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:

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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.

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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.

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:

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

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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:

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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.

Replacing Speaker Boehner

Speaker Boehner saw the handwriting on the wall and resigned from Congress effective on October 30. As we noted in our last post the Speaker was caught between a rock and a hard place. He did not have 218 votes in the Republican Caucus leaving his fate in the hands of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Caucus.

Today Boehner said that there would be no government shutdown and he would set up a select committee to investigate Planned Parenthood. Boehner appears to have decided to put a number of bills on the floor increasing the debt ceiling and funding the government (including the Export-Import Bank) before he leaves office. These bills will presumably pass with the support of the Democratic Caucus and a portion of the Republican Caucus. This will, of course, outrage Ted Cruz and the “drive the car over the cliff” Conservatives who would rather shut down the government than fund Planned Parenthood.

The irony in this Republican train wreck is than John Boehner is hardly a “Liberal”. Below we show, using our Weekly Constant Space DW-NOMINATE scores, the 83rd, 104th, and 114th House Republican Caucuses along with the positions of the Republican Speakers — William Martin (R-MA), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), and John Boehner (R-OH).

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Boehner is positioned near the middle of the Caucus at 0.515 but what appears to be core of his problem is that the 111 Southern Republicans are located at 0.533 and the 135 Northern Republicans are located at 0.444. Not all of the Southern Republicans oppose the Speaker but as shown by the graph below it is the Southerners who are the most conservative. Boehner’s likely replacement is Kevin McCarthy of California. McCarthy is located at 0.459 near the mean of the Northern Republicans and he is more moderate than Speaker Boehner. The “Ted Cruz” Caucus is unlikely to be able to elect one of their own so that McCarthy is likely to win. The wild card is how intense the civil war in the Republican Caucus will be when Boehner attempts to pass the Debt Ceiling and Government funding bills. The next few weeks should not lack for drama.

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Planned Parenthood and the Fate of Speaker Boehner

The controversy touched off by undercover videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue sales has thrown a monkey wrench into the efforts to pass government funding bills in the House. Last Friday (18 September 2015) the House voted 241 – 187 to defund Planned Parenthood. We use our Weekly Constant-Space DW-NOMINATE Scores to do the vote plots. The House vote to defund is shown below:

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Two Democrats, Lipinski (D-IL) and Peterson (D-MN), voted with the Republicans and three Republicans, Dent (R-PA), Dold (R-IL), and Hanna (R-NY), voted against defunding Planned Parenthood.

Earlier, the Senate failed to reach 60 votes for Cloture in an attempt to defund:

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The two Democrats who voted for Cloture are Donnelly (D-IN) and Manchin (D-WV). The two Republicans who voted against are Kirk (R-IL) and Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) who voted Nay so he could bring up the Cloture motion another time. McConnell’s “error” has the effect of pulling the cutting line away from Donnelly and Manchin just enough so that they are also “errors”.

There is absolutely no chance that Planned Parenthood will be defunded. Even if it passed it would be vetoed by President Obama. What is at stake is yet another government shutdown. Neither Speaker Boehner nor Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi want a government shutdown. The problem for Speaker Boehner is that a sizable bloc of Conservatives would rather have a shutdown than fund Planned Parenthood even though public opinion would blame the Republicans for the mess a shutdown would cause.

One casualty of this fight over Planned Parenthood could be Speaker Boehner. A number of Conservatives want to oust Boehner from the Speakership and replace him with a more hardline member. Below we show a hypothetical up or down vote on Speaker Boehner where we count 47 Republicans voting against him — all 42 members of the Freedom Caucus plus 5 non-members who voted against him for Speaker in January (note that newly sworn in Darin LaHood (R-IL) is not shown in the plot):

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Speaker Boehner’s fate is clearly in the hands of Democrats. If they all vote No then Boehner loses the Speakership. The problem is that a replacement is almost certainly not going to be one of the extreme Conservatives so the Republicans are back to square one. If the Democrats abstain then the Republican Caucus votes 199 – 47 for Boehner (Boehner abstains and LaHood votes Yes).

Regardless, it appears that another train wreck may be at hand in Washington, D.C..

House and Senate Votes on the Iran Agreement

This past week the House and Senate considered the nuclear deal President Obama negotiated with Iran. The deal was essentially done when the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to lift the sanctions placed on Iran. By prior agreement with President Obama, Congress could vote to disapprove the deal but it would take a two-thirds majority in both chambers to over ride the President’s veto. However, in the Senate, Republicans were unable to muster 60 votes to overcome a filibuster by the Democrats to prevent a vote on the deal itself. We use our Weekly Constant-Space DW-NOMINATE Scores to do the vote plots. The vote on cloture is shown below:

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Only Cardin (D-MD), Manchin (D-WV), Menendez (D-NJ), and Schumer (D-NY) voted with the Republicans in favor of cloture. All except Manchin are to the interior of the caucus so the vote does not fit the spatial model that well with a PRE of only 0.14.

In the House there were three votes. The first was on whether or not the President had fully disclosed all the side deals of the agreement. This was essentially a straight party-line vote:

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The second vote was to Approve the Agreement. On this vote 25 Democrats in the Center and the Center-Right of the Caucus voted with the Republicans against the agreement. The vote had a respectable PRE of 0.77:

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Finally, the House voted on a resolution “To suspend until January 21, 2017, the authority of the President to waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of sanctions pursuant to an agreement related to the nuclear program of Iran.” This was another party-line vote:

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Given the outcome of these votes the issue is essentially settled. No doubt there will be attempts made by the Republicans to claim that the “period for review” had not started because the President had not fully disclosed all the side agreements (e.g., IAEA with Iran). But because of the Security Council action there is little Congress can do. What is likely to happen is the Congress with President Obama’s support will transfer more advanced weaponry to Israel.

Railroads and the Deadlocked Transportation Act

Just before the House and Senate left for an August recess, they managed to pass a three month patch so that the government could continue to fund mass transit and highway projects. Funding highway projects used to be very popular and bipartisan. Lots of people were employed laying Rebar and pouring concrete and at one time the Transportation bill was very popular.

The current systems was set up under President Eisenhower in 1956. He supported a nationwide highway system that would allow the rapid movement of defense forces around the continental United States. The result was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. Below is the key procedural vote in the Senate (having to do with labor issues). The Senate then went on to pass the bill by voice vote.

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The 1956 Act set up the Highway Trust Fund that received money from a federal fuel tax. These funds were intended for the construction of highways. The original gas tax was $0.03 per gallon and that increased in increments over the years to $0.184 per gallon. A separate trust fund was established to fund mass transit projects.

The problem that Congress is now stuck with is the fact that cars and trucks are now more fuel efficient so that less money is flowing into the Trust Fund at the same time as the interstate system, roads, and bridges are deteriorating. Congress, especially Republicans, is loath to increase gasoline taxes. Instead they have used various budget gimmicks to transfer general revenue into the fund which only prolongs the crisis.

If this were not bad enough, the Senate bill combines the Transportation bill with the renewal of the Export-Import bank which many Republicans oppose as crony capitalism. Given these conflicting objectives it is no surprise that the 65-34 vote in the Senate shown below has no ideological structure whatsoever. Both parties are split internally over the bill which will make things all the more difficult to reach some sort of deal with the House in September.

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But inside this bill is a Time Bomb that if it goes off could quite literally shut down the US economy. That Time Bomb is Positive Train Control (PTC) which is supposed to be in place on the railroads nationwide by the end of 2015. In effect PTC would be a “fail-safe” system that would prevent accidents such as the 12 September 2008 collision of a Metrolink (Los Angeles system) commuter train with a Union Pacific freight train head-on while the Metrolink engineer was busy texting. Twenty-five people were killed and it caused Congress to pass a bill in October 2008 mandating PTC on the entire nationwide railroad system.

Congress appropriated no funds for the railroads to build this system even though the major freight railroads — BNSF, UP, CSX, NS — run no passenger trains and serious wrecks of freight trains are relatively rare. PTC requires a complex system of computers and wireless radio control so that engines can be remotely controlled. None of the major freight railroads have finished building this system (for example, Congress did not order the FCC to release spectrum on an emergency basis to the railroads!).

In the Transportation Act passed by the Senate there is a three year delay until 31 December 2018 to give time for the major railroads to implement PTC. A number of members of Congress such as Chuck Schumer (D-NY) oppose any delay regardless of the consequences. Unless the delay is passed, in January the freight railroads will have to decide to stop hauling toxic inhalation materials and close their tracks to commuter trains. This drastic step would put them in compliance with PTC but would violate the basic law that the Railroads are common carriers (see Trains magazine, October 2015, page 6 for a discussion). This would set off a major national crisis. Like it or not hazardous materials such as Chlorine and Sulfuric Acid have to transported by rail. They have to move or major industries will grind to a halt. Ditto the commuter rail. If commuter trains are stopped from using the freight rail lines massive traffic jams will be the result.

This whole sorry spectacle is yet another sign of how dysfunctional Congress has become.

Alpha-NOMINATE Applied to the 114th House

Following up on our previous post, below we apply Alpha-NOMINATE to the 114th House. There have been 489 total votes in the House as of the August recess of which 435 are scalable (at least 2.5% in the minority). We used the R version of Alpha-NOMINATE to perform the analysis. We used 2000 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 was 0.99965 with a standard deviation of 0.0003347 strongly indicating that the Representatives’ utility functions were Gaussian.

The next four plots show the estimated ideal points for the 434 scalable Representatives along with their 95% Credible Intervals. On the left, Representative Grijalva (D-AZ) is located at -2.266. His 95% credible interval runs from -2.751 to -1.87. The five Republicans on the right end are Huelskamp (R-KS) at 2.62 (1.79 – 3.34), Sanford (R-SC) at 4.35 (4.06 – 4.61), Massie (R-KY) at 4.43 (4.20 – 4.66), Amash (R-MI) at 4.48 (4.27 – 4.70), and Jones (R-NC) at 5.27 (5.06 – 5.50).
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The Median of the Democratic Party is -1.310 with a standard deviation of 0.0284 and the Median of the Republican Party is 0.9490 with a standard deviation of 0.0224. The probabilities for the median Representative are 0.068 for Thompson (R-PA), 0.065 for Upton (R-MI), 0.060 for Young (R-AK), 0.059 for Reed (R-NY), 0.058 for Valadao (R-CA), and 0.057 for Turner (R-OH). Assuming that the Republicans vote as a bloc (highly unlikely!), the probabilities for the Filibuster Pivot are 0.049 for Rice (D-NY), 0.042 for Keating (D-MA), 0.039 for Connolly (D-VA), and 0.038 for Gabbard (D-HI), Carney (D-DE), and Delbene (D-WA). Again, President Obama will likely have the votes to prevent a veto override of his nuclear deal with Iran.

Alpha-NOMINATE Applied to the 114th Senate

Updated: 17 August 2015

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 114th Senate. There have been 262 total votes in the Senate as of the August recess of which 220 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 2000 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 was 0.9916 strongly indicating that the Senators’ utility functions were Gaussian.

The next plot shows the estimated ideal points for the 100 Senators along with their 95% Credible Intervals. On the left, Senator Sanders (I-VT) is located at -2.74 just off the left edge of the plot. His credible interval runs from about -3.31 to -1.89. Off the right end and not visible are Senator Cruz (R-TX) at 3.84 with a credible interval that runs all the way from 0.958 to 5.398 and Senator Paul (R-KY) at 5.175 with a credible interval that ranges from 4.766 to 5.750.
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The median of the Republican Party is 0.7562 with a standard deviation of 0.0331 and the median of the Democratic Party is -0.9318 with a standard deviation of 0.0583. The probabilities for the median Senator are 0.575 for Murkowski (R-AK), 0.158 for Graham (R-SC), and 0.128 for Heller (R-NV). Assuming that the Republicans vote as a bloc, the probabilities for the the Filibuster Pivot are 0.251 for King (I-ME), 0.218 for Tester (D-MT), 0.197 for Bennet (D-CO), and 0.154 for Warner (D-VA). Again, assuming that the Republicans vote as a bloc, the probabilities for the Veto Override Pivot are 0.174 for Nelson (D-FL), 0.130 for Coons (D-DE), 0.125 for Feinstein (D-CA), and 0.115 for Shaheen (D-NH). President Obama will likely have the votes to prevent a veto override of his nuclear deal with Iran.

An Update on House and Senate Polarization

Below are graphs of the House and Senate means from 1879 through 10 July 2015. We computed the means from our Weekly CS DW-NOMINATE Scores.

In a previous post we showed that polarization is asymmetric and due to the Republican Party moving sharply to the Right after 1976. Several people sent us e-mails asking if this was due to the realignment of the South (the 11 States of the Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma [the definition used by Congressional Quarterly]) into the Republican Party. The answer is No. In the House and Senate graphs below we show Northern and Southern Republicans along with Northern and Southern Democrats. In the House the Northern and Southern Republicans moved in tandem during the entire post WWII period:

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In the Senate we only show Southern Republicans after 1961 because there were so few Republicans from the South before then. The Southern Republican Senators are more Conservative than the Northerners but beginning in the mid to late 1990s the two wings begin to converge. In contrast, the remaining Southern Democratic Senators are a bit more Conservative than their Northern counterparts.

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In terms of Party Polarization it is at a Post-Reconstruction high in both Chambers. The House Republicans are slightly less Conservative in the 115th but the House Democrats are slightly more Liberal. Hence, this produced a small uptick in polarization (so far) in the 115th House. In the Senate the increase in polarization is due to both Parties moving away from the Center. However, it bears repeating, overall, the increase in polarization in both chambers is primarily due to the Republican Party moving to the Right.

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Passage of the Pacific Rim Trade Pact

Congress handed President Obama a major victory on the Pacific Rim Trade Pact this week. The Senate had combined Fast Track Authority and the displaced workers assistance into one bill. As we show in our previous post Fast Track Authority passed the House 219 Yea – 211 Nay but the displaced workers assistance was defeated 128 Yea – 300 Nay. The House then brought up a stand-alone bill granting the President Fast Track Authority last week and it passed. We use our Weekly Constant-Space DW-NOMINATE Scores to do the vote plots. The House vote to approve FTA is shown below:

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The vote was 218 Yea – 208 Nay (the missing “Yea” in the plot is Speaker Boehner who has not voted enough time to be scaled). The Republicans split 190 Yea to 50 Nay and the Democrats split 28 Yea to 158 Nay.

The Senate took up the Fast Track Authority bill on Thursday, 24 June 2015, and passed it 60 Yea to 38 Nay after a cloture motion passed on Wednesday, 23 June 2015, 60 Yea to 37 Nay. The final passage of FTA in the Senate is shown below:

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The five Republicans who voted Nay were Collins (R-ME), Cruz (R-TX), Paul (R-KY), Sessions (R-AL), and Shelby (R-AL). Collins, Paul, Sessions, and Shelby all voted Nay on 22 May 2015 against the combination of FTA and the displaced workers assistance bill. Cruz had voted Yea but switched his vote Nay this time. Lee (R-UT) voted against the combined bill on 22 May but did not vote on the stand-alone FTA. FTA was then sent to President Obama.

With the Fast Track Authority having cleared both chambers it was relatively easy to pass the displaced workers assistance. It passed in the Senate on Wednesday 24 June 2015 by a vote of 76 Yea to 22 Nay. This vote is shown below:

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In the House the displaced workers assistance bill passed by a wide majority 286 Yea to 128 Nay. This time The Democrats voted for the bill 175 Yea to only 6 Nay in contrast to the vote on 12 June 2015 where they voted against the assistance portion of the combined bill 40 Yea to 144 Nay despite an appeal from President Obama for their support. The final passage vote is shown below:

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The six Democrats who voted Nay were Boyle (D-PA), Cartwright (D-PA), Grijalva (D-AZ), Lynch (D-MA), and Thompson (D-MS).

President Obama’s major victory was made possible by Republican leaders in Congress standing with him and using deft legislative maneuvers to get the FTA and assistance packages through Congress. President Obama may be in his last 18 months as President but he is far from a lame duck.