The End of the 114th Congress

The 114th Congress has finally ended. The most polarized Congress since the early 20th Century and one where almost all issues have been drawn into the first dimension [we will address dimensionality in a future post; the current period is unique in American history].

In our last post cited above, we, like most other election watchers, assumed that Secretary Clinton was on a path to a certain victory over Donald Trump. This post would have dealt with what we anticipated to be certain splits within the Republican caucus of the House (we expected the Senate to be 50-50 or 49-51 in favor of the Democrats). All that has changed.

However, it is hard to see how some of President-Elect Trump’s policy positions can be reconciled with the views of the Republican Caucus in either Chamber. For example, in this blog post by Sam Quinones he discusses how the opioid epidemic is correlated with Donald Trump’s Performance in the Election [the analysis in the linked PDF is by Shannon Monnat of Penn State University]. As Quinones notes, these areas that strongly supported Trump will require “massive investment in drug treatment before they can be great again.” We called attention to Quinones’ work in a post early this year and in this op-ed by CDC Chief Thomas Friedman he discusses the seriousness of this epidemic.

Below is a smoothed histogram of the 114th House and Senate using our Constant Space DW-NOMINATE Scores. Note the gap between McConnell (R-KY) and Ryan (R-WI) and the gap between Pelosi (D-CA) and Schumer (D-NY). Add in the filibuster requirement of 60 votes on legislation and it is hard to see how Trump can pass meaningful social policy to help those areas that strongly supported him. Trump may be more successful with taxes and deregulation that would help his supporters but that remains to be seen. The 115th Congress will not be boring.

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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.