Party polarization proportional, and other pesky points

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It is easy to say that President Barack Obama has failed to achieve various policy goals because of an intractable contingent of Republicans in Congress, but data published in the recent release of Brookings’ Vital Statistics on Congress suggest that our president faces at least an equally amenable congress to those of his predecessors.

Overall, President Obama slipped from having 96.7% of Congressional votes go his way in 2009, to 85.8% in 2010; 57.1% in 2011; and 53.6% in 2012.   Comparatively, President G.W. Bush went from a high of 87.8% of votes aligned with his positions in 2002 down to 38.3% in 2007 and 26.3% in 2008.  The similarities between these presidents in terms of congressional relations is greater when considering partisan dynamics.

President Bush received just 32% of House Democrat votes in 2001, along with 67% of Senate Democrat votes.  By the end of his term, this had eroded to 16% among House Democrats and 34% among Senate Democrats.

In 2009, House Republicans voted consistent with President Obama 27% of the time, down to 17% in 2012; while Senate Republicans have barely varied from 51% in 2009 to 47% in 2012.

For as much talk as there is about the polarization of American politics, scores of party unity in Congress haven’t changed a whole lot since 1954, when 80% of House Democrats and 84% of House Republicans voted with their party majority, and where 77% of Senate Democrats and 89% of Senate Republicans did so.

These figures remain in the mid-70s to high-80s for both parties from that point forward.  In 2012, 87% of House Democrats and 90% of House Republicans vote with their party, while 92% of Senate Democrats and  80% of Senate Republicans do so.

But that does not take into account the ideological position of each party. Ideological voting scores are based on members’ voting records, where a positive score denotes a conservative ideology while a negative score denotes a liberal one.

In 1947, the average ideological position of House Energy & Commerce committee members was 0.065: -0.235 for Democrats, and 0.271 for Republicans.   In 2011, these scores averaged 0.083: -0.425 for Democrats, and 0.443 for Republicans, representing some but proportional change. 

In the Senate, in 1947, non-southern Democrats registered an average ideological position of -0.196, steadily increasing to -0.373 in 2012, a change of 0.177 to the left.  For Senate Republicans, ideological scores increased from 0.230 in 1947 to 0.488 in 2012, a change of 0.258.

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher, and mother to three daughters.