Polarization Continues Through 2015

The first session of the 114th Congress was slightly more polarized than the 113th Congress. However, what is important about the polarization graph below is the impact of the last three elections 2010, 2012, and 2014, on the Republican Party. The large influx of “Ted Cruz” Republicans has caused polarization to jump sharply from the first two years of President Obama’s first term. Polarization in the House may have leveled off (see below) but the Senate increase is much larger than the House. These results are from our final set of Weekly CS DW-NOMINATE Scores where the House and Senate are scaled together and each unique member of Congress receives a single score on the first and second dimensions.

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The figure below shows the means of the two parties in each Chamber over time. For the most part the Senate means are more to the interior than the House means (the bright blue and bright red lines) but not always. In the last two elections, the Republican caucus in the Senate has become as conservative as the Republican caucus in the House. In contrast, Democratic Senators are clearly more moderate than their House counterparts.

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Given how extreme Republican primary voters have evidently become (the base of the Party), it should be no surprise that a steady movement to the Right by Republicans coupled with the emergence of talk radio and now various social media platforms, that the Presidential nominating process has been “hijacked” by the extremes. In short, we may finally becoming to the end of the polarization that began in the 1970s simply because the Republican Party may fracture in 2016.

No Child Left Behind is Left Behind

On 10 December 2015 President Obama signed a major re-write of the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001. No Child Left Behind had become controversial because of its mandatory standardized testing with aid to school districts tied to the testing results. The Obama administration also wanted to tie incentive pay to teachers based on the testing results. The bill also prohibits the Federal Government from imposing Common Core which is widely opposed by Conservatives and allows States great flexibility in imposing education standards. The new law passed by very large margins in both the House and Senate because it made Democrats and Labor Unions and most Republicans happy.

Only the extreme Conservatives in the House and Senate opposed the Act. In the House there were 64 No votes all from Republicans. Although the PRE is only 0.28 most of the “errors” are close to the cutting line:

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In the Senate there were only 12 No votes, and again, all from Republicans. The PRE is 0.33 and the “errors” are all close to the cutting line:

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The Transportation Bill Finally Passes

Congress finally approved a Transportation Authorization Bill on Thursday, 3 December 2015. The Bill authorizes $305 Billion dollars over a five year period. The $305 Billion would come mostly from the gasoline tax (which has not been raised since 1993) and partly from other “gimmicks” such as raiding the Federal Reserve’s reserve fund. The Bill also authorizes $10 Billion for Amtrak, and it allows Amtrak to pour the profits from the popular Acela Northeast Corridor route back into infrastructure improvements in the corridor (which are very badly needed). The bill also revives the Export-Import Bank and includes a host of other provisions for urban rail transportation and railroad oil tank car safety standards supported by the American Association of Railroads.

Below is the final passage vote in the House. The vote was 350-65 with the 65 “Nays” coming primarily from Conservative Republicans. Nonetheless, the vote has a respectable PRE of 0.32.

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In the Senate the bill passed 83-16 (Sanders (I-DE)) did not vote. Here two Democrats, Warren (D-MA) and Carper (D-DE) voted “Nay” along with 14 mostly Conservative Republicans. Note that the cutting line could be moved slightly to the left and reduce the number of errors from 10 to 7. However, CS DW-NOMINATE is a probabilistic model so that moving the cutting line slightly to the left would result in all the probabilities of the “Yea” voters to become slightly smaller. Optimal Classification would position the cutting line to maximize the correct classification because it is not a probabilistic procedure.

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alpha-NOMINATE on the 114th House (Update)

Update: 3 December 2015. While we await the completion of voting this week we revisit the latest results from alpha-NOMINATE. A multidimensional version of alpha-NOMINATE will be completed within a few months and we will be showing both one and two dimensional results when it is completed.

As we discussed in earlier posts, alpha-NOMINATE is a new form of NOMINATE that is fully Bayesian and is meant to replace W-NOMINATE which is now about 33 years old (the multidimensional version, written by Nolan McCarty and Keith Poole is almost 25 years old). NOMINATE was designed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal during 1982-1983. It used a random utility model with a Gaussian deterministic utility function (see pages 14 – 15 of the linked 1983 paper) and logistic error (random draws from the log of the inverse exponential). The Gaussian deterministic utility function is able to capture non-voting due to indifference and alienation.

Alpha-NOMINATE is a mixture model in which legislators’ utility functions are allowed to be a mixture of the two most commonly assumed utility functions: the quadratic function and the Gaussian function assumed by NOMINATE. The “Alpha” is a parameter estimated by Alpha-NOMINATE that varies from 0 (Quadratic Utility) to 1 (Gaussian Utility). Hence, in one dimension with Alpha = 0, Alpha-NOMINATE is identical to the popular IRT model. Thus Alpha-NOMINATE can actually test whether or not legislators’ utility functions are Quadratic or Gaussian.

Below we apply Alpha-NOMINATE to the 114th House. There have been 643 total votes in the House as of the Thanksgiving recess of which 569 are scalable (at least 2.5% in the minority; that is, votes that are 97-3 to 50-50). We used the R version of Alpha-NOMINATE to perform the analysis. We used 4000 samples from a slice sampler in one dimension with a burn-in of 1000. The first graph shows the Trace and Density plots for alpha.

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The mean of alpha is 0.99987 with a standard deviation of 0.000013 strongly indicating that the Representatives’ utility functions were Gaussian.

Below is a smoothed histogram of the 3000 configurations after burn-in. The divide between Democrats and Republicans is a very deep one.

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Cars, the Federal Reserve, and Refugees

The House this week passed three politically important bills. The first was concerned with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and its attempt to regulate car loans. The second is a bill to reform the Federal Reserve. Finally, the third is aimed at tightening the vetting rules for the large number of refugees that are likely to come to the U.S. within the next two years.

The “Reform/Audit the Fed” bill was preceded by a strong bipartisan vote of 332 – 96 to stop the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau from using statistical discrepancies to punish auto dealer loans. A coalition of Civil Rights organizations strongly opposed the measure. The CFPB is, for all practical purposes, immune to Congressional Control as its budget comes directly out of the budget for the Federal Reserve. As a consequence there is little Congress can do to stop its regulatory actions under divided government. But the CFPB actions against auto dealer loans has struck a nerve since auto dealers are in every Congressional District and the practical effect of the rule will be to raise interest rates for car loans. This vote is shown below:

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Eighty-Eight Democrats voted for the bill and 96 Democrats voted against. The APRE on this roll call is a very respectable 0.57 and the “errors” for the most part are close to the cutting line.

The “Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act of 2015” is basically concerned with forcing the Federal Reserve to use a fixed formula to set interest rates. Republicans, for the most part, are suspicious of the Federal Reserve’s actions in the past few years even though many of them joined with many Democrats to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program near the height of the financial crisis in October of 2008. Republicans almost all opposed the Dodd-Frank Act passed in July 2010. Part of the unease with the Federal Reserve is its policy of near zero interest rates with a balance sheet of $4 Trillion. This has fueled populist attacks from members of both political parties. However, this vote was largely along party lines and will likely not make the 60 vote threshold in the Senate:

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The Third important vote this week was on a bill to tighten the procedures for vetting refugees. In light of the terrorist attack in Paris members of both parties are queasy about letting in large numbers of Syrian refugees. This bill passed by a substantial margin with 42 Democrats voting for it and only 2 Republicans voting against it:

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This vote has a very high PRE of 0.8 and splits the Democratic Party. The chances of its passage by a veto proof majority of 67 in the Senate appear to be remote.

Complicating the issue of the Syrian Refugees and the CFPB vs. the car dealers, is that Congress must pass a bill funding the government by December 11 or there will be yet another Government Shutdown. These two issues are almost certainly going to be put in the funding bill as policy riders and this will trigger a confrontation with President Obama (and likely the Senate Democrats with the 60 vote threshold). Complicating matters is that Speaker Ryan does not trust President Obama and they have had a rocky relationship. Although Speaker Ryan does not want to have a government shutdown he has warned President Obama that he is not afraid to do so over some key issues such as Guantanamo Bay. So, Ho Ho Ho, another exciting Christmas may be ahead!

The Logjam Finally Breaks

With a Budget Deal in place the House was able to pass a new Defense Authorization Bill. Despite President Obama’s objections, the Bill still prohibits any funds being used to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison. President Obama has threatened to use executive powers to close Guantanamo so this issue will drag on for at least another year.

The Defense Authorization vote is shown below. Even though the vote is very lopsided the PRE is still a respectable 0.31 and the second dimension divides the Democrats:

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The long stalled Transportation Bill also passed the House on Thursday. The bill authorizes funding for three years with an addition three years “penciled in”; that is, they have to agree on the addition three years of funding at some point in the next few years. The bill also revives the Export-Import Bank which had expired June 30th. However, the Export-Import Bank is popular with many very powerful businesses such as Boeing and General Electric because it provides loans and guarantees to support U.S. exports. Although it may be “Corporate Welfare” it has broad support in Congress.

The Transportation vote is shown below. The opposition is mainly Republican Conservatives and the PRE is only 0.19:

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Expect more “Christmas Tree Decorations” before the holiday recess.

Speaker Boehner Exits Stage Right

Speaker Boehner kept his promise to make the life of his successor a bit easier by brokering a compromise budget bill that extends the Debt Ceiling until March 2017 and lifts the sequester caps to allow an addition $80 billion in spending on Defense and domestic programs. Although the bill is loaded with many “Christmas Tree Decorations” it should ensure that there is no government shutdown or a major fiscal crisis before the 2016 Presidential Election.

Below we use our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE Scores to show the budget votes in the House and Senate. In both chambers the fit in terms of Aggregate Proportional Reduction in Error (APRE) is reasonably good. Note that the vote splits the Republican Party in each Chamber:

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After the passage of the Budget “Christmas Tree” bill the House then elected Paul Ryan as Speaker. In the vote below 235 Yeas are shown when the actual was 236 Yeas. Speaker Boehner voted for Ryan as his replacement but he had too few votes to be scaled so he does not appear in the count. The 187 vote for Nancy Pelosi consist of 184 votes for her and one vote each for Colin Powell, Cooper (D-TN), and
Lewis (D-GA). The Green “R”s are the die-hard members of the House Freedom Caucus who voted for Webster (R-FL).

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Finally, some good news. Congress extended the deadline for Positive Train Control until the end of 2018 and President Obama signed the extension. This happened just in time (literally) as the Railroads were going to have to begin to curtail service within a few weeks. Now there will be no impact on the economy and we can all have a very Happy and Merry Holiday Season Everyone!