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Fact Check: Are the “Extremes from Each Party” Really in Control of Congress?

As part of its push to change politics to prevent “unseemly populism,” cut Social Security and Medicare, deunionize teachers and restore “respect for wealth creation,” the “Common Sense Coalition” identifies this platform as part of the “common sense” “center,” deviations from which are “extreme.” In a May 1 guest post at The Common Sense Coalition, Charles Wheelan asserts that in Congress, this “center” is weak and neutered:

Who matters most in the current Supreme Court? Anthony Kennedy, because he represents the court’s political center and is the swing vote in most 5-4 decisions. Yet just across town in the Capitol, the opposite force is at play: the extremes in each party hold the most power and the political middle has been neutered.

This kind of perception by Wheelan is perhaps understandable: nearly everyone in politics has a subjective feeling that their agenda is getting short shrift. But is that subjective feeling factually accurate? Do the extremes in each party hold the most power in Congress? Has the “political middle” in Congress been neutered? Let’s run a fact check and find out.

Today, let’s consider the upper house of Congress, the Senate. Because we can’t say for sure yet which forces will win out in the 113th Congress (it’s not even half over) let’s look at the most recently completed session of Congress, the 112th Congress of 2011-2012. We’ll look at two indications of “holding the most power” — leadership positions and bills passed.

Measuring Ideology

Who is in the ideological center in the Senate? We’ll answer this question two ways, the first based on a measure close to home. The Net liberal score we measure at the That’s My Congress website begins with a process in which we read through bills before the Senate, and identify votes taken or “cosponsorships” (signatures of support) made that are liberal or conservative in effect. Our net liberal score for a Senator is the percent of possible liberal actions the Senator actually takes, minus the percent of possible conservative actions the Senator actually takes. That resulting score ranges from +100 (wholly liberal) to -100 (wholly conservative), and reflects one measure of ideological range in the Senate. Those in the middle of the range can be thought of as the ideological “center.” By the measure we make at That’s My Congress, the following 20 Senators constitute the center (ordered from center-left to center-right):

Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller (D)
Sen. Daniel Patrick Inouye (D)
Sen. Kent Conrad (D)
Sen. Tim Johnson (D)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D)
Sen. Ben Nelson (D)
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R)
Sen. Harry Reid (D)
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D)
Sen. Mark Pryor (D)
Sen. Joe Manchin (D)
Sen. Susan Collins (R)
Sen. Mike Lee (R)
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D)
Sen. Scott Brown (R)
Sen. Rand Paul (R)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R)
Sen. Jim DeMint (R)

Another measure of ideology in the Senate using a very different method is the DW-NOMINATE score for a Senator in the 112th Congress, calculated by Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and their political science colleagues. DW-NOMINATE ideology scores are calculated regarding only roll-call voting, and without any reference to the content of the legislation regarding which senators vote. Rather, DW-NOMINATE scores are indications of similarity in voting across all of the roll-call votes for the 112th Congress. Those who vote similarly are referred to as similar in ideology; Poole and Rosenthal have shown that Senators largely line up in order along one line stretching from those they would call very liberal Democrats to those they would call very conservative Republicans. As with our own ideological measure, those in the middle of the range can be thought of as the ideological “center.” By this DW-NOMINATE measure, the following 20 Senators constitute the center (ordered from center-left to center-right):

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D)
Senator Michael Bennet (D)
Senator Mark Warner (D)
Senator Kay Hagan (D)
Senator Max Baucus (D)
Senator Joseph Lieberman (I)
Senator Mark Pryor (D)
Senator Mary Landrieu (D)
Senator Bill Nelson (D)
Senator James Webb (D)
Senator Thomas Carper (D)
Senator Claire McCaskill (D)
Senator Joe Manchin (D)
Senator Ben Nelson (D)
Senator Susan Collins (R)
Senator Scott Brown (R)
Senator Olympia Snowe (R)
Senator Mark Kirk (R)
Senator John Hoeven (R)

For each of these two measures of the “center”, there are 20 senators close to the left (we could call them the “center-left 5th”) and another 20 senators farthest to the left (the “left 5th”). Similarly, there are 20 senators close to the right of the center (the “center-right 5th”) and another 2 senators who are farthest to the right (the “right 5th”). Dividing 100 senators into neat fifths helps us to identify the center, the extremes, and those in between. We can then ask the question that check Charles Wheelan’s claims. Who’s got the power? Who’s neutered? Let’s find out.

Leadership Positions

One measure of power is whether one holds a leadership position. The most important leaderhip positions for the Senate in the 112th Congress are listed here, and there are conveniently 10 of these identified leaders — 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans. If leaders were equally distributed according to gender, there would be 2 of them in each fifth of the Senate. How are they actually distributed? That depends on which measurement of ideology you make

Number of Leaders by Ideology from That’s My Congress Rankings:
Left Fifth: 2
Mid-Left Fifth: 1
Middle Fifth: 2
Mid-Right Fifth: 1
Right Fifth: 4

Number of Leaders by Ideology from DW-NOMINATE Scores:
Left Fifth: 2
Mid-Left Fifth: 3
Middle Fifth: 0
Mid-Right Fifth: 2
Right Fifth: 3

If That’s My Congress rankings are your standard for ideology, then the middle gets as many leaders as you’d expect by chance (although 4 out of 5 Republican leaders would be placed on the extreme right). If, on the other hand, DW-NOMINATE scores are your standard for ideology, then the middle fifth is left out of leadership, with one too many of those leadership positions going to the moderate left and one too many of those leadership positions going to the extreme right. These former results are inconsistent with Wheelan’s claims; the latter results are consistent with Wheelan’s claims.

Bills Passed

What if we consider power in the Senate to be a function of bills passed by that body? When members in the ideological middle are the primary sponsors of a set of bills, what percentage of those are passed by the Senate? Is that percentage greater or smaller for the middle than for the extremes? For each member of the Senate, I’ve looked back at records of primary sponsorship of bills and determined which ones were passed by the Senate. The results show the following distribution of bill success:

Percentage of Bills passed by the Senate of Leaders by Ideology from That’s My Congress Rankings:
Left Fifth: 12.4%
Mid-Left Fifth: 10.5%
Middle Fifth: 17.9%
Mid-Right Fifth: 18.7%
Right Fifth: 13.7%

Percentage of Bills passed by the Senate of Leaders by Ideology from DW-NOMINATE Scores:
Left Fifth: 12.4%
Mid-Left Fifth: 15.1%
Middle Fifth: 12.5%
Mid-Right Fifth: 19.3%
Right Fifth: 10.3%

If That’s My Congress rankings are your standard for ideology, then the middle and the middle-right of the Senate have the highest bill passage rates. If, on the other hand, DW-NOMINATE scores are your standard for ideology, then the middle fifth does no worse than the left extreme and actually fares moderately better than the right extreme. None of these results are consistent with Wheelan’s claims; either the ideological center fares no worse than the ideological extremes or it actually fares substantially better.

Conclusion
Let’s sum up:

  • If you believe that leadership positions are the primary marker of power in the Senate, then by one measure of ideology Charles Wheelan’s claim about the poor, neglected center in Congress is upheld, but by the other measure of ideology it is refuted.
  • If you believe that bill success is the primary marker of power in the Senate, then by both measures of ideology Charles Wheelan’s claim is refuted.

To find support for Wheelan’s neglected-center claim, you’d have to pick and choose measures of political power and ideology carefully — and if you join the mid-left and mid-right to the center, Wheelan’s claims look even more dubious — with the exception of the Republican right, the extremes do not seem to be advantaged in the Senate. These results are not nearly strong enough to form the basis for a movement, grassroots or not.

2 comments to Fact Check: Are the “Extremes from Each Party” Really in Control of Congress?

  • Bill

    An interesting analysis. Thanks for your hard work.

    Of course, one might argue that in our current do-nothing obstructionist Congress, an important manifestation of ‘power’ is success in preventing things from happening: blocking appointments, preventing bills from getting out of committee, filibustering, killing amendments. Unfortunately, I suspect this aspect of power would be tough to quantitatively analyze.

    • Jim Cook

      Thanks for writing in on this, Bill. I’m sure there are lots of other ways of measuring power or success. I think that “preventing bills from getting out of committee” and “filibustering” at least would show up in the measure in this post, though, since such actions would lead to the less powerful or less successful getting fewer of their bills passed.

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