Every year for the past 19 years, National Journal has analyzed the votes of House members and Senators. And every year, at least one pattern was fairly predictable: Most Democrats would be on the left, most Republicans would be on the right, and centrists from both parties would be intermingled in the middle. Last year was different. In the Senate, for the
first time since National Journal began compiling the vote ratings in 1981, every Democrat had an average score that was to the left of the most-liberal Republican’s. (Or, depending on your perspective, every Republican was to the right of the most-conservative Democrat.)
By contrast, the Senate in recent years featured a middle cluster drawn from both parties. In 1998, for example, a cadre of 13 Senators ranged from most-conservative Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana on the right to most-liberal Republican James M. Jeffords of Vermont on the left of that group. Likewise, there were groups of 17 bipartisan centrists in 1995 and 1997, and 10 in 1996. But in 1999, such commingling was gone.
In the House, only two Republicans-Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York and Constance A. Morella of Maryland-were in that chamber’s more-liberal half on each of the three issue areas considered in the ratings. And only two Democrats-Virgil H. Goode of Virginia and Ralph M. Hall of Texas-ranked in the more-conservative half of the House in each issue area. (And, of course, Goode switched his party affiliation to independent on Jan. 24.) This is the fewest in vote-ratings history.
The findings help explain why so little got done in Congress last year. During 1999, legislative deal-making became a lost art, votes were cast to highlight partisan political differences, and polarization ruled.
In post-impeachment Washington, the Republican majority in Congress and President Clinton rarely extended their hands to each other. Clinton summarily vetoed the GOP tax cut package, and efforts to find consensus on Social Security and Medicare reforms never reached first base. Each chamber debated patients’ rights and gun control/juvenile justice proposals and sent legislation to House-Senate conference committees, where prospects for agreement within Congress and with Clinton remain dim. Likewise, the Kosovo conflict, the year’s major foreign policy event, generated plenty of heat and little common ground.
"The long-awaited realignment of Congress has taken place," said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), who assisted for many years in preparing these ratings. "The middle ground has fallen out… . Congressional politics are more polarized than ever. It will be extraordinarily difficult for whoever is the next President to re-establish bipartisanship."
For their part, the top House and Senate leaders didn’t exactly practice moderation. Each clearly spent more time preaching to his party’s true believers rather than reaching across the aisle. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, ranked in the top 20 percent of conservatives in their respective chambers. Similarly, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., were in the top fifth of liberal lawmakers. None of the top leaders, however, were at the outer edge of their party’s ideological extreme. House GOP leaders particularly sought to smooth their own rough edges.
There were, as always, a few lawmakers who struggled to create a centrist coalition. But the efforts of this muddled middle were mostly in vain. In the Senate, this group consisted of several junior members who have objected to the chamber’s partisan excesses. They included such Democrats as freshman Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and such Republicans as Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Olympia Snowe of Maine, both of whom are in their first term.
In the House, the several dozen centrists featured more-veteran members. Among them were Republican committee Chairmen Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, and Jim Leach of Iowa, and senior Democrats Ike Skelton of Missouri and Charles W. Stenholm of Texas.
Interestingly, the ratings show that the lawmakers in the middle of the House and Senate came chiefly from the geographic center of the nation. By contrast, the legislative purists tended to come from the East or West Coast. In the Senate, the three Democrats with perfect liberal scores were Barbara Boxer of California, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland. Of the nine House Democrats with perfect liberal scores, four were from the Los Angeles area and three were from East Coast cities. The sole Republican in Congress to have a perfect conservative score was Rep. Wally Herger of Northern California. The most-conservative Senator was Phil Gramm of Texas.
These results are some of the highlights of National Journal’s vote ratings for 1999. The scores show where lawmakers rank relative to one another in the Senate and the House on a liberal-to-conservative scale in each of three categories: economic, social, and foreign. The scores are determined by a computer-assisted calculation that ranks the members from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other on key votes-74 in the House and 50 in the Senate-selected by National Journal reporters and editors. Unlike ratings produced by interest groups, these scores do not dictate what is a "correct" vote.
The results show, for example, that on economic issues, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., had a liberal score of 89 and a conservative score of 0. This means that on economic issues he was more liberal than 89 percent of other House members and more conservative than 0 percent of other House members. By examining both numbers, you can see that Dingell was tied with 11 percent of House members on the liberal rating, and that 89 was the highest possible score for a liberal on economic issues last year. On social issues, by contrast, Dingell’s liberal score was 63 and his conservative score was 37, placing him toward the center of the House.
* For charts listing the most-conservative and most-liberal lawmakers and the centrists, and for an explanation of how to determine a lawmaker’s composite score, see box, pp. 384-85.
* For a detailed explanation of how the vote ratings are calculated, see box, p. 386
A list of the Senate and House votes that were used to determine the ratings begins on p. 387.
* Ratings for Senators begin on p. 390, and ratings for House members begin on p. 394.
The House’s most-conservative Republicans tended to be relatively junior Southerners. Of the 14 members (including Herger) who had perfect conservative scores in at least two of the three issue categories, 10 were from the South. Eight of them were first elected in 1994, and the others were more-senior and hold key positions-including Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, Appropriations subcommittee Chairmen Ron Packard, R-Calif., and Charles Taylor, R-N.C., and Commerce subcommittee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas.
Interestingly, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis of Virginia-who shares the distinction with Watts of having ousted an incumbent to win a GOP leadership position a year ago-ranked among the most-moderate Republicans.
Among House Democrats, the most consistent liberals were also relatively junior. Of these nine members, all but three began serving after 1992. Six of the group are African-American and two are Hispanic. As a group, Western Democrats averaged the highest liberal score on social issues.
Last year’s voting patterns in the House accentuated trends of recent years: Of the 12 Republicans whose composite scores leaned liberal, nine hailed from the East; last year as in 1998, the most-liberal member was Morella. Of the 11 Democrats whose composite scores placed them in the conservative half of the House, nine were from the South.
As a group, the 38 Eastern Republicans had an average liberal score nearly twice that of the remaining House Republicans; those distinctions were most pronounced on economic issues. There was, however, a relatively small gap between the average conservative scores of Democrats from the South and those from the Midwest. This closeness was because of the many Southern Democrats-mostly African-Americans-who have more-liberal voting records. The Southern Democrats were the most conservative on social issues.
Included in the two swing groups was Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York, a Republican who became a Democrat last July. He continued his pattern of 1998 that placed him near the center of the House in each of the three issue categories.
And Goode’s 1999 voting record gave clear signals that he was more ideologically comfortable with House Republicans. Goode had a perfect conservative score on foreign policy issues and a composite rating that not only placed him far to the right of even Hall, who has often ranked as the most-conservative House Democrat, but also to the right of Armey.
The members whose scores placed them precisely at the center of the House in 1999 were Reps. Chris John, D-La., William Lipinski, D-Ill., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn. Despite their apparent like-mindedness, it is difficult to recall any legislative issues on which they have worked with one another.
As in the House, in the Senate the most-ardent conservatives tended to be Southern and relatively junior. Of the 12 with the highest conservative scores, six were from the South and only two were committee chairmen-Gramm and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Aside from Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., all of the others have begun their Senate terms since the 1990 election.
The Republican renegades most likely to build bipartisan coalitions came from two groups: several from the East, whose views are more moderate and who typically have been inclined to seek bipartisanship, and a handful of first-termers who fear the adversarial tactics of Senate leaders and committee chairmen could prove costly at election time. The only Republicans with a liberal score in each of the three issue areas were Jeffords and Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, who died in October.
In addition, two of the Senate Republicans who have made presidential bids fell surprisingly close to the center. John McCain, R-Ariz., was relatively conservative on economic issues, but close to the center on foreign policy, as shown by his support for U.S. military intervention in Kosovo last year. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, was close to the Senate’s center on both economic and foreign policy issues, which may reflect the pragmatic tone he took before abandoning his presidential bid recently. (Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who last year abandoned but then rejoined the GOP amid his unsuccessful presidential candidacy, was among the most-conservative Senators.)
The most-conservative Democratic Senators featured a potpourri that included-in addition to newcomers Bayh and Lincoln-Chief Deputy Minority Whip Breaux, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, and ex-party leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. The scores for those five were strikingly similar: slightly to the left of center in each of the three issue areas. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who had the most-conservative scores for Senate Democrats in 1998 (when he was up for re-election), moved toward the left in 1999.
The most-liberal Democrats included both senior and junior Senators. The results also showed that the 13 Democrats from the East narrowly led the 10 Senators from the West as the most-liberal bloc in their average scores. The regional differences between Senate Democrats, and between House Democrats as well, have been diminishing.
As they entered the new year, lawmakers across Capitol Hill were seeking opportunities for deal-making. But the evidence makes it hard to believe that these 535 members will engage in productive, and long-lasting, searches for consensus.
Richard E. Cohen National Journal