The Myth of "Polarization-" Part 2: The Senate

In the previous entry, I tried to illustrate that the House was not as polarized or ideological as some would have us believe. The statistics do not bear out the accusations and even if they did in some way, the two most recent Congresses with a Republican leadership in the House are not that far off modern norms.  Additionally, a case can be made that the House prior to Republican control was actually dominated by more hard core conservatives within the House Republican caucus.

As a point of illustration, in the 112th Congressional House which was controlled by the GOP, there were 1,608 roll call votes.  In the 111th, controlled by Democrats, there were 1,655 roll call votes.  Since 2000, it was a Democratic controlled House that had the fewest roll call votes- 1,214.  In the first half of the 113th Congress, there were 641 votes and 62 thus far in 2014.  This would put the Republican controlled House on a pace to have more votes than the 112th and certainly more than Democratic controlled Houses in the recent past.  The only conclusion is that the House of Representatives is doing its job.

Therefore, the problem, if any, must exist in the Senate.  Here, there can be a case for ideological polarization.  Of the 53 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them (total of 55) 38.1% can be classified as hard core liberal with an additional 32.7% populist liberal for a total of 70.8% of the Democratic caucus leaning hard to the Left.  Among Republicans, 48.9% of the 45 Senators can be classified as hard core conservative with 8.9% having libertarian leanings.  That is, 57.8% of the Republican caucus leaning heavily to the Right.  It becomes obvious that the Democrats in the Senate are, in the overall sense, more staunchly liberal than the Republicans are staunchly conservative.  Put another way, the Democrats are more partisan.  Additionally, 13 of the 17 new Democratic faces elected since 2008 are clearly to the Left while only 10 of the 17 new Republican faces elected since 2008 are clearly to the Right.  Again, while both parties are electing ideologically strong candidates, Democrats are the bigger offenders in this area.

The problem is twofold in the Senate.  The first is that the Senate is, by constitutional design, more deliberative than the House.  Under this design, any legislation is supposed to be more measured and more debated.  It is, again by design, more national and less locally parochial than the House; that is, less reactionary and more conservative.  Hence, things tend to get hung up in the Senate and rightfully so.  The second problem is the Senate rules which require a 3/5 vote (or 60 Senators) to end debate on any piece of legislation.  This rule exists to protect the minority party against the “tyranny of the majority.”   Democrats like to portray this as Republican obstruction and a de facto filibuster.  However, Democrats have used the tactic also in those rare instances when they were in the minority in the Senate.  It is disingenuous and hypocritical to now claim that only Republicans are using the tactic.  Since 1947, the GOP has controlled the Senate a total of 18 years, or 10 of 33 Congresses.  Democrats have not had to use the 3/5 rule to their advantage because they were in the majority more than 67% of the time.

Where the Democrats may have a point is in holding up certain nominations through either the 3/5 rule or through the use of “holds.”  Harry Reid’s “partial nuclear option” solution has sped up the process, but this rule change is one that may well backfire in the future should there be a Republican president and a Democratic-minority Senate.  Also, most nominations are eventually approved by the Senate and generally by large margins.  In effect, the overuse of senatorial holds and the 3/5 rule for nominations is like the little boy who cried wolf.  It should be used against the truly seriously questionable nominations like a Vann Jones and the like, not some District Court judge nominee that eventually is confirmed 90-10.

The third problem is Harry Reid and his ultimate, absolutist and almost dictatorial control over the Senate.  Democrats and liberals like to deride John Boehner in the House for not bringing certain pieces of legislation to the House floor for a vote, yet Harry Reid does the same thing in the Senate with respect to bills passed out of the House.  A perfect example is the numerous bills passed in the House that would either defund or repeal Obamacare.  In not a single instance has Reid allowed any of these measures to be brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

There is a solution that would protect the minority in the Senate while getting some House-passed legislation brought to the floor in the Senate for a vote.  The 3/5 rule could be tweaked somewhat to 3/5 minus 2 (or 58 votes) to invoke cloture.  This would certainly be to the advantage of the current Democratic leadership in the Senate as they would need only three instead of five GOP defectors.  It may not seem like a lot, but in the arcane workings of the Senate, it is.  In exchange, instead of Reid and McConnell working out agreements on the number of offered amendments by the minority, a predetermined maximum number of amendments would be mandatory.  Of course, the minority would be under no obligation to use the maximum number.  In this way, at least Senators would be put on the record one way or the other.  Additionally, legislation that passed in the House using some predetermined criteria would automatically be put on the Senate calendar for consideration.  The details could be left up to the congressional rule makers.

The other interesting thing about the Senate as concerns Democratic allegations is that a few staunchly conservative Republican senators hold up the workings of that chamber.  However, when one thinks of it, it only takes a few Republicans of any stripe to hold things up- five in fact.  There are certain grains of truth about the debate procedure as all the talk and argument is not going to change anyone’s mind.  Most of the debate is playing to the constituents back home or enhancing one’s resume for a possible run at higher office.  It is great for the nightly news, but in the practical sense an exercise in futility.

The key Republican bogeymen in the minds of liberals are Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, although sometimes they throw in Rand Paul.  It is totally ludicrous to assert that a band of three Republicans are responsible for Senate gridlock.  In fact, one can make a case that their “influence” is negated by Lisa Murkoswki, Susan Collins, and Mark Kirk.  The problem is not the Ted Cruz’ or the Rand Pauls.  Republicans do not take their marching orders from a small band of Senators.  However, the Democrats do take their marching orders from Obama.  He came into office promising bipartisanship, but his actions speak louder than his eloquent, Teleprompter speeches.

The media made a deal of an alleged rift between Obama and Harry Reid, but not for the right reasons.  The “rift” was predicated on the fact that Reid was not being aggressive enough in pursuing the Obama agenda in the Senate.  However, one cannot name too many instances where there was a policy difference between the two.  In my memory, only three are readily accessible: the push for military action in Syria, sanctions against Iran, and the proposed Pacific rim free trade agreement.  All of these “differences” involve foreign policy, not domestic policy positions.

In the end, one can make a case that gridlock does exist in Congress, but a sober analysis reveals that the Democrats are more responsible because they are statistically more ideologically to the far Left than Republicans are to the far Right.  Furthermore, the source of gridlock is in the Senate and if that is the source, then the leadership of that chamber (Harry Reid) bears the onus of responsibility.  Most importantly and in a weird way, Congress is acting exactly as envisioned.  When the political pendulum swings too far one way as it did in 2009-2010 in the wake of Obama’s first inauguration, with a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, it is the people who are the main drivers of pushing that pendulum back the other way.  That is exactly what happened in vivid form in the 2010 midterm elections.  The “gridlock” today is the pendulum still in the process of swinging evidenced by the reduced vote counts for Obama in 2012 and the GOP retention of the House.  Assuming the GOP does not again shoot themselves in the foot in certain races, the pendulum will be pushed further in 2014 if Republicans can win the Senate.

In that scenario, one of two things can happen.  Either Obama and the Democrats can earnestly compromise, or they can dig in their heels and risk be labeled the obstructionists, the party of “no,” or be made to look  responsible for congressional gridlock.