Capitol Hill was not without its big moments in 1998: the House’s impeachment of President Clinton, the resignations of a Speaker and a Speaker-designate, and a mid-October budget deal that many lawmakers found easy to condemn. But, apart from that ”must-pass” spending plan, Congress had few, if any, legislative achievements. Even with suddenly ample federal budget surpluses, the House and Senate were unable to complete a budget resolution for the first time since the annual process began in 1975, or to approve the tax cut that Republicans so greatly desired. Clinton’s call for a national tobacco deal died a slow death. And seemingly modest health care legislation floundered.
Despite their limited productivity, however, members of Congress cast a sufficient number of votes to show their ideological stripes. National Journal’s annual congressional vote ratings for 1998 showed that because of the Republicans’ relatively narrow majorities in the House and Senate, shifting coalitions shaped by Democratic and GOP centrists continued to determine the outcome of key legislative initiatives and the success of both parties’ leadership strategies. Those patterns are likely to be seen again in the new 106th Congress, which convened this month and has hardly changed in its partisan balances.
At the center of the House are the ”Blue Dogs” and the ”Lunch Bunch.” Seven of the eight Democrats whose 1998 vote ratings placed them in the more-conservative half of the House belonged to the Blue Dogs, the group of predominantly Southern Democrats who emphasize their independence from party leaders. On the other side of the aisle, 15 of 16 Republicans with liberal- leaning composite vote ratings scores were members of the more- informal Lunch Bunch group of GOP moderates, mostly from the East and Midwest. Although these groups are exceptions to the House’s continuing pattern of sharp partisan divisions, their influence is likely to increase, especially if the two parties are serious about getting anything done.
The Senate, by contrast, featured few examples of partisan independence. No Democrats had total scores that placed them among the 50 most-conservative Senators. The only Republican who strayed significantly toward the liberal end of the ideological spectrum was James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who chairs the recently renamed Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
The vote ratings also reveal that the strongest conservatives are relatively junior Republicans. In the House, all but one of the 10 members with the highest conservative scores were first elected in 1994 or 1996. Likewise, all six of the GOP Senators with perfect conservative scores began their service after 1990. The two top party leaders—new House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi—also had strongly conservative scores. But several senior committee leaders were close to the center, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R- N.M., Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr., R- Del., and Reps. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla., and William M. Thomas, R-Calif., who both chair key House Ways and Means subcommittees.
Among Democrats, the perfect-liberal title was shared by four lawmakers who also were first elected in the 1990s: Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Reps. Elizabeth Furse of Oregon, John W. Olver of Massachusetts, and Melvin Watt of North Carolina. In contrast, the two Minority Leaders—Sen. Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri—placed close to the ideological middle of their party ranks.
Those results are some highlights of National Journal’s congressional vote ratings for 1998. The scores, which have been produced since 1981, show where lawmakers rank relative to one another in both the Senate and the House on a liberal-to- conservative scale in each of three issue categories: economic, social, and foreign. Unlike ratings prepared by interest groups or other news organizations, these scores do not determine what is a ”correct” (or ”incorrect”) vote.
The scores are determined by a computer-assisted calculation that ranks the members ideologically on key votes selected by National Journal reporters and editors. The results show, for example, that Gephardt had a liberal score of 69 and a conservative score of 31 on social policy. That means he voted more liberal than 69 percent of House members on those key issues and more conservative than the other 31 percent. On economic issues, Gephardt’s liberal score of 79 and conservative score of 0 show that he tied with 21 percent of his House colleagues for the most-liberal rating.
* For an explanation of how the vote ratings are calculated, see box, p. 186.
* A list of the Senate and House roll-call votes that were used to determine the ratings begins on p. 187.
* Ratings for Senators begin on p. 190, and ratings for House members begin on p. 194.
* An explanation of how to determine a lawmaker’s composite score, plus a chart listing the most-conservative and most-liberal members of Congress and the centrists, based on the composite scores, appears on pp. 184-85. The House Ratings
In the turbulent House, one striking feature of the ratings is the growing regional fractures among Republicans. Of the 16 Republicans who ranked in the more-liberal half of the House, 10 were from the East. By contrast, 18 of the 30 most- conservative Republicans were from the South. As a group, House GOP members from the East had an average composite score of 40 on the liberal scale, which is twice the comparable rating for the House’s larger corps of Southern Republicans. The divergence between the regions was strongest on social issues and narrowest on foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the Republicans’ recent leadership shifts produced some moderation at the top of their ranks. New Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma and new National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia have more-centrist ratings than the two members whom they ousted in November: John Boehner of Ohio and John Linder of Georgia. Interestingly, Watts and Davis rank among the GOP’s least-conservative Southerners. The Republicans’ disappointing five-seat loss in last November’s election, combined with the cooling of the revolutionary ardor fomented by their 1994 Contract With America under the leadership of now- departed Speaker Newt Gingrich, may accelerate those shifts.
Among Democrats, the scores reveal that members from the West—many of whom are from California—tended to be the most liberal. Of the 12 members with the most-liberal composite score, eight are Westerners. The computer analysis shows that liberal scores among Westerners, as a group, were particularly strong on social and foreign policy issues.
The Democrats’ conservative flank, not surprisingly, consisted mostly of Southerners, but a healthy number of Midwesterners also are joining their ranks. Two factors account for that trend: the election in the South of more blacks, most of whom are relatively liberal, plus the movement of some Midwestern Democrats toward the center. Of the eight Democrats whose scores placed them in the more- conservative half of the House, four were from the Midwest and four from the South.
As was the case in the 1997 vote ratings, Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas was the most-conservative Democrat and Rep. Constance A. Morella of Maryland was the most-liberal Republican. Hall’s scores have moved him into the top 20 percent of most- conservative members, and he had nearly perfect conservative scores on both social and foreign policy issues. Morella, whose liberal rating was highest on social issues, had overall scores that fit comfortably with those of Eastern Democrats. Among Republicans, Rep. Amory Houghton Jr. of New York ran close to Morella in his scores.
If you are looking for the House’s weather vanes, check out the four moderate Republicans whose separate ratings and composite scores placed them at the precise center of the House: Reps. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, Rick A. Lazio of New York, Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, and Marg e Roukema of New Jersey. It’s a safe bet that not much important legislation will pass the House next year without their support. The Senate Ratings
Regional patterns fell along predictable lines in the Senate. The East had both the most-liberal Democrats, as a group, and the most-liberal Republicans. The South, likewise, was the most-conservative region among both Democrats and Republicans.
As those outcomes indicate, the regional breakdown among Senate Republicans was similar to the House GOP pattern. The four most-liberal Senate Republicans—John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Jeffords—were all from the East. Of the six Republicans with perfect conservative scores, four were from the South: Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. The other two were John D. Ashcroft of Missouri and Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire. (D’Amato and Faircloth were defeated for re-election in November.)
In contrast to 1997, when three Easterners—Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York—ranked among the five most- conservative Senate Democrats, 1998 was a return to form, with the four most-conservative Democrats all from the South. Topping that group was Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who survived a vigorous re-election challenge. His composite score placed him at the center point of the Senate, along with Republicans Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska.
The Senate ratings also show some notable trends among party leaders. While Lott and Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma continue to rank among the most-conservative Republicans, GOP Conference Chairman Connie Mack III of Florida has moved markedly toward the political center. Among Democrats, the new Minority Whip, Harry M. Reid of Nevada, was among the most-conservative Democrats, as was the retired Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky, whom Reid replaced in that leadership post.
If and when Congress takes up serious legislative business this year, those Senate centrists and their House counterparts could play important roles, both in smoothing their own parties’ rough edges and in reaching across the aisle. For now, at least, those prospective consensus builders face formidable challenges.