The New Key Players in Congress

Elections have consequences.  When the members of Congress change significantly, we expect to see different kinds of policies make it to the President’s desk.  We also expect to see different members of Congress making headlines.  In this post, I predict who the new key players will be in the House and the Senate, based on the election results from last week.  I won’t look at the party leadership, though they are influential.  Rather, I will look at those Congressmen whose position in the political spectrum will potentially make them decisive figures in policy debates over the next two years.

My tool of choice is the DW-NOMINATE score.  Two innovative political scientists, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, came up with this method to rank Congressmen from left to right based on who they’ve voted with over their Congressional careers.  Though no assumptions about political parties have been made in generating these scores, generally the more negative your score, the more liberal your voting record is, and the more positive your score, the more conservative your voting record.

DW-NOMINATE scores are only available as of January of this year, so there are omissions for anyone who came into Congress after January (the most notable being Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts).  I’ve assumed that any incumbents would have the same score this coming Congress as last Congress.  If newly elected officials had previously been a member of Congress (which was the case for several new Senators), I used their most recent score.  For the remaining newly elected officials, in the Senate, I made an educated guess about where they would fall, and in the House, I assumed they would be distributed in the same way as the re-elected incumbents from their party (admittedly a dubious assumption, but one that makes this a lot easier).  For those races that have not been decided, I assumed that the candidate in the lead right now would win.

The House

Predicting outcomes in the House after an election like this comes with a lot of uncertainty because we do not have a voting record on all the new representatives and we do not know how the changing party dynamics in the House will effect individual legislators’ votes.  Here is a look at the distribution of Representatives in the House at the beginning of 2010 (the solid line) and the beginning of 2011, according to my projections (dashed line).

I would not put too much stock in the projected distribution of Republicans above.  Since there were so many new Republicans, and I assumed that they were distributed roughly the same as the incumbent Republicans, the result is relatively more people on the right in a similar distribution as before.  There may be reason to believe that these new Congressmen are actually further to the right than their Republican counterparts because the political atmosphere of the past year leaned to the right.  However, there are also some new representatives in moderate districts that could be further to the left than the Republican incumbents this year.  In either case, we should see changes in the distribution of scores on the Republican side that I could not anticipate here.

The more interesting result is on the left, where there were only 10 representatives to which I could not assign a position, out of almost 200.  It seems that the right flank of the Democratic party in the House has shrunk considerably, while the left flank is largely intact, meaning that moderate and conservative Democrats have been ousted while most liberal Democrats were able to hold onto their seats.  (By moderate Democrat or moderate Republican, I mean middle-of-the-pack among Democrats or Republicans, not moderate in a general sense.)  The space between the right-most Democrat and the left-most Republican has grown larger.  It is historically unusual for there to be no overlap between the right-most Democrats and left-most Republicans, but that has been increasingly the norm this past decade, and it appears that that trend will continue unless a handful of new Republicans end up leaning pretty far to the left.

Political theory suggests that the representatives in the House whose preferences are the most influential in determining policy, other than party leadership and certain powerful committee chairs, are those that are near the median voter.  The basic idea is that, in order to pass a bill through the House, at least the median voter and everyone to his or her left or to his or her right must approve of the bill.  This means that the preferences of the median voter are particularly important in determining which bills pass the House.  Since there are 435 representatives in the House, the median voter is #218 when we list all of the representatives according to their DW-NOMINATE score.  Since there is some error in these estimates and Congressmen will not always align themselves exactly the same way, it’s more informative to look at those Congressmen who are within five or so positions of the median.  At the beginning of this year, the Congressmen in this position and their scores were:

  • 213.  Rick Boucher (D-VA), -0.198
  • 214.  Jim Costa (D-CA), -0.197
  • 215.  Mark Arcuri (D-NY), -0.195
  • 216.  Ike Skelton (D-MO), -0.190
  • 217.  Bill Foster (D-IL), -0.189
  • 218.  Gene Taylor (D-MI), -0.186
  • 219.  Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), -0.185
  • 220.  Michael McMahon (D-NY), -0.180
  • 221.  Henry Cuellar (D-TX), -0.179
  • 222.  Collin Peterson (D-MN), -0.175
  • 223.  Jerry McNerney (D-CA), -0.172

Those are some moderate, maybe even somewhat conservative, Democrats.  There are quite a few Democrats on this list that lost their seats this year.  The following is a list of the projected median voters in the upcoming session of Congress.  Here, as in the graph above, I assume that new Republican Congressmen are distributed in the same way as the Republican incumbents, so some new Republican Congressmen are assumed to be to the left but most to the right of those listed below.  No newly elected representatives are included among those listed here because I do not have a reliable way to estimate new representatives’ DW-NOMINATE scores:

  • 213.  Peter King (R-NY), 0.448
  • 214.  Thad McCotter (R-MI), 0.451
  • 215.  Mike Simpson (R-ID), 0.453
  • 216.  Leonard Lance (R-NJ), 0.455
  • 217.  Frank Wolf (R-VA), 0.457
  • 218.  Bill Young (R-FL), 0.457
  • 219.  Don Young (R-AK), 0.469
  • 220.  Chris Lee (R-NY), 0.474
  • 221.  Vern Buchanan (R-FL), 0.475
  • 222.  Tom Latham (R-IA), 0.478
  • 223.  Glenn Thompson (R-PA), 0.481

Those are all moderate Republicans (defined the way I used it above: middle-of-the-pack for Republicans).  According to their scores, they are more conservative than the Democrats listed above are liberal.  Some could argue that a party being in power has a moderating effect on that party’s members, so these Congressmen may not vote as conservatively as they have previously.  Even if that is true, the relative positions of Congressmen would not change, and which Congressmen are close to the median voter should not change, either.  Therefore, a given policy probably only has a chance to pass the House in this upcoming year if it receives the support of at least a few of the Congressmen listed above.

The Senate

The Senate projections were easier to make with confidence because there were only a few candidates elected to office who had not previously served, and with each of those candidates, it was possible to roughly guess where they would fall ideologically.  Here is a look at the distribution of Senators at the beginning of 2010 (the solid line) and the beginning of 2011, according to my projections (dashed line).  (Note: The bin-sizes and the scale for scores are different in the Senate model, so percentages on these graphs and DW-NOMINATE scores between the two chambers are not directly comparable.)

There was not as much turnover in the Senate as in the House, so the distribution is not drastically different from before, but the changes were consequential.  Some moderate and liberal Democrats are now gone, and some moderate and more conservative Republicans have taken their place.

The median voter is the key player in the House because the House uses a majority-rules system.  The median voter is not significant in the Senate because the filibuster requires 60 votes rather than a majority of 51 to pass legislation.  This means that the 60th member is the key vote in the Senate.  Since Democrats are a majority, the key vote is the 60th member from the left.  Last year, since there were 59 to 60 Democratic Senators, usually the Democrats just needed to secure the votes of all of their own party in order to pass legislation.  This meant bargaining with Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska, or maybe hoping that the Republican Senators from Maine, Sen. Collins or Snowe, would cross party lines.

The next two years will be different.  Democrats need to keep their entire party in line in order to get to 53, so where will the next 7 votes come from?

  • 54.  Olympia Snowe (R-ME), 0.045
  • 55.  Susan Collins (R-ME), 0.068
  • 56.  Scott Brown (R-MA), no score yet but he’s probably around here
  • 57.  Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), 0.249
  • 58.  Richard Lugar (R-IN), 0.254
  • 59.  Orrin Hatch (R-UT), 0.326
  • 60.  Lamar Alexander (R-TN), 0.355

Like with the House, there is some uncertainty here and Senators will not align themselves in exactly the same way for every piece of legislation.  If Reid cannot pull together all the Democrats and the 7 Republicans shown above, he may be able to swing the votes of one or two of the following Senators:

  • 61.  Thad Cochran (R-MS), 0.364
  • 62.  Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), 0.371
  • 63.  Pat Roberts (R-KN), 0.387

In addition, two new Senators, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and former Governor John Hoeven of North Dakota, campaigned like party-line Republicans but may be further to the left as Senators given their backgrounds and constituencies.  Of the new Senators, these two appear to be the most likely to vote for compromise legislation.

In sum, the political landscape will be much different over the next two years.  The Congressmen whose votes are most important in getting legislation to the President’s desk are much further to the right than they used to be.  Let’s put it this way: Lamar Alexander is the new Ben Nelson.  And Harry Reid thought the last two years were tough

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9 Responses to The New Key Players in Congress

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  2. dp says:

    It seems, then, that the next two years is setting up to be quite similar to the period spanning 2004-2006, with the obvious exception of a Democratic president. The historical problem with the Democratic caucus has been maintaining voting discipline, but now that the party doesn’t occupy as wide a policy space as they did prior, I’d like to get your thoughts on whether this will result in greater discipline.

    The set up of a rather conservative House and a moderately Democratic Senate that will continue to be led by Harry Reid seems like a particularly toxic mix, however, because the distance between policy priorities between the two houses of Congress will be farther apart than ever. If the President pursues a conciliatory, limited agenda in semi-cooperation with the consent of Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, et al., then the President’s own caucus may not give him the support he may need to push through fiscal reforms.

  3. Jason Horwitz says:

    dp, I think that’s a good point. I’m not sure how the leadership will find a way to bridge these huge partisan divides. It’s hard to see the Congress of today coming up with some compromise legislation that the 7 Senators listed above and the Democratic majority could all get on board with. I also conspicuously left out the role of parties. How will these 7 or 8 senators’ roles change within their parties, as it would have to if they sign on with Democratic majorities more often?

    I think one of the reasons the divide seemed so large was because the parties did not have to work together. The Democrats could pass legislation without compromising, so they had no real incentive to reach out on certain issues. At the same time, the Republicans were rarely called on to be deciding votes on legislation, so they had no pressure to do much other than oppose. Now, things are different, and Republicans will have to participate in order for legislation to pass, so both sides will have more incentive to compromise on at least some issues. It will be interesting: we have yet to see what a piece of significant legislation hammered out by this Democratic majority and 10 or so Republican Senators would look like, but it’s going to happen at some point….right?

  4. Caleb says:

    This is a great piece. Accepting that the House Republicans are so hard to project, I wonder how long it will take for there to be enough votes from the new House to update this. I know very little about the pace of the House, considering I live in DC…what is a useful n to determine new DW-NOMINATE scores, and how long does it take for that many votes to take place in today’s House? Looking forward to the next installment.

  5. Jason Horwitz says:

    Caleb, When you include all of the little things that the House votes on, they had 987 votes in 2009, which is the most recent year of data included in what’s shown here. Also, note that each score reflects votes over a Congressman’s entire career. Not all Congressmen voted on all measures, and I’m pretty sure that the source I used gives all Congressmen who voted a score, regardless of how many votes they had. I suspect that a new set of scores may be available in January 2011, but I’m not sure how regularly they release these.

    DP, I’ve been thinking about it, and it may just appear that the House and Senate are far apart now because the Democratic majority in the Senate is far from the Republican majority in the House. But the analysis I show here emphasizes that what really matters in the Senate is the 60th vote. The legislation that actually breaks a filibuster in the Senate may not be that far from the legislation that is able to pass a majority in the House. The important divide, then, is not so much the divide between the House Republican majority and Senate Democrat majority, but the divide between moderate Democrats in the Senate on one hand, and conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate on the other.

  6. dp says:

    Looking at the names on the Senate list from 54-63, the divide between 60 (Lamar Alexander) and 61-3 (Cochran, Hutchinson, Roberts) seems to be (by reputation at least) quite stark. That said, there seems to be room to cooperate on foreign policy, as Lugar and Alexander have largely supported (with some caveats) Obama’s foreign policy and staked out positions more moderate than that of the Bush foreign policy team. Domestically, however, it will be extremely difficult to get to 60, given the historical cohesiveness of the recent Republican caucus (to no small extent due to McConnell’s considerable efforts) and the difference in possible equations for 60 on given issues. On economic issues, what President Obama may have to do–as Clinton did in a similar position–is count down from 100–i.e. gain broad Republican support for a proposal and cobble together enough Democratic votes to get something passed. QE2, Obama’s policy preferences, and the willingness or lack thereof of McConnell, Reid, and Obama to come together will determine what gets done on that front.

  7. Jason Horwitz says:

    Another wild card here is the gameplan for freshmen Ayotte and Hoeven. I think that, if they play their cards right, they may find themselves with a significant role in crafting legislation in this session.

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