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The Problem With Ideological Purity in Congress

By David BradyReal Clear Politics

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

When Sen. Joe Manchin announced on Fox News that he could not support President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation even at its reduced price, he took heat from White House Press Secretary Jan Psaki, followed quickly by criticism from journalists and pundits.

“How will the nation ever address the enduring market failures, glaring inequality, and big social-safety-net gaps that the Build Back Better plan was designed to tackle?” asked New Yorker columnist John Cassidy. Manchin was also accused of voting against his state’s interests, while others attributed his no vote to the fact that he takes campaign money from the coal, oil and gas industries. This week, the coal miners’ union upped the pressure by calling on West Virginia’s senior senator to vote for BBB.

As a political scientist who has studied and written about Congress for over 50 years, I do not find it surprising that an incumbent more conservative than the average Democratic senator should balk at legislation he considers too liberal. Nor was it surprising when a Republican who occupied a space on the spectrum to the left of the average GOP senator vexed party leaders by voting at the last minute to preserve the Affordable Care Act, which is what John McCain did.

I don’t find any of that surprising because I was around when Bill Clinton came to office —  after 12 years of Republican presidents — with high hopes for universal health care, a large jobs stimulus plan, tax increases, family leave, and a major energy tax. A brief review of some of these measures and who determined their fate is useful.

The energy tax (calculated on British thermal units) was reduced to a small increase at the gas pump by moderate Senate Democrats from oil patch states, most specifically John Breaux of Louisiana and Oklahoma’s David Boren. That duo, plus Sun Belt moderates such as Sam Nunn and Dennis DeConcini made sure that Clinton didn’t derail the North American Trade Agreement over environmental and labor issues, which is what labor-friendly colleagues were pressuring the administration to do. In order to get his job stimulus bill through Congress, Clinton jettisoned some urban spending and an expansion of student loan grants. Legislation expanding national service programs had to be cut by over half before centrist Democrats would vote for it. And the much-touted universal health care bill shepherded by first lady Hillary Clinton never made it out of the relevant House committees. Reps. Mike Andrews of Texas and Jim Cooper of Tennessee were among those who objected to the cost.

The same pattern held when the Republicans took over Congress in 1995 for the first time in 40 years and tried to enact various elements of their “Contract With America.” The Senate during 104th Congress had only 52 Republicans, meaning that it needed the votes of every centrist Republican to pass anything. Two states alone prevented conservatives from acting on balanced budget legislation, term limits, and efforts to curb unfunded mandates. Oregon’s delegation (Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood) and Maine’s (William Cohen and Olympia Snowe) were made of confirmed moderates. These four, along with Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and Democrat-turned-Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado forced the leadership to simply abandon the idea of reducing Medicare and Medicaid. 

Given this history, no one should be surprised that a moderate (or conservative, if you prefer) Democrat elected from a conservative state that Joe Biden lost by nearly 40 percentage points should balk about transformative progressive legislation or that such a lawmaker can determine the fate of major legislation. As I say, it’s happened before. The George W. Bush administration began with a 50/50 Senate with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote in case of ties. Some of Bush’s conservative policies ranging from tax cuts to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were watered down by a combination of more liberal Republicans (including Snowe and Specter), along with newer additions Lincoln Chafee and Susan Collins of Maine. Jim Jeffords actually left the GOP, swinging the balance in the upper chamber.

Yet today things are different. What distinguishes Manchin and his treatment from that of Breaux, Boren,  Specter, Snowe and the others?  The first thing is that there are not many Democrats elected to the Senate from “red” states anymore. I’m talking about Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. In Clinton’s first Congress, 20 of the 26 Senate seats representing these states were held by Democrats. In the present Senate, there is one, and only one, Democrat elected from those 13 states. Yes, his name is Joe Manchin.

In the 103rd Congress, the states of Delaware, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington had more Republican than Democratic senators. In the present Senate these states have no Republican senators. The sorting and polarization that has occurred over the last three decades results in fewer moderate senators of either political party. The smaller the number of such lawmakers the more likely they are to be targeted for criticism and electoral challenge. In the Clinton era it was harder to assail them because there were more of them — and they were people whom liberals might need on the next key legislative vote.

The overall effect of party sorting is that voting in the Congress has become much more polarized. In the Senate during Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House, Americans for Democratic Action (a liberal organization that awards numerical scores to members of Congress) recorded an average of 75% percent support among Democratic senators for liberal policy, with 13 of them showing less than two-thirds support for ADA-backed legislation.

In the same Congress, the ADA gave Republican senators an average score of 20%, with seven moderates registering scores between 40% and 75%. These scores are in sharp contrast to the contemporary Senate where, in 2020 (the last year data are available), the average Democratic score was over 95% percent while Republicans averaged less than 4%. The lowest Democratic senator — no surprise — was Manchin, who voted the liberal position 75% of the time, a score equal to the average in the 103rd Senate.

On the Republican side there were only two senators who scored over 10% on the liberal index with the high score being 25%. In sum, in the sorted and polarized Congress there are fewer and fewer moderates. And while moderates like Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema still impact legislative results, they increasingly face scathing attacks from members of their own party. Manchin’s position was labeled “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant” (Rep. Cori Bush)  and his reasoning “bullshit” (Ilhan Omar). House Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal claimed publicly that Manchin “betrayed his commitment not only to the president and Democrats in Congress but, most importantly, to the American people.” 

In the days when there were more centrists in Congress, one did not find the intensity and number of such intra-party attacks. Much is lost in addition to civility. Those senators closest to the 50th vote in the chamber have always transformed policy. The end result in the Clinton and Bush presidencies was legislative compromise that, in each case, prevented the party in power from veering too far in the direction of the ideological purists and their party’s left or right base.

In the politically sorted and polarized Congress today, there is little tolerance for anything other than extreme policy. This is one obvious reason why the American people do not think highly of the Congress and its policy process. In the final YouGov poll of Donald Trump’s presidency, only 14% of registered voters approved of the job Congress is doing. Those numbers have ticked up slightly in the past year, but in the RealClearPolitics poll average, a solid two-thirds of voters disapprove of Congress.

The ultimate question that liberal purists must ask themselves is: How do we win a majority — or get anything accomplished — if Democrats such as Joe Manchin and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (pictured) of Virginia are not progressive enough? Republicans face an even more difficult quandary: How do they build sustainable majorities if everyone who accepts the outcome of the 2020 presidential election is not fit to be a GOP candidate for elective office?

It is these days hard to imagine West Virginia electing a Democrat. If Manchin were not in the Senate, where would the liberal agenda be? Without winning Senate and House races in more moderate or conservative states like Arizona, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, it is hard to see how Democrats will maintain control of Congress in future elections. The intense criticism of Manchin and Sinema for defending the filibuster and questioning Build Back Better is unlikely to move crucial centrist-minded independents to maintain Democratic control of both branches of the Congress. If and when Republicans regain the majority, they will be faced with the same purity problem but over a different set of issues, mainly those revolving around Donald Trump’s ambitions. In sum, for both parties, purity is fatal for solving problems and sustaining majorities.


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