The Clock Keeps Ticking

(Revised 27 October 2015, it looks as if a deal is in the works to settle all the issues discussed below in one fell swoop. Also, graph updated to show some of the members of the House.)

The United States Government seems to be careening towards multiple crises that include a Government shutdown, a shutdown of the Railroad system, and a Debt Ceiling bill that appears to be in jeopardy. First, the current Continuing Resolution runs out on December 11. Second, the debt ceiling must be raised by 3 November. Third, Congress has failed to pass a Transportation Bill that includes a delay the Positive Train Control mandate. This must be passed soon because the railroads cannot operate without the delay and they will begin the process of shutting down their systems in November. Fourth, given President Obama’s certain veto of the Defense Authorization Bill, that bill will have to re-worked quickly given conditions in the Middle East.

So, given all these urgent matters what does the House do this week? It passes a Reconciliation Bill to de-fund the Affordable Care Act knowing that President Obama will veto it. The problem is that the Republican Caucus in the House is badly split between the 40-45 members of the Freedom Caucus and the remaining 200 or so Republicans. Using our Weekly Common Space DW-NOMINATE Scores, below we show smoothed histograms of the Democrats and the two Republican Parties in the House. Note that the area under the curves adds to 1.
Click image to enlarge

The House Freedom Caucus is concentrated on the far Right of the Republican Party and has enough votes to prevent the Republicans from passing bills with 218 votes without assistance from the Democrats. Speaker Boehner was forced out by this group because he was willing to violate the “Hastert Rule” — that is, put bills on the floor that a majority of Republicans oppose. The House Freedom Caucus is demanding that the Hastert Rule be enforced by Paul Ryan. In effect this will lead to gridlock and give the HFC veto power over controversial legislation (many Republicans are afraid to challenge the far Right for fear of Primary challenges, hence the veto power).

Speaker Boehner threw some red meat to the HFC by passing a Reconciliation bill that defunds most of the Affordable Care Act. This vote is shown below:

Click image to enlarge

This is a pointless exercise because, even if it gets through the Senate, President Obama will veto the bill. Indeed, Senators Rubio, Cruz, and Lee will vote against the bill in the Senate because they feel it does not go far enough in the defunding of the ACA.

The current state of affairs in Congress is such that it risks a true train-wreck both literally and figuratively. Unless Speaker Boehner can pull some rabbits out of his hat before he leaves at the end of this coming week these unresolved bills could produce the most serious crisis since 2011.

Alpha-NOMINATE Applied to the 113th Senate

While we await for the Republicans to decide who will be their candidate for Speaker, it is instructive to look back at the 113th Senate with our new alpha-NOMINATE procedure. Recall that Alpha-NOMINATE is a new form of NOMINATE that is fully Bayesian and is meant to replace W-NOMINATE which is now about 32 years old (the multidimensional version, written by Nolan McCarty and Keith Poole is 24 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 113th Senate. There were 657 total votes in the 113th of which 552 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 3000 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.

Click image to enlarge

The mean of Alpha is 0.9981 with a standard deviation of 0.0018 strongly indicating that the Senators’ utility functions were Gaussian.

The next plot shows the estimated ideal points for the 105 Senators who served during the 113th along with their 95% Credible Intervals. On the left, Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is located at -2.74 off the left edge of the plot. Near the right end are Presidential candidates Ted Cruz (R-TX) at 1.608 Rand Paul (R-KY) at 1.453. Lindsey Graham is near the left edge of the Republican Party at 1.011.

Click image to enlarge

There were very few moderates in the 113th Senate. Only Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) are between the two parties. Moderation is in short supply in both the Senate and the House. No wonder Republicans are finding it difficult to find someone to be Speaker.

Defense Authorization, the Sequester, and Guantanamo

This week the Senate passed the Defense Authorization Bill by a vote of 70 – 27. The bill earlier passed the House by a vote of 270 -156. Normally the Military Authorization bill is not a serious bone of contention between the parties and Congress versus the President. This time may be different. The bill contains a number of provisions that in less polarized times would be very popular: a pay raise for military personnel, reforms to the weapons acquisition systems, and better protections for sexual assault victims. But the bill also increases the budget by $38 billion by placing those funds in “overseas contingency funds”. These contingency funds are not counted against the budget caps thereby avoiding the Sequester limits. President Obama has threatened a veto over this because he wants the caps lifted on domestic spending as well. Complicating matters further, President Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison. But the Defense Authorization bill has a rider that
prohibits the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Prison and the transfer of the detainees to the United States homeland.

Below we show, using our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE scores, the vote in the Senate on the Defense Authorization bill:

Click image to enlarge

The two Republicans who voted No are Cruz (R-TX) and Paul (R-TX) both of who are running for President.

Even though 70 votes in the Senate is enough to override a veto not all of the Senate Democrats will vote to override and President Obama’s veto will be sustained.

The votes do not exist in the House to override a veto in any event. Although the bill passed in the House by a vote of 270 – 156 there are not enough Democrats who will vote with the Republicans to override the President.

Click image to enlarge

So, yet again, we have yet another funding “crisis” looming. The temporary Continuing Resolution runs out on December 11. With the turmoil within the Republican Caucus things could get very ugly within weeks.

In addition, the doomsday clock continues to tick down: PTC Countdown Clock.

Speaker Paul Ryan?

Below we update a previous post in light of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) decision to drop out of the race for Speaker. We use Common Space DW-NOMINATE scores (updated weekly here) to plot the ideological positions of current and past House Republicans. Common Space DW-NOMINATE scores provide a summary measure of legislators’ liberal-conservative locations based on their entire roll call voting records, and allow for direct ideological comparisons between members of Congress across time.

The plot below shows McCarthy is actually slightly less conservative than both Speaker Boehner and former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was defeated last year in a primary challenge. Republicans such as Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Steve Scalise (R-LA) (who was set to run for House Majority Leader before McCarthy’s announcement) appear to be more ideologically in tune with the current House Republican caucus. Other Republicans who are considering running for the Speaker post—such as Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jeb Hensarling (R-TX)—have bonafide conservative positions, but are probably too far to the right to attract much support outside of the Freedom Caucus.

Click image to enlarge

Funding the Government Through December 11 (and updates on previous posts)

Below we show, using our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE scores, the votes on the Continuing Resolution to continue funding for the Federal Government through December 11. Sizable blocs in the House and Senate Republican Parties voted against the Continuing Resolution even though it only runs to December 11. In the House, 91 Republicans voted for the CR whereas 151 voted against:

Click image to enlarge

In the Senate the Republicans split 32 for the CR with 20 against it (Rubio and Graham did not vote):

Click image to enlarge

Although a shutdown of the Federal Government is temporarily averted it will be difficult for the Republicans to pass a permanent spending bill before December. Indeed, President Obama announced that he will not sign another short term measure. Adding to the crisis is the fact that the Debt Ceiling must be raised by November 5th. President Obama will not negotiate over raising the Debt Ceiling. Complicating matters even further the House voted to increase the Defense Budget beyond the Sequester Deal caps. President Obama will veto the Defense bill if the Sequester caps are not lifted on domestic spending as well. This vote is shown below:

Click image to enlarge

Note that on all three votes shown above the second dimension plays a role. Although Congress is nearly one-dimensional liberal-conservative, enough stress has built up to clearly divide the Republican Party on many issues. Last week we discussed the race to replace Speaker Boehner. Kevin McCarthy seemed to be a sure bet until is comments about the Benghazi Select Committee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This boneheaded unforced error has lead to speculation that Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) might run against McCarthy (Chaffetz is located at 0.667 while McCarthy is located at 0.459).

Also, not only is there a threat that the Federal Government could shut down, as we discussed in August the entire railroad system could shut down if Congress does not deal with the problem of Positive Train Control. The Railroad industry is in a state of alarm over this with The Association of American Railroads prominently displaying a countdown clock until an industry shutdown. As we noted in that post, this would be far more serious than a Federal Government shutdown and could be economically catastrophic.

The general theme running through our post today is Congressional dysfunction with no end in sight.