What data tell us about recent events in Congress

capitalby familymwr

Senate and House: Votes on Agreement to End the Government Shutdown and Raise the Debt Ceiling |
[Via  voteview blog]

Below we use Optimal Classification (OC) in R to plot the Senate’s 81-18 vote on an agreement crafted by Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to fund the government through January 15, 2014 (ending the government shutdown), raise the debt limit through February 7, 2014. The agreement also includes a provision that requires greater verification of income for those seeking subsidies through the Affordable Care Act. We also plot the House’s 285-144 vote on passage.


Here is the data from the Senate (remember, if the cut line separating yeas and nays is more vertical, it means the vote is more between the  liberal-conservative axis.


And here is the House:


We can see that the vote was almost purely along left/right views.  However, the cut line was not purely between Democrats and Republicans. There was a definite split in the Republican party.

And there was very little hint of the authoritarian/civil liberties axis I have discussed previously.

Is this a sign of a split in the Republican party? Hard to say. 

This graph looks at the range of party views along the left-right axis that encompasses 80% of each party (the 10%-80% limits). It starts during the time of Reconstruction until the modern day, looking at each House and the values that encompass 80% of the members of  each party.


One can see that while the Democratic Party encompasses views that are no more liberal than it has ever had, the GOP now encompasses views that are much more conservative than it ever has.

The big shift along this axis seen over the last generation or so has been mostly in the GOP. In the 70s, the GOP and Democrats spread out so much more that there was actually overlap between 10% of their members in Congress.

From the 50s to the 70s both parties actually had about 10% of their members who overlapped ideologically with members of the other party.  Both parties have seen movement away from the center over the last 30 years.

But the shift has been very different for both parties. While the more moderate Democrats moved away from the center, the more extreme ones failed to move much at all. The range needed to include all Democratic votes has narrowed but without seeing a large shift in the more extreme views. (Historically, this is most likely due to the loss of conservative Democrats to the Republican party during the 70s.)

However, there is no explanation for why the Democrats elected have not seen their extreme views shift also. Even during the periods of greatest Democratic Party power in the House, the extreme left did not  become more extreme. It is like there is a wall at  -0.5.

Not so with the GOP. There has been a large shift, not only in the loss of moderate members but in the most extreme ones also. The range has not narrowed as much as the entire cohort has become more conservative.

As the GOP gained power over the last 30 years, all the Republicans have shifted to the right.  And, in contrast to the Democratic Party when it held power, the extremists in the GOP continued to become more extreme. Today only 10% of the GOP members of the House are as moderate at 90% of their members were from the 50s to the 70s. 

The entire GOP is further to the right now than it has ever been. It has also moved very rapidly. Just look at the shift from the 104th Congress under Gingrich and the 113th Congress under Boehner.

The median Republican in the House today is more conservative than 90% of the Republicans when Gingrich was Speaker. John Boehner is more conservative than 90% of the House when Gingrich was Speaker.

How much more can the GOP keep moving to the right? Here is another way of looking at the data – by creating smoothed histogram of the GOP along the left/right axis.


While there is a shift, it is not in uniform lockstep. Here we can see that the peak from the 104th is now a hump on the side of the 113th. It is still there just reduced.  And what ws a slight hump on the right side of the 104th curve is now a peak.

The point between those two humps in the ‘Boehner’ House fits quite well with the vote to re-open the government. Could this be a sign of a brea?

It might be possible that if the rightward shift of the most conservative Republicans continues, there could be a separation between these peaks; that the more moderate ‘Gingrich’ Republicans stay put while the more extreme Republicans continue to move right.

Or that ‘Gingrich’ hump may continue to disappear as the entire GOP cohort keeps marching to the right.

While interesting, these data are not yet predictive. They will not show what might happen.

That is only something that American voters can decide.

3 thoughts on “What data tell us about recent events in Congress

  1. As long as the media and Obama portray all conservatives as right-wing nuts, we will continue to move further right as far as the “progressives” are concerned. Your data shows what you want it to show.

    1. What do you think I want to show? Can you show me how the data shows anything else? The GOP was moving rightward long before Obama was even able to vote.

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