken as a whole, however, one cannot really say that Congress was “do nothing” since 6,845 bills were introduced in the 112th Congress which is certainly not a low for Congress.  Since 1947, that honor belongs to the 104th Congress under Clinton with only 4,542 bills introduced.

In the 112th Congress, 8.2% of all bills introduced succeeded in passage.  Again, this is not a low, although it is the lowest percentage since the 8.7% rate in the 97th Congress in Reagan’s first term.   Even still, under Obama Congress is on track to introduce 27,000 bills and pass 2800 of them.  These number of introduced bills would surpass the totals of two-term presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush.  The 2,800 passed bills would almost equal those of the Clinton administration.

As far as divided government goes, since 1947 there have been only five Congresses (not counting the 113th) where one party controlled one chamber and the opposition party the other chamber.   In those cases, the number of introduced bills in a divided Congress are about half the number in a unified Congress.  That is what happened in the 112th Congress and is happening in the 113th just as it happened in the 97th through 99th under Reagan and the 107th under George W. Bush.  Also, a divided Congress averages 400 less passed bills than a unified Congress. More importantly, as a percentage of bills passed, a divided Congress passes 11.6% of all those introduced versus 11.3% in a unified Congress.  In the 112th Congress under Obama, the percentage is 8.2%- below the average but not wildly so.

Even though there is no official “Hastert Rule” per se, one needs to look at this also to see whether there is Republican obstruction in the House.  Most of the negative attention is on John Boehner who has violated the “rule” eight times now.  The fact that a Republican has set the record for violations despite holding the House for a relatively short period of time debunks the theory that the GOP is obstructionist.  The liberal story line is that a few staunch, out-of-the-mainstream Republicans are holding the entire caucus hostage.  First, the hard core conservatives comprise only 25% of the overall Republican caucus.  Second, if the GOP was “held hostage,” there is a way to overcome that phenomena such that it exists- break the Hastert Rule which the GOP leadership in the House has now done a record eight times under Boehner.

Finally, one needs to look at the make up of the 111th Democratic-controlled House versus the 112th Republican controlled House to determine which group is more hard-core and whether the new breed of Republican elected in 2010 is more staunchly conservative than the previous group of Republicans, and likewise for the Democrats.  Even here, the media has the narrative wrong.  Over 50% of Republicans in 111th Congress could be characterized as hard core conservative.  After the GOP take over in the wake of the 2010 elections, that percentage dropped to 35.6%.  Today, it stands at 25%.  If anything, the Republicans in the House are more moderate or libertarian-leaning than the intransigent hard core conservative the media portrays.

The conclusions are many here as concerns the House under the Republicans.  First, the notion that the entire caucus is somehow beholden to the Tea Party or hard core conservatives is seriously overplayed by the Democratic minority, liberals, and the media.  As stated, they comprise about 25% of the caucus and there is enough agreement in the remaining 75% to overcome that minority within the majority.  Second, although certainly below average, the number of bills introduced are not at any historical low, although the number of bills passed is historically low.  But remember- it takes BOTH chambers to pass legislation.  Third, at the current rate, the number of bills introduced will approximate those of Congresses under other two term presidents and although the number actually passed will be lower, that number is not so wildly low to justify the accusations.  Fourth, the main problem, therefore, is not in the House but in the Senate under the leadership of Harry Reid.

All of this illustrates the hypocrisy of the liberals and Democrats.  While the Republican-controlled House is passing legislation on their side, Harry Reid refuses to even consider certain bills sent over from the House.  In fact, as part 2 will try to show, if there is obstruction it is in the Democratic Senate.  That is because the Senate IS polarized, Senate rules differ from those in the House, and Harry Reid is more an obstructionist against consideration of any legislation than is John Boehner.  Most importantly, the well was poisoned in 2010 regarding passing bills because of the methods by which Obamacare was passed.  Unlike other pieces of major legislation passed by Democratic or Republican presidents and whether Congress was unified or divided, there was usually some bipartisan support for the law.  It was and is primarily Obamacare that is the cause of any “gridlock” on Capitol Hill.