Party Power vs. State Power

One of the surest ways to identify which politicians are considering a run for the Presidency is to check and see who has been visiting Iowa.  Iowa is especially important to prospective candidates because it is first state on the primary election calendar to vote for the candidates of each party. Not only is Iowa first,  its voters also select the state winner through the complex party caucus process where voters mull about in gymnasiums across the state lining up behind candidates and striking deals for the votes  with the supporters of second-tier candidates.

A recent LA Times article, however, notes that there are grumblings amongst party operatives about repeatedly having Iowa inaugurate the Presidential primary season. After all, for Iowa has been the first to vote in the presidential contest. The state has  fewer minorities and a larger than average rural population than most states.  For Republican candidates the attendees of the Republican caucus tend to be quite socially conservative, leading some to argue that this keeps more moderate candidates from gaining initial traction.  Nevertheless, change does not appear to be on the horizon.  The LA Times reports:

Iowa’s starting role on the campaign calendar appears safe for now. Republicans have once more placed the caucuses at the head of the nominating calendar, to be followed by New Hampshire’s traditional leadoff primary. Democrats are expected to follow suit. President Obama’s 2008 caucus win helped send him to the White House, and he carried the state twice in the general election, so there is no clamor to tinker with the party’s selection process or downgrade Iowa’s import.

As the Logic of American Politics text notes in Chapter 11, candidates tend to converge on the median voter of an election. When Iowa begins the election process, it’s median voter helps shape the political landscape for future states. Losing in Iowa can cause candidates to drop out who otherwise would be viable in some of the primaries in later states.

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Filed under 07. The Presidency, 11. Voting, Campaigns, and Elections, Uncategorized

Money Makes the World (and Politics) Go Round …

Political campaigns are becoming increasingly professionalized. Parties send campaign operatives to work with promising candidates to ensure they don’t get tripped by gaffes of one sort or another. But professionals don’t work for free, which makes campaigns more and more expensive.  For candidates getting a professional campaign off the ground takes fundraising. Recently, news reports identify potential presidential candidates are taking advantage of new campaign finance rules to court mega-wealthy campaign donors:

The rise of super PACs has amplified and accelerated the quadrennial donor chase. Candidates now know a single billionaire can make or break their fortunes—as they saw in 2012, when mega-donors Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess propped up the candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

It only takes a few wealthy donors to kickstart a campaign. New campaign finance rules allow individuals to spend as much money as they like to influence an election outcome (so long as they don’t officially coordinate with the candidate’s campaign).

One consequence of the new campaign finance system has been the rise of the “shadow primary” in presidential elections. Even before candidates officially run for office they must seek these well-heeled donors. And if they cannot secure guarantees for financial support, their campaign for president is over even before it officially began. That period is the shadow primary.

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Revolving Door

In January 2006, former lobbyist Jack Abramhoff was sentenced to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. The political fallout of the scandal led Congress to pass several new regulations overseeing who can be lobbyist, the access these lobbyists have to public officials, and the ways in which they can legally advocate on behalf of their partners.

One of these reforms was to slow the revolving door between working for members of Congress and  lobbying on behalf of special interests. As well intentioned as these new reforms were meant to be, a New York Times report suggests that they have done little to stanch the flow of congressional staff to K Street positions. 

Federal ethics rules are intended to limit lobbying by former senior officials within one year after they leave the government. Yet even after the ethics rules were revised in 2007 following a lobbying scandal, more than 1,650 congressional aides have registered to lobby within a year of leaving Capitol Hill.

The many exceptions written into the original law appear to allow many congressional staffers leaving the halls of Capital Hill for lobbying positions to circumvent the spirit of the law and lobby their former offices immediately.  As  scholarly work shows, the ability for congressional staffers-turned-lobbyists to meet with their former bosses is a highly lucrative position.  “Lobbyists with experience in the office of a US Senator suffer a 24% drop in generated revenue when that Senator leaves office. The effect is immediate, discontinuous around the exit period, and long-lasting.”

Access to members of Congress is extraordinarily lucrative. As recent experience shows, reforming the system to prevent untoward arrangements is a piecemeal process.

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Filed under 06. The Congress, 13. Interest Groups, 15. The Prospects for Institution Reform

Federalism and Polarization

What do California, Colorado, Michigan, and New Mexico have in common? According to a recent report these states contain the most polarized state legislatures in the U.S.   But whereas two parties at war with one another has brought the legislative process to a grinding halt in Washington DC, in 9 out of the 10 most polarized states one party controls both chambers of the legislature. As a result, states are enacting broad and sweeping changes to state laws. These changes, depending on which party is in power, are taking states in radically different directions.  

But unlike Congress, where polarization and split party control has contributed to the lowest [legislative productivity] in decades, states legislatures are different. That’s because all but four are controlled by a single party, according to data collected by the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Factor in the party of each state’s governor and there are still 37 states where one party controls the legislative and executive branches. Among the 26 states with legislatures more polarized than Congress, all but seven are single-party states.

The causes of polarization at the state levels are likely as diverse and subject to interpretation as the many purported reasons why polarization has increased at the national level.  As the Logic Of American Politics Text book, discusses in Chapter 12, “Political Parties” modern parties are becoming better organized with time and surveys show that voters are increasingly able to see important differences in what the two parties stand for. As the graph below shows, for citizens of many states, it should be equally clear what the differences are between parties at the state level.

 (The Monkey Cage)



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Abortion Politics

The Supreme Court recently dismissed Oklahoma’s appeal of a state law intended to prevent doctors from prescribing two drugs commonly used to induce early pregnancy abortions.

As the LA Times article describes:

“The justices could have scheduled the Oklahoma case for argument to decide how far states can go in regulating abortion drugs. Instead, they issued an order saying the appeal petition is “dismissed as improvidently granted.”

The Logic of American Politics textbook makes clear (see Chapter 9 The Federal Judiciary– Judicial Decision Making) that extraordinarily few court cases ever petition for an opinion from the Supreme Court, and of those that do, fewer still (less than 100 a year) are ever given the opportunity to argue their case before the court. In order to come before the highest court four of the nine justices must support hearing the case, a process known formally as granting a writ of certiorari or simply the rule of four.

Because of the sizable opportunity costs for the Supreme Court’s time to hear a case, only the most important legal matters are ever considered.  While there are proponents and opponents of abortion rights who would argue that the Oklahoma case meets that level of importance, the justices of the Supreme Court of also strategic actors. If a clear majority of the justices have no interest in changing the court’s existing position on the abortion protections, it makes little sense to bring such a controversial and polarizing topic before the court. A simple denial serves the same purpose.


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Filed under 09. The Federal Judiciary, Uncategorized

Government Shutdown and Discharge Petitions

The US government is partially shutdown at the moment. For political scientists who study American politics this event serves as an opportunity to inform the public about the legislative process.  Today we will focus on the discharge petition. Chapter 6 of the Logic textbook reminds us that “a discharge petition removes a measure from a committee to which it has been referred in order to make it available for floor consideration. In the House a discharge petition must be signed by a majority of House members (218)”.  

Conventional wisdom holds that conservative hard line Republicans in the House have forced Speaker John Boehner’s hand into pushing for a government shutdown over funding for Obamacare.  Furthermore, there may be more moderate members of the Republican caucus who either philosophically disagree with that position or do not believe that the shutdown will aid their electoral prospects come next fall. To that end, some have been arguing that these more moderate Republicans may join with Democrats to force a vote on a “clean” Continuing Resolution by signing onto a discharge petition for a bill that does not cut Obamacare funding.

According to Professor Sarah Binder, a preeminent expert on the rules of the House, even though the discharge petition sounds like a potential solution to the current crisis, it would simply take too long to help legislators. 

“Under the House discharge rule, a majority of the membership (218 lawmakers, even if some seats are vacant) can sign a petition to dislodge a bill or resolution from a House committee.  With the requisite number of signatures (made public here), a majority can extract any bill that has been stuck in a committee for more than 30 legislative days.  Members can also target special rules that are stuck in the Rules Committee, so long as the rule has been before House Rules for more than seven legislative days and so long as the rule targets a bill stuck at least 30 days in committee. Once 218 members sign on, motions to discharge land on the House discharge calendar.  If you are a bill in a hurry for a vote, don’t tread there.   The House considers motions from the discharge calendar on only the second and fourth Mondays of the month.”

It looks like they may need to find a different way, as this one may just simply too long. 

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Filed under 06. The Congress

Majority Leader – minority support

After peering over the precipice several times over the past few years, Congress has finally taken the plunge and partially shutdown the government.  By failing to reach an agreement to pass a stopgap spending bill before midnight last night the government lacks the authority to pay nonessential employees. The House and Senate now appear to be waiting for the other side to crack.  While the consequences of the government shutdown will be more widely felt in the coming days–800,000 furloughed government workers, National Park closures, and disruptions to a host of government services–the court of public opinion has already weighed in on the issue.

Quinnipiac University National Poll finds that by a margin of 72 percent to 22 percent, American voters oppose a government shutdown over attempts to block the Affordable Care Act, the position of House Republicans. Additionally, a plurality of respondents to a New York time poll say that Republicans are to blame for the shutdown.

This isn’t much of a surprise, as earlier polls also indicated that Republicans were likely to receive the blame for a shutdown.  This all raises the question: Why would John Boehner, Speaker of the House and party leader of House Republicans, put his caucus in this position?  

In an interview with Washington Post writer Ezra Klein, congressional reporter Robert Costa argues that John Boehner is appeasing a conservative faction of the Republican caucus. In short, Speaker Boehner has an electoral incentive to play by the rules. The Speaker of the House is an elected position out of the members of the the House of Representatives, one whose nomination process is heavily controlled by the parties.

This group of 30 to 40 hardliner conservatives likely come from strongly Republican districts and themselves are consequentially insulated from the electoral fallout of the government shutdown and budget showdown.  The same may not be true for more moderate members of the Republican Party who represent more competitive electoral districts.    Chapter 6 of Logic of American Politics reminds us that members of Congress tend to be more popular in their own district than the popularity of Congress as a whole.  At some point the pressure to keep their jobs next election will start to cleave apart moderate House Republicans from the will of their party.  The real question is how long it will take Speaker Boehner to feel that his job security as Speaker lies with the moderates of his party and not the hardliners.

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Filed under 06. The Congress, 12. Political Parties