Madison Avenue would call it “building brand identity.” In a tightly contested election year, Republicans and Democrats used the machinery of Congress and their members’ votes to polish their images with voters and distinguish themselves from the competition.
It is part of a continuing trend away from bipartisan cooperation and toward ideological and political loyalty. On most votes, only a handful of lawmakers from either party stray across the lines into the opposition. At times, there are none.
Among the top enforcers of party discipline for the Republicans are Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
An analysis of party unity votes by Congressional Quarterly shows that Republicans and Democrats retreated only slightly from the record level of polarization reflected in their votes in 2003, the most partisan year in the five decades CQ has done these annual vote studies. Party unity votes are defined by CQ as votes where a majority of one party votes against a majority of the other.
The 2004 party unity scores reflect a continuing effort by party leaders to sharpen their distinctions and to rally their troops to vote in ways that highlight those distinctions.
“When you do move into an election season, the party in control tries to shape issues in a way that works to their advantage, to unify their folks and put the other party in an awkward position,” said Paul S. Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
Kenneth R. Weinstein, vice president and chief operating office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative research organization, said, “Because this is an election year and the president is very popular within the party, the leadership does not put items on the agenda that are not going to get passed to begin with, and there is also the fact that no one wants to embarrass the president.”
For the Republicans, the goal was to reinforce the message of the 2004 campaign: that the Republican Party was best able to keep America secure and would keep the nation’s business sector humming by keeping taxes low and government unobtrusive. Republicans were able to hold themselves together most effectively when they were voting on issues related to homeland security and the war in Iraq, on tax and regulatory issues and on many issues related to controlling spending.
Member-by-Member Tally of Party Unity Votes
While congressional Democrats often found themselves unable to shape the legislative agenda, they could block or deflect — Republicans would derisively say “obstruct” — GOP initiatives to make the point that Democrats would focus on lowering the deficit, would use more targeted tax cuts and would more freely use government to protect consumers, workers and the environment.
“The most stark partisan differences remain on questions of growth, whether government should be involved in a particular area of the economy or what kind of tax code we should have,” said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation.
Average Unity Score by Party
The CQ analysis shows that Republicans were slightly less successful in winning their party unity votes than they were in 2003. Republicans won 83.5 percent of their House votes and 75.2 percent of their Senate votes. The House victory percentage dropped about five percentage points from 2003; in the Senate, the drop was more than six percentage points, but such figures have fluctuated in recent years.
On votes in which party leaders staked out clear and opposing positions, Republicans voted to support the party position on average 90 percent of the time in the Senate and 88 percent of the time in the House. Democrats lined up behind the party position 83 percent of the time in the Senate and 86 percent of the time in the House.
A handful of renegades in both parties skewed the percentages, but not by much. The most rebellious by far was Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., who voted with the Democrats in only two of the 113 votes analyzed by CQ. Yet if Miller had been a Republican instead of a Democrat, the Democratic party unity score would have increased only a couple of percentage points. The fact that Democratic presidential running mates John Kerry and John Edwards missed most of the Senate’s roll call votes had more of an impact on the party’s score.
The Republican senator who most frequently stepped out of line, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, voted with his party 65 percent of the time. Five other Republicans, along with six Democrats, voted with the party majority less than 80 percent of the time. On the other hand, 26 of 51 Senate Republicans and 97 of 229 House Republicans voted with their party more than 95 percent of the time. Four out of every nine Democrats in Congress also exceeded the 95 percent threshold.
The voting patterns continue a transformation that accelerated in the 1990s of both parties into “much more ideological entities” than they have been in the past, said Lorenzo Morris, chairman of the political science department at Howard University.
That process is further along in the Republican Party than it is in the Democratic Party, “and as a consequence they take the lead in much more ideological voting,” Morris said.
Steny H. Hoyer, at this year’s State of the Union address, proved effective in his first term as the House Democratic whip.
Republican leaders followed a model they adopted in 2000, in which they carefully orchestrated what came to a vote and managed intraparty conflicts to minimize dissent on the floor. In both the House and the Senate, there were fewer total roll call votes than in 2000, but the percentage of total votes that were unity votes was somewhat higher in 2004 than in 2000. That is a reflection of the Republican leaders’ choreography.
“The rules of the game are easy enough to manipulate by a majority party to foreclose opportunities to vote on alternatives that would attract bipartisanship,” said Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They use the rules of the game to make sure that those party-splitting votes don’t come onto the floor.”
Both House party whips take pride in how their parties manage floor votes.
“We’ve all over the last six years . . . gotten better at listening, better at seeking early input from our members and making changes that often significantly improve legislation,” said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the House majority whip. “The best way to avoid needless conflict is to pay attention early.”
“Ten years into their majority,” Franc said, “the leadership is very, very comfortable and mature in managing the day-to-day legislative agenda of the House. They have a very keen sense of where the votes are, what is possible and what is not possible. That wasn’t there a few years ago.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Republicans had used their agenda-setting power to keep Democrats from winning political victories on issues such as raising the minimum wage. “They don’t want their members to vote on the minimum wage, so they don’t allow us an amendment,” he said.
Frequency of Unanimous Partisan Votes
“They can simply jam us, and they do so on a regular basis and say, ‘We’re not going to consider these issues.’ ”
To counter the Republicans, Hoyer encouraged members to start with the frame of mind that “I am going to be with the party, and if I’m not, it is because I have a very good reason not to be,” such as a particular district interest.
Like the Republicans, Hoyer said he stressed Democratic unity on procedural votes. “Clearly, we have forced the Republicans to be more unified in some respects,” he said.
Leading Scorers - Party Unity
The Senate votes reflect deliberateness in what Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., allowed to reach the floor, according to several political observers.
“There has been a profound sense of caution that lasted throughout the Congress [that was] rooted in the narrow majority and the fact that there were six or seven swing Republican votes on any given issue,” Franc said.
“There were precious few times when leader Frist could go down to the floor on anything controversial and feel with confidence that his position would prevail,” Franc said. “So there is this sense he was walking on eggshells.”
There was still ample evidence of internal disputes. When the Senate debated pay-as-you-go rules for the 2005 budget resolution (S Con Res 95), requiring Congress to offset tax cuts or spending increases so as to not increase the deficit, four Republicans sided with 46 Democrats to support the provision. When the language was debated in a House bill (HR 4663) in June, several roll call votes attracted significant Republican defections.
“Appropriators held firm against any kind of budget process reform and took a lot of the committee chairmen with them, while a lot of the conservative rank and file voted for the reform,” Franc said.
Blunt said those votes defy the perception that the Republican caucus is becoming an ideological monolith. The budget resolution votes are “evidence of openness and diversity, not the opposite,” he said.
In the end, though, the pay-as-you-go proposal died in a conference committee because “House Republicans would not sacrifice the principle of tax cuts that benefit the economy and benefit communities,” he said.
No Looking Back
Political analysts generally see two parties that have moved away from the center and see no need to look back.
House members “don’t worry about being outflanked by the opposition party,” Herrnson said. “They don’t have to worry about losing the general election. They have to worry about what happens in the primary, and that pushes them to more extreme positions.”
Binder said that “there hasn’t been much change in the electoral context in which these votes are taking place.” Given the closely divided electorate that has not given either party a commanding advantage in Congress, “there is very little incentive for the Democrats to accommodate Republicans, or vice versa.”
The Democrats, meanwhile, face continuing attrition in the South, either because party members defect, as Rodney Alexander of Louisiana did, or as they lose elections to Republicans. Seven southern Democrats and one northern Democrat who had party unity scores at or below 85 percent were replaced by Republicans in the 2004 general election.
Five of the seven Southerners — Martin Frost, Jim Turner, Nick Lampson, Charles W. Stenholm and Max Sandlin — were from Texas. “The Texas redistricting skews the results,” Hoyer said, referring to the successful effort by the Republican-led state legislature to redraw congressional districts to favor Republicans.
Hoyer said the dissent among House Republican conservatives over the intelligence overhaul bill (S 2845 — H Rept 108-796) foretells greater disunity among Republicans in 2005.
“I think it shows the larger your majority, the harder it is to maintain your unity,” Hoyer said.
Add to the mix a lame-duck president, a growing deficit and the war in Iraq and, “I think you are going to see a Republican Party that experiences much more difficulty than it has in the past,” Hoyer said.
Not surprisingly, Blunt is more optimistic. “With the president not running again, he has to work with us in a different way,” making a stronger case for his proposals.
Most observers, though, see continuing polarization. “I think we are going to be stuck with this for a while,” Morris said. “It may be less fun to watch in the immediate future because it will be rigid, but down the road it will be more fun to watch because there will be little brawls.”