Want results from Congress? Former governors may be the answer

 Image  source

Image source

By Misty Knight-Finley and Alex Keena

In this year’s general election, 33 Senate seats are up for grabs. While much of the focus of these races is on their implications for political control over the 116th Senate (which begins next year) our research suggests that the importance of “who” is running extends beyond matters of partisanship. 

In our study of partisanship in the Senate, we found that a candidates’ prior political experiences predict how they will behave once in office. In particular, we find that former governors running for office are supported by less ideologically extreme donor bases and are systematically less partisan than their colleagues after they are elected to the Senate.

This year, six of the candidates running for Senate have gubernatorial experience. Angus King, Tim Kaine, and Joe Manchin—all former governors currently serving in the Senate—are up for re-election. Current polls show firm leads for King and Kaine and a toss-up race for Manchin. In addition to these incumbents, three former (or, soon to be former) governors—Rick Scott (R-FL), Mitt Romney (former governor of MA running as a Republican for the UT Senate seat being vacated by Orrin Hatch), and Lincoln Chaffee (D-RI)—are running or considering a run for Senate.

Do legislators’ political experiences matter?

When it comes to serving in the U.S. Senate, prior political experience is the norm, rather than the exception. Only three freshmen senators arrived to the 115th session of Congress without some prior experience in elected office. Between 1983 and present, only 57 (less than 20%) entered the chamber without prior political experience, and many of these were political appointees.

We wanted to understand how different types of political experiences affect a senator’s behavior on the Senate floor. Using the Party Unity Dataset, we examined roll call votes in which a majority of one party votes against the majority of another party—so called “party votes”— during the 98th to 113th Senates (1983-2015). While we find that serving in the U.S. House, a state legislature, or most other elected offices has no significant impact on party loyalty, the experience of serving as a state governor is associated with an 8% reduction in party loyalty. This effect holds, even after controlling for a senator’s electoral security, tenure in office, and the characteristics of their constituency. In other words, former governors have the potential to help ease partisan gridlock, a possibility that makes them worth watching.

 Understanding the governor effect

What makes former governors less partisan than their counterparts? Modern governors manage increasingly large budgets and sprawling bureaucracies, and they must also broker bipartisan compromise in the state legislature in order to enact their policy agendas. We find that the experience of serving in the governorship is such that each year of gubernatorial service decreases a senator’s Party Unity score by more than 1%.

But part of the “governor effect” also stems from the ability to build and maintain a personal support constituency. After all, because governors are familiar with statewide constituency, this gives them a key advantage as Senate candidates. To understand how former governors’ support networks compared to those of other senators, we analyzed data from the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections. We find that former governors’ donors are less ideologically extreme than are the donors to other senators.

Can former governors really get results in the Senate?

In today’s Senate, which is highly partisan, former governors are aware of their differences. In fact, the recently formed Former Governors Caucus developed out of frustration over inaction and partisan gridlock in the Senate. Dubbed a “support group” for “recovering governors” by former governor turned senator Thomas Carper, the group—in the words of Senator Angus King—has “an orientation toward results and a frustration with an institution that generally isn’t very good at getting results.”

Former governors may not single-handedly cure legislative gridlock or hyper-partisanship in the Senate, but their common experiences and proclivity toward working across the aisle may set an example about what a culture of bipartisanship can look like.

Misty Knight-Finley is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Rowan University and Alex Keena is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University.



ICYMI: Top reads on Congress

 Image source  here

Image source here

By Marian Currinder


Jonathan S. Tobin, “The Centrality of Mitch McConnell,” National Review:

“But as Trump unveiled Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his second pick for the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday evening, talk about GOP unrest or conservative grassroots anger toward McConnell is conspicuous by its absence. To the contrary, the majority leader’s place at the center of Trump’s Washington is no longer contested.”

Felicia Sonmez, “Trump Supreme Court pick: How key senators reacted,” Washington Post:

“With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) away from Capitol Hill as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer, Kavanaugh’s fortunes could hinge on a single vote. Here are two groups of senators who will play a pivotal role in the confirmation process, along with their reactions to Monday night’s news.”

Molly E. Reynolds, “What to expect as Republicans race to confirm Kavanaugh,” Brookings FixGov:

“President Donald Trump announced Monday night that he was nominating Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, touching off a confirmation process that will shape the Supreme Court for years to come. Now that we have a nominee, here is what to expect next.”

Ed Pesce, “Democrats Have Few Tactical Options to Fight Supreme Court Pick,” Roll Call:

“Democrats can make as much noise as they want about President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, but they have few procedural weapons at their disposal to stop Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation on their own — although they can make life difficult along the way.”

Elana Schor and Heather Caygle, “‘I’m going to do my own thing’: Dems split on message in SCOTUS fight,” Politico:

“While the GOP is promoting Trump’s pick with a singular message — touting Kavanaugh’s ample qualifications — Democrats are offering multiple arguments against him that each speak to multiple parts of their base and the electorate.”

Niels Lesniewski, “Senate Delivers Mild Rebuke to Trump on Trade,” Roll Call:

“Sen. Bob Corker has finally got his colleagues on the record in support of Congress playing a role in national security-related trade decisions like those made recently under President Donald Trump.”

Juliegrace Brufke, “569 House-passed bills await action in the Senate,” The Hill:

“The House has sent 768 bills to the Senate this Congress, and 569 of them have yet to pass the upper chamber.”



Nicholas Fandos and Thomas Kaplan, “Republicans and Democrats Face Leadership Struggles as House Returns,” NYT:

“The House returns from its July Fourth recess this week in a state of remarkable uncertainty, with both Democrats and Republicans facing open questions about their leaders’ futures and neither party sure about which will be in control after November’s elections.”

Paul Kane, “The political futures of McCarthy and Pelosi could hinge on their home state of California,” Washington Post:

“House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could have their political careers defined by what happens Nov. 6 in their home state of California.”

Lindsey McPherson, “House Democratic Leadership Talk Starts Moving Into the Open,” Roll Call:

“House Democrats have largely tried to avoid talking about potential leadership battles in an effort to focus on winning the majority in November, but an unexpected opening is making that more difficult.”

Lindsey McPherson, “House Democrats Contemplate Post-Pelosi ‘Bridge’,” Roll Call:

“Some House Democrats have begun to talk more openly about the possibility someone other than Nancy Pelosi may be their leader next year — although, for now, she is still the odds-on favorite to continue leading the caucus.”

Mike Lillis, “Dems struggle with unity amid leadership tensions,” The Hill:

“House Democrats are struggling to show a united front as the shocking ouster of their Caucus chairman rekindles tensions about the future of the party — and who is best suited to lead it into the crucial 2020 cycle.”

Ella Nilsen, “More than 20 Democratic House candidates want Nancy Pelosi to step aside after 2018,” Vox:

“A close tally of Democratic House candidates who have said they won’t support House minority leader Nancy Pelosi indicates Democrats would either have to win by a huge margin in order for her to hang onto her top leadership post in 2019 — or those newly elected representatives would have to go back on a key campaign promise during their first vote in office.”

Heather Caygle, “Tim Ryan weighs new challenge to Pelosi amid Democratic unrest,” Politico:

“Rep. Tim Ryan is considering taking on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi again in November despite previously ruling out the idea — the latest turn in the caucuswide chaos unleashed by Rep. Joe Crowley’s shocking primary loss last month.”

Mile Lillis, “Fifth-ranking House Dem doubles down, says it’s time to overhaul leadership,” The Hill:

“Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) on Wednesday amplified her previous calls for a complete overhaul of House Democratic leadership next year.”

John Bresnahan and Rachel Bade, “McCarthy launches stealth campaign for speaker,” Politico:

“House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is quietly lining up votes to succeed Paul Ryan as speaker, reaching out to key lawmakers across the Republican Conference and asking whether they will commit to back him as speaker next January, according to GOP lawmakers and aides.”

Lindsey McPherson, “Citing No Regrets About Retiring, Paul Ryan Bets Kevin McCarthy Will Replace Him,” Roll Call:

“Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s Thursday interview with David M. Rubenstein, president of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., started with an admission that he has no regrets — “none whatsoever” — about retiring. It then diverted into a wide array of topics including his replacement, future plans and policy goals for his last few months in office. The Wisconsin Republican reiterated his preference that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy succeed him as speaker when asked about his replacement.”

Matthew Yglesias, “Paul Ryan’s pathetic excuse for not challenging Trump on trade, explained,” Vox:

“Speaking to reporters Thursday morning at the Economic Club of Washington, House Speaker Paul Ryan had three clear messages on trade: He thinks the Trump administration’s trade wars are misguided, he doesn’t intend to do anything about it, and he is a deeply dishonest person who is committed to pretending that there’s nothing he can do about it.”

Durand D’souza, “We mapped out the road to gender parity in the House of Representatives,” The Pudding:

“Jeanette Rankin was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives on November 7, 1916. Since then, 289 different women have represented their constituents in the House, bringing the House to 19% women. In this article, we follow their stories through data and identify their contributions with the help of machine learning.”


Budget and Appropriations

CQ Roll Call, “How the Summer Spending Stretch Is Shaping Up,” (Podcast):

“Congress returns from its Fourth of July break with expectations that it will tackle a robust spending agenda including the two chambers negotiating the final shape of three spending bills — as lawmakers hope to avoid another 12-bill omnibus. But, there are several challenges ahead both inside and outside of the annual appropriations process. CQ appropriations reporters Ryan McCrimmon and Kellie Mejdrich discuss what the final three months leading into fiscal 2019 hold with guest host Jennifer Shutt.”

Mark Strand, “Want Congress to Reassert Its Authority? Fix the Budget Process,” Real Clear Policy:

“To most Americans, whether the federal government handles its budget on a yearly or a biennial cycle is not a pressing matter. For Congress, it should be a top priority:A move to biennial budgeting could reduce the negative implications of continuing resolutions (CRs) and omnibuses.” 


Congress, Miscellaneous

James Wallner, “What’s Wrong With American Politics,” Law and Liberty:

“In reality, the inaction we observe results from the absence of conflict inside the House of Representatives and the Senate. In other words, the problem is how members of Congress think about politics.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, “Oversight is fundamental for a functioning federal government,” The Hill:

“An essential function of American government is our system of checks and balances. Our Founding Fathers purposely structured it that way to ensure that no one branch would become too powerful. Congressional oversight is one vehicle to fulfill those checks.”

Bipartisan Policy Center, “Oversight Matters: What's Next for Inspectors General,” BPC:

“The IGs provide an excellent return on the taxpayers’ investment in their work and have become a critical part of the checks and balances in our democratic system. The task force is confident that the recommendations in this report will lead to even better returns in the future.”

David Williams, “Opinion: Agency Watchdogs Can Do Much More Than Bark and Bite,” Roll Call:

“IGs aren’t just watchdogs for Congress’ oversight needs. They also assist agencies in better accomplishing their missions. IGs make recommendations to improve the effectiveness of programs in addition to identifying potential risks for fraud and abuse.”

Donald Sherman, “Congress should prioritize diversity so government reflects Americans,” The Hill:

“While the biannual employment carousel for members of Congress has already begun, August is the unofficial start to hiring season for staff. Everyone from chiefs to interns fill their calendars with meetings as folks look to move in or move up following Election Day. As this rite of passage begins anew, staff diversity must also come back into focus.”

Alex Gangitano, “Staff Up Congress Aims to Tackle Diversity From the Top,” Roll Call:

“What’s one way to increase diversity on the Hill? Start at the senior-staffer level. That’s according to the group Staff Up Congress, a joint campaign between the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, which focuses on opportunities for Latinos, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on opportunities for African-Americans.”

Samuel Metz, “Raul Ruiz wants to give you the power to subvert Paul Ryan's agenda. Sort of,” Desert Sun:

“Frustrated with Congress’ inaction on issues important to the public, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, has introduced legislation that would require lawmakers to vote on bills if enough of the public gets behind them.”

Steven Nelson, “Lawmakers slow to reintroduce presidential term limit repeal under Trump,” Washington Examiner:

“Members of Congress responsible for almost a dozen attempts to repeal the two-term limit on being president have not reintroduced their bills since President Trump took office. Two sitting lawmakers, Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., introduced bills repeatedly to repeal the 22nd Amendment, but have not done so under Trump.”

Alan Rappeport, “Government Work Done, Tax Policy Writers Decamp to Lobbying Jobs,” NYT:

“Six months after Republicans pushed a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul through Congress, many of the most influential players who worked behind the scenes on the legislation are no longer on Capitol Hill or in the Trump administration. They are now lobbyists.”

Rachel Augustine Potter, “Regulatory lobbying has increased under the Trump administration, but the groups doing the lobbying may surprise you,” Brookings:

“While talk of whether Trump is or is not “draining the swamp” of lobbyists continues in Washington (and on Twitter), one form of lobbying—lobbying the White House about regulations—has quietly flown under the radar. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)—the tiny White House office that serves as a clearinghouse for agency rules—regularly holds private meetings with stakeholders about regulations that are under development.” 

Paul Singer, “Capuano Has Highest Paid Staff In Congress,” WGBH:

“Rep. Michael Capuano pays his employees very well. In fact, the 10-term Somerville Democrat has the highest average staff salary of any lawmaker in the United States Congress, either House or Senate. The mid-range salary in Capuano’s office was $81,000 last year, according to a website called Legistorm.com that tracks congressional spending records.”

Chris Nehls, “Congress Needs Modern Tech to Keep Up with Constituents’ Needs. Here’s How Philanthropy Can Help,” Democracy Fund:

“Democracy Fund and our affiliated social welfare organization, Democracy Fund Voice, recently awarded several grants to address the disparity between the tools available to congressional staff and the technological innovations of the digital advocacy industry.” 

D.A. Banks, “Before They Were Lawmakers: Unique Careers of Some Senators and Representatives,” Roll Call Video:

“Most lawmakers serving on Capitol Hill had previous careers in state or regional government, law, business or education. But what about the outliers? Undercover Capitol explains some of the more unique backgrounds of current sitting members.”

Event, “Out of Order: Why Congress’s Budget Process Satisfies No One,” BPC:

“Join us on July 23 as our expert panel discusses how it’s supposed to work and reforms for the future. BPC will also release its quarterly Healthy Congress Index which offers crucial metrics for evaluating Congress’s ability to effectively legislate and govern, including its performance on budget and appropriations.”















Kavanaugh nominated to protect Trump? What some senators are getting wrong.

 Image source:  WSJ

Image source: WSJ

By Anthony Marcum

Within minutes of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, opponents were quick to highlight a 2009 article written by Kavanaugh for the Minnesota Law Review. Some claim the article supports the position that the president is shielded from any legal liability, including criminal prosecution. With this, opponents to President Trump’s selection have speculated that Kavanaugh was chosen to protect Trump from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s current investigation.

This, however, is a vast misreading of Kavanaugh’s work.

The 2009 article was adapted from a speech Kavanaugh gave to law students only weeks before the 2008 election, addressing possible challenges facing the new president. In it, he recalls his experience working for Kenneth Starr during the President Clinton investigation and in the White House during the Bush administration.

Next is where critics get it wrong. “Having seen first-hand how complex and difficult that job is,” Kavanaugh writes, “I believe it vital that the President be able to focus on his never-ending tasks with as few distractions as possible.” Kavanaugh then argues that Congress should pass legislation deferring any civil suits, criminal investigation or prosecutions until a president is out of office.

The imperative words are Congress and legislation. Kavanaugh is not expressing a legal opinion, but a policy proposal. The article is, in fact, silent as to whether he believes the constitution bars prosecuting or suing a sitting president. Yet, Kavanaugh’s proposal for greater legislative protections offers a hint. After all, if Kavanaugh believed that the constitution forbids suits, investigations or prosecutions against a sitting president, legislation to defer them until after the president’s tenure would be unnecessary.

Even if Kavanaugh believed the constitution prohibits the indictment of a sitting president, his view would be well within the mainstream. The Office of Legal Counsel (an office within the Department of Justice) has for decades concluded that a sitting president is constitutionally immune from prosecution. And most legal scholars similarly believe a president is immune while in office.

Importantly, although Kavanaugh’s legislative proposals are executive-friendly, he still recognizes Congress’s crucial role in checking the president’s powers. As he notes, the constitution offers Congress the ultimate “check against a bad-behaving or law-breaking President” – impeachment.

Still, some may contend that impeachment is unlikely if legislation exists barring criminal investigations. But the article does not propose barring congressional investigations. Indeed, in an earlier 1998 article, Kavanaugh argues that, when concerning the president, “congressional investigation must take place in lieu of criminal investigation.” He further claims that, historically, congressional investigations are where the public learns about “committed malfeasance in office.”

A fair review of Kavanaugh’s writings should reassure those who have concerns about his judicial independence. Although he may have suspicions about the merits of civil suits and prosecutions against sitting presidents, he has never claimed that a president is above the law. On the contrary, he supports robust congressional review and the power of the political process to remove an unworthy president from power. These are not partisan beliefs. Kavanaugh’s 2009 article was published in the first year of an Obama presidency, and his earlier 1998 article was written soon after work helping to investigate President Clinton.

As for any Supreme Court nominee, the Senate should carefully review and scrutinize Kavanaugh’s record. But a mischaracterization of his writings debases his critics’ credibility and serves as another example of the lamentably polarized judicial nomination process.

Anthony Marcum is a research associate for the R Street Institute’s Governance Project.


Library plan to publish CRS reports falls short of the law, and is unduly expensive


By Daniel Schuman, Kevin Kosar, and Josh Tauberer

Civil society, students, librarians, and the general public were elated when Congress decided to make the non-confidential non-partisan reports issued by the Congressional Research Service publicly available. These reports are often referred to as the gold standard for information concerning the issues before Congress.

We have obtained the Library of Congress’s implementation plan to make CRS reports available to the public, as required by 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Law. Unfortunately, it does not comport with the law or best practices for creating websites and is unusually expensive.

Today we release the Library’s May 22, 2018, CRS website implementation plan and civil society’s June 6, 2018 memo that responds to that plan. We hope that in doing so we will bring to the surface some of the problems with the CRS reports website’s proposed implementation so they can be fixed in time for the statutory deadline. (Note: The memos we are releasing are not to be confused with the CRS memo to congressional staff about the Library’s plans, which was released by the Federation of American Scientists.)

The civil society response, co-authored by Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, Kevin Kosar of the R Street Institute, and Josh Tauberer of Govtrack.us, is based on our experiences running everycrsreport.com, which is a website that publishes all current CRS reports online — more than 14,000 — including making appropriate redactions and additions to the reports prior to publication.

Our website cost under $20,000 to build and maintain with full functionality and fewer than 100 hours of programming time; the Library’s CRS website will cost $1.5 million, have limited functionality, suffer from significant design limitations, and not be completed for more than a year after the law was enacted and six months after the statutory deadline for completion.

This falls significantly short of what Congress directed the Library to accomplish and fails to meet basic public expectations for public access to CRS reports on a modern website.

Our nine-page report makes the following recommendations. To comply with the law, the Library should:

  • Update its implementation plan to ensure that it publishes all CRS reports — we believe there are many more than the 2,900 the Implementation Plan says will be published by Spring 2019 — by the statutory deadline of September 19 of this year. We request it aim for September 17th, which is Constitution Day. The Library’s implementation extends beyond April of next year;
  • Update its implementation plan to include all CRS Reports, including insights, infographics, sidebars/legal sidebars, in focus, and testimony;
  • Revise its implementation plan to ensure that HTML versions of the reports are available to the public just as they are already available to Congressional staff — this would help the visually impaired read the reports as well as allow reports to be read on mobile devices;
  • Revise its implementation plan to include an index of CRS reports, in accordance with the law’s requirements; and
  • Review the code we published to see whether it would help the Library meet its obligations, in particular our automated author information redaction functionality, or whether the Library could develop an automated tool that would enable it to comply with the timeline.

With respect to the website design, the Library should:

  • Consult with the Government Publishing Office and the public on how best to implement bulk access;
  • Develop a plan to respond to any initial heavy loads on the website;
  • Implement a robust website search capability and develop a plan to do so;
  • Create predictable URLs for CRS reports and a landing page for a report series, and set forth a plan to do so;
  • Keep down costs by examining our approach to see whether it can use some of our techniques to save money; and
  • Consider engaging an entity like the General Services Administration’s 18F to help keep down costs and ensure a quality product.

We have made several attempts to contact the Library on this and other technology issues, but have been unsuccessful in starting a conversation. We hope that we will be able to work with them on these issues.

Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress Action, co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition, co-director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, a fellow at Stanford’s CodeX, and a former legislative attorney with the Congressional Research Service. Kevin Kosar is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute and a former researcher at the Congressional Research Service. Josh Tauberer is a civic hacker, entrepreneur, and technology consultant living in Washington, DC best known for creating GovTrack.us, the widely used website tracking the U.S. Congress.

How pork-barrel spending shapes the ideological composition of Congress

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By Aaron Hedlund

In classrooms across the country, economics professors often use the phrase “guns and butter” as an analogy for the competing priorities nations face when deciding how to allocate resources. Historically, Republicans have tended to prefer spending on defense, i.e. “guns,” whereas Democrats have shown a preference for the “butter” of domestic social safety net programs. However, this analogy misses an important point: these decisions are not made by monolithic nations but rather by individuals in the private sector and by elected officials acting collectively through the political process. It turns out that, once politics is taken into account, the more apt analogy may just be “principles vs. pork.”

As evidenced casually by the cable news wars and more rigorously through surveys by the Pew Research Center, American politics has been trending strongly toward greater ideological polarization. For example, back in 1994, 36% of Republicans were to the political left of the median Democrat, and 30% of Democrats were to the right of the median Republican. Nowadays, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are almost nonexistent, with these measures of overlap falling to 8% and 6%, respectively.

The widening ideological chasm has also manifested itself in the chambers of Congress and in state houses throughout the country. To some observers, these trends mark a lamentable reduction in the scope for bipartisan cooperation. After all, the number of bills successfully passed by the U.S. Senate each year has fallen by more than half since 1970, with a particularly notable drop occurring over the past decade. Others, however, celebrate this reduction in legislative “productivity” as a welcome shift away from unseemly vote trading toward greater ideological consistency and adherence to principles.

Regardless of one’s evaluation of these trends, they take place amidst another large shift in the political landscape: the decline of earmarks. Once a staple of American politics, earmarks were a favored tool of politicians seeking to localize their races by promising to “bring home the bacon.” However, following a one-year moratorium in 2007 and a subsequent all-out ban in 2011 (which remains in effect), earmarks have fallen from nearly $30 billion and 14,000 projects a year in the mid-2000s to almost nothing today, according to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). There are reasons beyond contemporaneous timing to believe that that these twin trends of fewer earmarks and greater congressional polarization are closely related.

To see the connection, suppose that voters care about two criteria when choosing their representatives: ideological compatibility and their ability to “bring home the bacon.” Historically, elected officials closer to the ideological middle of the legislative body are more successful at securing pork barrel spending. Thus, when evaluating candidates, voters who want their representatives to “bring home the bacon” should to some extent take into account where each of them would fall along the ideological spectrum of Congress. Even if voters in a particular district are ideologically extreme relative to the national average, they risk forfeiting money for local projects unless they temper their views in the voting booth. Over time, this moderating force can become self-reinforcing by shifting political gravity toward the center and putting even more pressure on the extremes. By contrast, an earmark ban shuts down this moderating channel and gives people more leeway to vote their ideological conscience, regardless of how out-of-step it may be from a national perspective.

Whether one views polarization as dangerous and conflict-inducing or a sanguine reflection of greater adherence to principle, it is clear that pork barrel spending dilutes the role of ideology in politics. By encouraging politicians—and, therefore, the voters who choose them—to minimize the distance between themselves and the congressional middle, earmarks pave the way for greater legislative cooperation and output. Time will tell if voters view such an outcome as a feature or a bug of the old way of doing business and, in turn, whether the earmark ban persists or is someday brought to an end.

Aaron Hedlund is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Missouri and a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.

Despite appearances - or perhaps because of them - Congress is not as dysfunctional as some believe

 Image source:  VOA

Image source: VOA

By John Ray

Since the publication of the historic Congress: The Broken Branch, observers of life on the Hill have lamented the decline of Congress as a legislative institution. By some measures, Congress produces both less legislation and less substantive legislation now than in the past. The committee system as a technical institution is generally thought to be a shadow of prior eras.

But between the general public, who is disdainful of but generally inattentive to  daily congressional activity, and the regular Hill staffer who is busy as ever, congressional observers are left with a puzzle. Despite being unproductive as measured by bills passed, legislators spend as much time on regular Hill activities like committee meetings, hearings, and Caucus confabs as ever. This is despite a dramatic increase in the amount of time legislators must dedicate to financing their own re-election campaigns, and to the “call time” imposed by party headquarters to help fundraise for co-partisan colleagues and would-be legislators.

This is also despite the unprecedented job security that comes with being a Congressperson in the modern era. Re-election rates are at an all-time high. Why, exactly, this is is not widely agreed-upon, but there is no evidence it has anything to do with how long a legislator spends on the Hill. If anything, the combination of job security and increased demands of party leadership lead some to assert that legislators mostly use their time on the Hill to grandstand before C-SPAN, coordinate the floor agenda with the Speaker, and fundraise, as opposed to getting policymaking work done. Why legislators would pursue this strategy when C-SPAN has about 20,000 regular viewers and hearing content does not tend to end up in campaign advertisements remains a mystery.

In a new paper at Interest Groups and Advocacy I attempt to shine some light on this mystery. Inspired by conversations with Hill staffers, agency managers, and interest group representatives that I conducted for my dissertation, I was unsatisfied with the theory that immediate electoral incentives dictate quotidian behavior on the Hill. This theory rests at the core of American political science, but does not necessarily imply that every activity legislators engage in serves a short-term re-election need. Rather, that theory supposes that legislators are maximizers of their careers, broadly defined.

At the same time, this interpretation ignores those who I argue are the primary audiences of the daily activities of Congress: interest groups, lobbyists, trade associations, and the other spokespeople of the various factions whose policy incentives motivated the original design of the republic. I reframed the problem with these organizations in mind. As I describe in the paper, I think of the words spoken by and exchanged with legislators as containing credible commitments rather than cheap talk.

I started by gathering a dataset of words spoken at congressional hearings by any legislator and any witness at those hearings, which are available online from 1990 onward. I then developed a typology of the people who have been invited to congressional hearings over time, with a particular eye toward whether that person worked for an “interest group” traditionally defined. To model whether the content of legislative speech represented a “credible commitment” in some sense, I considered how to measure whether interest groups took the words of legislators seriously.

One meaningful measure of whether interest groups take legislators’ words seriously is if interest groups want to continue to work with legislators on policymaking after legislators retire; that is, if an interest group ends up hiring a legislator to do lobbying or advocacy work. For every legislator in the dataset, I examined various biographical sources and filing records to determine if they had ever worked as a lobbyist or advocate after leaving office. I used a combination of filing forms and biographical records to create a novel dataset of post-legislature lobbying by Congresspeople, as federal filing forms alone often leave out important modes of advocacy and part-time work (and, in the Trump era, are often simply ignored). I then measured the speech affinity (text similarity, essentially) between legislators and interest group witnesses at congressional hearings.

The results showed, consistent with the “credible commitment” view over the “grandstanding” view, that legislators’ speech affinity to interest group representatives correlated with the probability of legislators becoming lobbyists after leaving office, controlling for usual suspects like party, committee, and other factors. Legislators who talked more like interest group representatives were likely to become interest group representatives than those who talked less like interest group representatives. This is observationally consistent with the theory that interest groups take the actions of legislators on the Hill seriously, and sincerely.

Further, some components of the underlying speech dataset I used are not consistent with the notion that the Hill is just a place to practice attack lines. Perhaps surprisingly, using common measures of speech sentiment and complexity, I found that speech on the Hill has not become more acrimonious or vituperative over time, nor has it become semantically less complex (i.e., more television-appropriate). In an era where polarization is high and getting higher, it is not consistent with the notion that the Hill is a place for pure grandstanding to find that the incivility or soundbyte-appropriateness of Hill speech has not increased at the same time.

There is much not to like about life on the Hill. The congressional committees from which my data were derived are understaffed by people who are underpaid and overworked. I trawled hundreds of congressional biographies because federal record-keeping of interest group advocacy is woefully inadequate for the purposes of conducting rigorous research. But despite some of the more grandiose claims of the death of life on the Hill, the day-to-day stuff that not enough people pay attention to is still taken seriously by the public and private interests who keep the shop running whether or not cameras are on.

John Ray is a Ph.D. candidate in the political science department at University of California-Los Angeles, and a senior political analyst at YouGov Blue. Follow him on twitter, check out his academic and his professional work.

Are courtesy meetings nuked?

 Image source:  National Review

Image source: National Review

By Mark Owens

Process and procedure have begun to dominate debates about controversial or salient nominations to the federal bench. Frustration emerged when the regular procedures that promoted deliberation became obstacles to consideration. The use of the nuclear option – closing debate with a simple majority vote – for nominations has changed a process that once deferred to the power of an individual senator. If a decline in deliberation continues, where can senators learn more about the nominee? Lacking information, senators may simply assume a nominee to an independent branch has the same policy positions as the President.

Last night, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. Some Senate Democrats have reacted by suggesting every tool will be used to oppose the president’s nominee. One might ask, is this enough? The most recent nomination was reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines and the nuclear option was used in 2017 to end a filibuster by Senate Democrats over the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch. Until a nominee is chosen and considered by the committee, it is difficult to predict the outcome. For that reason, we should consider additional actions that define the Supreme Court confirmation process from the Senate’s perspective.

A tradition of courtesy meetings between Senators and Supreme Court nominees became normalized after 1970 when other nominees followed Harry Blackmun’s strategy to meet with senators prior to a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee. Initially, the personal meetings date back to 1916 when Louis Brandeis answered questions by two senators over a private dinner (Mason 1947, 504). In a recent article in PS: Political Science and Politics I asked: can the norm of courtesy meetings  survive alongside the nuclear option?

Office visits are not part of the Senate’s rules, but they traditionally allow elected officials to have a real dialogue with nominees. Senator Angus King (I-ME) described the process as “a slow-motion hearing without the public being able to watch what is going on.” Each meeting helps inform the public through statements crafted by each office to signal why a senator is likely to support or oppose a nominee. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) explained that he draws questions in a hearing based on “what others have asked.” However, the courtesy meetings depend on the interest of senators to know more about the individual. If the opposition has already made up its mind and the certainty of a confirmation vote appears to be clear, we risk witnessing a decline in the tradition of courtesy visits.

Meetings also give nominees an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the President in advance of receiving the Senate’s consent, which also builds independence for the Court. The exclusive insight, that only a senator can gain, typically motivates senators to host a courtesy meeting. For example, Justice Kagan visited with 75 senators in 2010, Justice Sotomayor visited with 93 senators in 2009, and Justice Alito visited with more than 80 senators in 2005. The politics surrounding the nominations of Judge Garland, Justice Gorsuch, and the current vacancy raise questions as to whether this norm is threatened by polarization.

Figure 1 illustrates the timing of courtesy meetings with Judge Garland in 2016 and Justice Gorsuch in 2017. The darker bars show the count of meetings hosted by Republican senators and the lighter bars represent the total number of meetings. Therefore, the lighter bar stacked on top of the darker bar represents the meetings by Democratic senators. The comparison is meaningful today, because these are the last two nominations that occurred before the nuclear option was set as a precedent for Supreme Court nominations.

Figure 1: Senate Office Visits with Supreme Court Nominees

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These meetings provide private and courteous exchanges, while hearings provide broader public scrutiny. One similarity between the two nominations was that the courtesy meetings began with party and committee leaders. Aside from the meeting between Senator McConnell (R-KY) and Neil Gorsuch, Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) was the first Republican meeting of both nominees. Early visits were often split between senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee and other offices leading with a bipartisan message. Another was the impact by early statements forecasting the final decision on the nominee (delay or confirmation) on senators’ strategies to host a courtesy meeting.

In 2016, all senators in the minority, except for Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (running for president), met with Merrick Garland. Some Democratic senators even stayed in Washington during a spring recess to meet with the nominee. Garland’s final meeting with a Republican senator was with Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who had a long history of meeting with nominees as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As for 2017, there was a different partisan dynamic. There was an urgency to meet with the new nominee by senators from both parties. Perhaps this was because Chairman Grassley gave an early indication of when the committee’s hearings would begin. However, we did see that Senators Hoeven (R-ND), Inhofe (R-OK), Johnson (R-WI), and Moran (R-KS) waited to meet Nominee Gorsuch at the White House, after the hearings had concluded.

In the past, arguments have suggested the meetings hold little value. For one, the meetings are expected to be private – although Neil Gorsuch’s response regarding President Trump’s rhetoric about the judiciary were shared after his meeting with Senator Blumenthal (D-CT). Also, the meetings are too short to explain the complexities of one’s judicial philosophy. However, the value of these meetings are the venue they provide for senators and nominees to get to know one another and to better inform the quality of questions in the committee hearings that provide greater public scrutiny.

In this time of institutional change in how the Senate considers nominees, a consequence of the nuclear option may be an erosion of the chamber’s traditions. To date, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has scheduled hearings so that senators have the ability to meet one-on-one with the nominee in an informal private setting. For senators up for re-election, like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), this can be a moment to advertise leadership and constituent representation in the confirmation process. The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee currently protects the norm of courtesy hearings by determining when to set the date for a confirmation hearing. If partisans push for shorter confirmations, they will limit the available days for courtesy meetings.

Mark Owens is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Tyler. From 2015-2016 he was an APSA Congressional Fellow in the office of Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT). His research on the Senate has been published in American Politics Research, Congress & the Presidency, and PS: Political Science and Politics. Follow him on Twitter @markeowens


Sen. Flake has options to force a vote

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By James Wallner

Jeff Flake wants to force Senate action on President Trump’s tariffs by delaying the confirmation process for judicial nominees. But the gambit already appears to have fallen short. According to one report, Flake’s effort has received little support among Senate Republicans since he first announced it on Sunday. Given the hesitance of his colleagues to slow down the confirmation process, Flake should consider two additional options for forcing a tariff vote. If used properly, each option gives Flake leverage to extract concessions in negotiations over when and how the Senate will ultimately deal with the issue.

1. Amendment Option: Flake could offer an amendment to the Farm Bill (HR 2) once the Senate votes to begin debate on the legislation this week. If the farm bill’s managers, or leadership for that matter, tries to block his amendment, Flake could ignore their efforts and offer it anyway. I discussed this option in a post yesterday. The procedural details of how senators can offer controversial amendments without “permission” are discussed in more depth here and here. The option guarantees that the Senate will adjudicate Flake’s proposal in some way.

2. Motion to Proceed Option: Flake could also move to proceed to standalone legislation. While this option requires more steps than simply offering an amendment to legislation already under consideration, it still enables Flake to force a vote over the objections of his colleagues and should thus also be understood as a source of leverage.

To work, Flake must first ensure that his proposal is on the Senate’s legislative calendar. The Calendar is the list of standalone measures eligible for floor consideration and consists chiefly of legislation reported by the Senate’s committees. It may also include legislation placed there directly by senators pursuant to Rule XIV in an effort to bypass committee consideration of their proposals.

Once his legislation is on the Calendar, Flake may make a motion to proceed to its consideration. According to the Senate’s precedents, “motions to proceed to the consideration of bills and resolutions on the Calendar are usually made by the Majority Leader or his designee.” But under the Standing Rules (and precedents) any senator may also move to proceed to a measure. In short, it is not only the majority leader’s prerogative.

Motions to proceed are debatable. That means senators opposed to Flake’s effort may prevent a tariff vote by filibustering it. Even so, there are two ways to force a vote over such objections once the motion to proceed is pending before the Senate (i.e. after Flake makes it). First, Flake may file cloture on the motion to end the filibuster. As with the motion to proceed, cloture motions can be made by any senator. To set up a vote, Flake only needs 15 other senators to join him in signing a cloture petition to end debate.

Flake may also move to table (i.e. defeat/kill) his motion to proceed. This may seem counter-productive at first. After all, isn’t Flake trying to pass the motion? On closer inspection, motions to table offer Flake some advantages in this scenario. The most important one is that they aren’t debatable. That means Flake can use a tabling motion to trigger an immediate vote. Since the tactic is intended to give him leverage in negotiations over when and how the Senate will consider the tariff issue, demonstrating that his opponents do not have the votes to table his motion to proceed is sufficient. Of course, a majority of senators must vote not to table the motion for Flake to derive any leverage from trying to table it.

More later on the hurdles associated with these options.

James Wallner is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and a member of Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group.