Some familiar House members are striking out on different paths from those of their parties with regularity this Congress.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, voted against his party’s majority more than any other House member over the first three months of the 113th Congress. In 86 roll-call votes analyzed by National Journal Daily, Matheson voted against most other House Democrats 36 times, or in 42 percent of his votes. Libertarian-minded Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., was the most frequent dissenter from the GOP party line. He voted against most House Republicans in 27 votes, or 31 percent of the time.
Eleven Democrats have voted against their party at least 15 times so far this year, while 10 Republicans have voted against their majorities at least 17 times. The average House member has split from his or her party seven times to date in the 113th Congress.
The most nonconformist House Democrats typically represent battleground districts. Matheson, who won reelection by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2012 as Utahans flocked to the polls to vote for Mitt Romney, and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota (27 votes against the majority of Democrats) represent rare Democratic-held seats that consistently vote Republican for president, as do Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber of Arizona. The latter two seats, along with those of Reps. Bill Owens and Dan Maffei of New York and freshman Scott Peters of California, have switched partisan hands within the last six years—some more than once.
Among the reasons Matheson has been able to stay in office in Republican territory—Romney won about two-thirds of the vote in his district last year—is that he can tout a voting record that doesn’t fit a party mold. In 2013, he has voted with and against both parties about equally. “I don’t vote with or against a party,” said Matheson, who aired TV ads promoting GOP endorsements last year while Republicans hit him for votes aligned with President Obama. “I’ve made that clear and that's what my constituents see.”
About half of the Republicans on the list hail from similar territory. GOP Reps. Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna of New York and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania represent seats that have flipped twice in the last six years, while Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s New Jersey seat has been more secure, though it is definitely battleground territory. All won reelection fairly comfortably in 2012; Gibson fought off a major Democratic push in a district Obama carried to win by 6 percentage points in the closest of those races.
Many of their rationales for vote-splitting align with Matheson’s. Gibson was the most liberal House Republican in 2012, according to National Journal’s annual vote ratings. “I’m bringing the kind of representation that upstate communities are looking for,” Gibson said in a February interview. “I don’t accept false choices.”
Another group of top GOP dissenters represent solidly conservative districts and usually split from their party from the right when they vote against the GOP majority. Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, for example, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last week that he would oppose the House Republican budget proposal (one of 19 votes he’s taken against most Republicans) because, in his estimation, the plan did not cut spending or balance the budget quickly enough.
Peters, the only first-termer in the group of most frequent Democratic dissenters, is part of the bipartisan freshmen United Solutions Caucus, which meets to try and translate the dissatisfaction their voters voiced during the campaign into bipartisan action. He said many of the new members feel emboldened to buck their parties.
"We know we're going to have to step out and vote against leadership when that signal needs to be sent," Peters said. He voted against every budget proposal that came to the House floor last week because he didn't see a moderate option available. "I urged Republicans and Democrats to do the same thing," Peters said, "and send a message to leadership to be realistic."
This article appears in the March 29, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.