The legislative agenda and the legislative output moved toward the political center this year. But the voting patterns were as strongly partisan as ever.
Compromise became the predominant motif as party leaders and most Members of Congress decided that they needed to show the voters before the November elections that they could enact popular measures. Nevertheless, lawmakers’ over-all voting patterns this year weren’t too different from those in the highly contentious 1995 session, according to National Journal’s annual congressional vote ratings.
In both the House and the Senate, Members divided mostly along party lines, an analysis of their vote ratings reveals. This was especially true on economic issues, where only a handful of Republicans had ratings that were more liberal than those of the most conservative Democrats. In neither chamber did a single Republican rank among the 40 per cent of Members at the liberal end of the scale on economic issues. Likewise, no Democrat in either chamber had an economic score that would have put him or her among the 40 per cent at the conservative end of the scale.
On other kinds of issues, the partisan patterns were less clear-cut. In the House, in particular, eastern Republicans leaned noticeably to the left of their party colleagues on social issues and southern Democrats were more conservative than others in their party on foreign policy and national security issues. A similar softening of partisanship could be found among eastern Republicans and southern Democrats in the Senate.
The vote ratings point up some interesting contrasts with the lockstep pattern that often prevailed in 1995, when the House GOP’s Contract With America dominated the debate. There was, for example, less polarization among House Republicans this year than last, when 115 of the 235 House Republicans voted in unison on all 22 key economic votes; this year, only 79 House Republicans voted together on every key economic roll call.
But the move toward the political center this year provided little comfort or benefit to the year’s biggest political losers. Of the 18 House Republicans who were defeated for reelection, 12 had composite ratings for all three issue areas (economic, social and foreign policy) that placed them among the least conservative Republicans; 7 of the 12, in turn, ranked further left along the House’s ideological spectrum than they did a year earlier.
The departure of Members who didn’t seek reelection this year appears likely to enlarge the partisan divide. In the Senate, all five retiring Republicans ranked among the most liberal third of their party. And of the six Democrats ranked in the more conservative half of the House, three are retiring.
Those are some of the highlights of the 1996 vote ratings. The scores, which have been compiled annually since 1981, were based on 103 key roll-call votes, 47 in the Senate and 56 in the House. Following the selection of the key votes by a panel of National Journal reporters and editors, a computer- assisted tabulation ranked Members from most conservative to most liberal in each of the three issue categories.
The scores show where each Member stood in 1996 relative to his or her Senate or House colleagues. They are not structured like many other congressional vote ratings, which are determined by a percentage of ”correct” liberal or conservative positions on key issues.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., for example, had a liberal score of 70 and a conservative score of 27 on economic issues. That means that he was more liberal on such issues than 70 per cent of his Senate colleagues, more conservative than 27 per cent of his colleagues and tied with the remaining 2 per cent. (For a fuller description of the ratings system, see box, p. 2684. For a description of the 103 key roll- call votes on which the ratings are based, see pp. 2685-87. Senate and House Members’ scores are listed in tables beginning on p. 2688.)
By providing separate scores for the three issue areas, the ratings display the differences in Members’ voting patterns in each category. Although two Members might have similar composite scores when the three ratings are combined, their scores in each issue area often differ markedly.
In the 1996 ratings, for example, Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, the chairman of the International Relations Committee, and Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, the panel’s ranking Democrat, had composite scores that placed each near the midpoint of the House. But, as the following scores on the conservative scale show, Hamilton was more conservative on social issues, Gilman was more conservative on foreign policy issues and the two had nearly identical scores on economic policy.
Economic Social Foreign Gilman 45 29 72 Hamilton 43 58 40
Many Members may have cast a greater share of ”liberal” votes this year than they did in 1995, but their vote ratings weren’t necessarily any more liberal. That’s because the ratings are based on Members’ standing in relation to their colleagues, and both the House and the Senate moved somewhat to the left this year, especially on such economic issues as health care reform and a minimum-wage increase. In any case, House and Senate membership did not change much from 1995 to 1996; therefore, Members were compared with virtually the same colleagues this year as last. (For an explanation of the composite scores, and a list of Congress’s most-conservative and liberal Members in 1996, see box, p. 2683.) HOUSE RATINGS
In the House, southern Republicans and western Democrats set the ideological extremes. As a group, the GOP’s southerners had the most conservative average scores on social and foreign policy issues; on economic issues, western Republicans as a group were slightly more conservative than the southerners. In each category, western Democrats had the most liberal average regional scores.
Among Republicans, the party’s regional schism was most evident on social issues, where the average liberal score for the easterners was 47, nearly at the midpoint for the House, and the score for southerners was 17. On foreign policy, the eastern Republicans’ average score of 33 was closer to the party’s over- all rating on that issue than their average economic and social scores were to the GOP’s over-all scores in those issue areas.
These patterns were mirrored by individual Republicans at the ends of the philosophical spectrum. Of the 14 Republicans with perfect conservative scores in all three issue areas, 8 were from the South. The only repeaters from 1995 in this category were two members of the party leadership: Majority Whip Tom D. DeLay of Texas and Policy Committee chairman C. Christopher Cox of California. But the other Republican leaders also rated high on the conservative scale. (For a report on the 1995 ratings, see NJ, 1/27/96, p. 179.)
At the other end of the scale, of the eight Republicans with liberal-leaning scores in each of the three issue areas, six were from the East and two from the Midwest. Constance A. Morella of Maryland, with a composite liberal score of 74, was the most liberal Republican. No House Republican had a perfect liberal score in any issue area, nor did any Democrat have a perfect conservative rating in any category (the same was true in the Senate).
Among House Democrats, the average conservative scores for southern Members were several points higher on economic and foreign policy issues than those for Members from any other region. But midwestern Democrats edged out their southern colleagues for the most conservative regional rating on social issues.
The 19 Democrats with perfect liberal scores included six from California and five from New York. Also in that group were nine members of the Congressional Black Caucus. There were four repeaters from last year’s list of those with perfect liberal scores.
All six Democrats whose composite scores leaned conservative were from the South. Ralph M. Hall of Texas was the most conservative Democrat, with a composite conservative score of 65. Like the GOP’s Morella, Hall was also the Member most out of step with his party in 1995.
Unlike their Republican counterparts, Democratic leaders had scores that fell in the center of their party’s ratings. With a composite liberal score of 76, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., was at virtually the midpoint of the ratings for all House Democrats.
Republican Gilman of New York had a composite score— 50.0—that placed him precisely at the center of the House. Slightly above and below the center were several other moderate Republicans: Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, Fred Upton of Michigan, Steve Horn of California and Jon D. Fox of Pennsylvania. SENATE RATINGS
The partisan lines in the Senate, were, if anything, more visible than in the House. Not a single Democrat fell among the 40 per cent of the Senate ranked as most conservative in any of the three issue areas. And only two Republicans placed among the 40 most liberal Senators on social and foreign policy.
Of the 50 Senators whose composite scores put them in the conservative half of the chamber, only one—John B. Breaux of Louisiana—was a Democrat. In fact, Breaux’s score in each of the three issue areas, as well as his composite score, was at the Senate’s center. Breaux’s legislative work has increasingly made him the Senate’s man in the middle. Minority Leader Daschle tapped Breaux to be the party’s chief deputy whip, and the Louisianan is also a confidant of Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Three of the next four most-conservative Democrats are retiring: Howell T. Heflin of Alabama, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Sam Nunn of Georgia. The other Democrat whose composite rating put him at the Senate’s center was Minority Whip Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky.
Senate Republicans with composite scores that leaned toward the liberal side were James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, who is retiring, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Jeffords, who had the most liberal over-all score in his party, was also the only Republican who leaned liberal in all three issue areas.
The Republicans with the most conservative records figure prominently in the party’s new leadership ranks. Among the top six were Conference secretary Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Policy Committee chairman Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma. Majority Leader Lott wasn’t far behind. Coverdell and Nickles were also among the Senators with perfect conservative scores, along with Phil Gramm of Texas and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma. Interestingly, William S. Cohen, R-Maine, President Clinton’s Defense Secretary-designate, was more conservative than 70 of his fellow Senators this year on foreign policy issues.
Each of the dozen Republicans with the most conservative composite scores was from the South or West. Robert Dole of Kansas—who resigned in June to pursue his presidential candidacy—and Sheila Frahm, his appointed successor, would have placed among those most conservative Senators, but each failed to participate in a majority of votes in at least one category.
At the other end of the Senate spectrum, no Democrat had perfect liberal scores in all three areas. Patty Murray of Washington, who cast a single conservative vote on social policy, had the most liberal composite score. Of the 10 Senators with the next most liberal composite scores, five were from the Midwest, four from the East and one—Dale Bumpers of Arkansas—from the South.
As a group, eastern Democrats had the highest average liberal score on economic and social issues and narrowly trailed the party’s midwesterners on foreign policy votes. The widest regional splits between Senate Democrats came on social policy, where southerners had their highest average conservative score.
Among Republicans, southerners had the highest average conservative rating on economic and foreign policy issues and narrowly trailed midwestern Republicans on social issues. Republicans from the East were the least conservative in each area. Internal Republican differences were the greatest on economic issues and the slimmest on foreign policy.
The 105th Congress, which convenes next month, is constituted along lines similar to those of the departing 104th. So it’s a good bet that the over-all picture will be similar next year. But the many new faces in each chamber make it likely that there’ll be considerable change in the way individual Members vote on specific bills. Descriptions of key votes follow on pp. 2685-87. Senate scores are on pp. 2688-89. House scores are on pp. 2690-99.