Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Madam Speaker: Use the Rules!

There's an extensive commentary about whether the bailout is the right thing to do.

And there's also an extensive commentary about why the bailout failed in the House yesterday.

I think the bailout vote failed in part because the majority party didn't make good use of their most powerful ally: creative rules.

Most major legislation is brought to the House floor by using a rule. As I tell my students in my Legislative Process class, when bills emerge from committee they are placed on the House Calendar. However, very often major pieces of legislation need to be acted upon before their place on the calendar. In these instances, the majority party leadership will ask the rules committee for a rule to bring the bill up for debate earlier. And in the case of major legislation that is very carefully crafted, the majority party will ask for a rule to protect the carefully crafted compromise from hostile amendments.

In absence of a rule governing debate on a bill, nearly anything can happen. Anyone might submit an amendment, and debate might drag on for sometime. Instead, rules typically proscribe the length of the debate and the amendments that will be in order. Before taking up a bill with a rule, the rule is debate and voted upon first, and then--once the rule passes (a near-certainty)--debate will be take up under the guidelines of the rule.

For example, a rule might indicate that debate will be for one hour, with time equally divided between proponents and opponents of the bill. No points of order will be allowed, and only two amendments made by the chair of the committee of jurisdiction will be allowed.

The vote on the bailout was a difficult choice for many members, particularly members in the majority party from marginal districts or those running for higher office. Nearly all of them voted no. Had members from marginal districts voted yes, then the Democrats would have had an ample margin to pass the bill.

Why didn't those Democrats vote yes? Because the bill put them in a tough position. Much of the public is opposed to the bailout, and in this instance, those members chose to act as delegates rather than trustees. And who could blame them?

Pelosi, though, could have anticipated this and drafted a rule that would have allayed the concerns of these members. For example, she could have brought the bill up for consideration under a King of the Hill rule. This rule allows votes on several alternative versions of the bill. The bill that is in the final position is the only vote that will count.

So, one could imagine crafting several different versions of the bill to allow those members in tough re-election fights to vote for or against several other versions of the bill and then casting their vote in favor of the final version. Then they could go back to their constituents and say: "I voted against all these harsher versions" or "I voted for all these harsher versions" before I doing the "right" thing and voting for the compromise legislation.

But Pelosi didn't do that. The bill failed, and the stock markets collapsed.

Pay careful attention to what the leadership does next. Stay tuned, and follow the rule and the proposed legislation here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Using Senate and House Races as predictors

Coattails. Political scientists make a big deal about the ability of presidential candidates to drag Senate and House candidates into the legislature behind them. Frankly, presidential coattails have been getting rather short over the past thirty years. Reagan's electoral victory in 1980 brought him a Republican majority in the Senate and dragged a number of conservatives into the House, but after that, presidential candidates have generally underperformed on the coattail metric. Clinton actually had negative coattails in 1992: a net loss of 9 House seats and no gains in the United States Senate. In 1996, Democrats gained 8 House seats but lost 2 in the Senate. And of course, Republicans lost two and four House and Senate seats, respectively, in 2000 despite a Bush victory.

These "split" results are all the more interesting given the propensity of voters to increasingly vote unified tickets since the 1980s. That is, voters are more likely today to cast straight party tickets than they were nearly thirty years ago. Coattails have diminished for other reasons, most notably due to the decline of competitive House seats (likely do to residential self-selection and increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering by the parties).

Given this tidbit, it is interesting to see what's happening in the Senate and House races across the country right now.

At the moment, according to some estimates, Democrats may pick up as many as seven or eight seats in the Senate. And Democrats might pick up 5 to 10 seats in the House.

What might this tell us about the presidential election?

Here's a look at the Senate seats Democrats are poised to pick up (according to the website electoral-vote.com):

New Mexico
North Carolina
New Hampshire

In 2004, all but Oregon and New Hampshire cast electoral college votes for Bush. Now, Sarah Palin certainly secures Alaska for McCain. But if voters in the other states vote for their Democratic Senate candidates and Obama together, then the election isn't even close. Picking up these states and holding those states that Kerry won in 2004 yields an electoral college vote of 294 for Obama. If only NM and VA flip, Obama is the new president.

I simply do not agree with media assessments that this race will come down to the same battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The electoral map has been expanded, and in part, Obama can thank the efforts of both Howard Dean and the Democratic Senatorial Committee. Dean built the Democratic party infrastructure in so-called red states, while Chuck Schumer aggressively courted quality challengers to run for the Senate.

Competitive campaign environments saturate the information environment for voters, making it easier to overcome the costs of voting. This should increase turnout and increasing turnout likely benefits Democrats, given that their natural constituencies are less likely to vote than Republican constituents. Mark Warner will win in November, and if Obama wins Virginia, he very likely will have Mark Warner's campaign to thank. Coattails indeed.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Debate

Tonight, I watched the Obama-McCain Debate with about 50 Montana State students. It was a treat: I really enjoyed learning from the students and sharing our thoughts about the debate. I can't wait until the VP debate next week.

A couple of quick thoughts:

I thought this was one of the best presidential debates I've watched. Both candidates were serious, both candidates were articulate, and both candidates demonstrated a deep understanding the issues. Gosh, I can't imagine a time when I've been really proud of BOTH candidates.

What shocked me was how the undecided students reacted to the debate. Every single one of them thought Obama had won. I, however, had a harder time figuring out who won. IF we accept that the McCain is better on foreign policy and that Obama demonstrated that he could play effectively on that terrain, then that suggests that Obama won with a "tie".

We watched the debate on CNN and I paid a lot of attention to the lines indicating how voters reacted to the statements of the candidates. I missed the pre-debate discussion that the voters were actually a group of OH voters (32 voters) and not a representative group of voters. Yet, CNN labeled the graph as the audience reaction. We agreed that CNN should have labeled the graph as Focus Group voters.

What was notable in this debate was the lack of pithy sound bites. There was no clear line, in my opinion, from either candidate that will be played over and over.

I asked students about what disappointed them about both candidates. Some were disappointed by the snipping and bickering between the two candidates. Perhaps this is generational, but I really liked them going after each other. What disappointed me was both their answers on the bailout: I wanted more specifics.

Students felt that both candidates should pay attention to how voters reacted to their statements. I found it amazing that McCain did not do as well vis a vis the focus group. There were moments when the self-identified GOP voters gave Obama high marks, and I noticed that more often than not McCain did well with his base but less so with independents and Democrats. McCain has to do better with those independents to win.

We'll do this again next week, so stay tuned!

Monday, September 22, 2008

$700 Billion: Where's the Fireside Chat?

I was reading the Washington Post this evening, as I typically do, and I noted a piece on the front page where folks in Manassas Park, VA were asked what they thought about the government's proposed bailout of banks. Manassas Park is notable because it is apparently a part of Prince William County that's been hit hard by foreclosures. It's one of those exburb type communites--30 miles from DC--where subdivisions have cropped up over the past decade and where gas prices hit commuters hard. Read the piece here.

In any case, despite the desperate straits folks find themselves in, hardly anyone expressed support for the government's bailout plan.

Then it dawned upon me: Where's the Fireside Chat?

If this is the greatest economic crisis since the nation faced the Great Depression, why hasn't the President appeared on national television to explain the crisis in detail so the average person could understand it? If this is so important to the national well being, shouldn't the President at least try to get public opinion behind it?

Let's put this into some historical perspective. Banks were failing all over the country in 1933, right before FDR was inaugurated. The average level of educational attainment was much lower than today-perhaps an 8th or 9th grade education. People did not understand why banks were failing, and why the federal government had called for a Bank Holiday. People were scared about losing their life savings. And so FDR, in the first of his fireside chats, spoke plainly and directly to the nation, putting them at ease, explaining how banks work and why the Bank Holiday was necessary. After the Bank Holiday ended, bank deposits soared. FDR had created a sense of national confidence despite the dire situation.

Listen to the first Fireside Chat here:

The educational attainment of Americans has gone up dramatically over the past 70 plus years. And yet, the crisis facing the mortgage and banking industry is much more complex. The average American simply doesn't understand what's going on--and yet we are expected to pledge more money than the government has spent on Iraq in an apparent bid to save those who lived outside their means. While there might be a very good reason to do this, it is absolutely necessary for the President to exercise leadership on this and to explain, carefully and patiently to the American people, why this is necessary--and necessary fast.

The bailout is no sure thing. Democrats are putting conditions on their support (some of those conditions are reasonable, while others are not) and Republicans in return are calling for their own conditions. If it is truly important to get this through Congress before they recess for the fall elections, and to do so without conditions, then the President must act and act forcefully. Maybe the President does not want to do so for fear that his low approval ratings might actually make the prospects of passage even worse. I'm not sure I agree.

But sitting back, without explaining to the nation why we should trust him, his Secretary of Treasury, his appointee to the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, and Capitol Hill's leadership, is abdicating one of his greatest responsibilities as an executive.

The Presidential Debates: Watch'm

The first presidential debate, on the campus of Ole Miss, will be held this Friday at 6PM MDT. Given that the political conventions this year drew the largest television audience in history, I suspect these events will be well-watched and will help many voters make up their minds.

To put the debates in perspective, here's a link to a great website with resources for all the past presidential debates.

The first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between JFK and Richard Nixon. Interestingly, people who heard the debate on the radio felt Nixon had won and those who watched the debates thought Kennedy had. The television audience was larger, and when you watch footage of the debate, it is easy to see why Kennedy was perceived as the victor: he looked confident, tanned, and attractive. Nixon, with his shifting eyes and four o'clock shadow showing through without the benefit of makeup, confirmed the suspicions many had of him. Fair or not, the image of JFK may have made the difference in one of America's closest presidential elections.

The key goal in a presidential debate is to at least meet expectations and not make any mistakes. Ford's claim that the Soviet Union did not dominate Poland probably hurt him in 1976. Reagan's performance in 1980 demonstrated that he wasn't the reactionary nut the Carter administration tried to paint him as, and George HW Bush's looking at his watch in 1992 during the town hall debate fed into the perception that he didn't understand the average person. And who can forget the first presidential debate in 2000: Al Gore's sighing, and Bush's inability to project confidence and policy knowledge.

Here's what I will be looking for on Friday:

Can McCain project energy to overcome the Obama's youthful image?
How will Obama deal with McCain's attacks?
Will McCain keep his temper in check?
Can Obama actually take the gloves off without coming off as mean (remember his snide remark to Hillary, "You're likeable enough?")
Can Obama articulate a vision of America and project an understanding of the average citizen?
Can McCain blunt Obama's advantage on the economy?

And, most importantly:

How many times will Obama mention the "McCain-Bush" team? And how many times will McCain mention Bush in return?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Experience and the VP slot

There have been a lot of discussions in presidential campaigns about experience. How much experience is necessary to be a successful president? A successful Vice President? And what experience is relevant?

In this election, the experience question was most dramatically raised in the Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton ran ads suggesting Barack Obama did not have the experience necessary to answer the phone at 3 am. And over the summer, the McCain campaign attacked Obama as a celebrity with no experience. Now that Sarah Palin has been announced as McCain's VP nominee, the question has been raised again: does Palin have enough experience and the right experience to take over for McCain should the unthinkable happen?

First, let me say there is no constitutional mandate outlining the proper mix of experience. The only qualifications concern residency and age. That's it. The entire debate, then, is about the popular perception that experience matters and that some experience is better than other experience.

I was curious. How much experience did Sarah Palin have compared to other VP nominees in the twentieth century? And how does her experience as an executive--which the McCain folks argue is particularly important and useful--match up against other nominees?

I researched the backgrounds of each Republican and Democratic nomineee for Vice President, beginning in 1900. I looked only at elected office experience. Congressional scholars use this to define a quality challeger, so I employ the same definition here. I make no claims about the quality or type of experience in this analysis. That's up for you, the reader, to judge. I simply want to look at one easily quantifiable measure of experience. This chart here compares the Democratic nominee (in blue) to the Republican nominee (in red) in each election cycle:

Note that Palin is on the low end of elected office experience. Lloyd Bentsen is the clear winner here: he had more than 40 years of elected office experience when Mike Dukakis nominated him in 1988. Among Republicans, Hoover's Vice President Charles Curtis had 34 years of elective office experience when he stood for re-election in 1932. Overall, Republican nominees averaged 13 years of experience while Democratic nominees averaged 16. Palin's 12 years of elective office experience is just below the mean for Republicans, but she is certainly not the least experienced nominee in the 20th century. Among Republicans, Charles Dawes and Frank Knox had no elective office experience. FDR's second Vice President, Henry Wallace, was a well-respected agricultural expert and Agriculture Secretary, but similarly had no elected office experience.

Palin does stand out, however, in the amount of executive experience she has as a major party VP nominee. The modal category is zero--meaning most Vice Presidential candidates have zero executive experience. Look at this chart:

Republican and Democratic VP nominees average, collectively, about 2 years of executive experience. Again, we are only looking at elected executive experience, so Cabinet level offices do not count here. Among Republican nominees, only Earl Warren and John Bricker have more executive experience than Palin. Thomas Marshall, after serving a term as Woodrow Wilson's VP, had the same amount of executive experience as Palin does: eight years.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Who's the maverick?

Obama says he will bring change and a new nonpartisanship to Washington. McCain says he's the original maverick, and has the experience to prove it. Biden says McCain voted with President Bush 95% of the time; he's no maverick. The Republicans say Barack has no record of acting bipartisan in Washington.

Who's right?

The problem with cherry-picking data is it feeds into the old adage that students so often like to cite: "You can make statistics say anything."

Biden's statistics are correct: in 2007, John McCain supported President Bush 95% when the president announced a stand on a Senate roll call vote. This is according to the presidential support scores calculated by Congressional Quarterly annually, and used by political scientists who study both institutions. Unfortunately, this does not necessary answer the question of whether McCain is a maverick or not. Some media accounts report that there were a lot of immigration votes that year. It just so happened that Bush and McCain agreed on immigration: the problem was, the rest of the party left them hanging dry. Presidential support scores are problematic because they take a small subset of Senate roll call votes and don't give a good sense of whether someone is willing to buck the party.

Instead, I recommend looking at the party unity score--also calculated by Congressional Quarterly. This score is defined as the percentage of the time the member of Congress voted with their party when 50 percent of the party voted one way and 50 percent of the other party voted the other way (or vice versa).

For example, a party unity vote has to have at least half the Republicans voting nay on an issue and half the Democrats voting yea to be considered in the analysis. This eliminates procedural votes and commemorative legislation that often passes with overwhelming partisan majorities. This gives us a better look at who is willing to buck the party on a number of issues, whether the president takes a stand or not.

Here's a chart of McCain's Party Unity Averages by Congressional session, beginning with the 100th Senate and ending with the 109th. Next to McCain's score, you'll see the Republican Senate average for that session:

Congress McCain GOP Average
100 88 77
101 84 78
102 88 83
103 91 84
104 91 91
105 84 87
106 87 90
107 71 86
108 84 92
109 81 89

Like many members of Congress, McCain voted more often with the party early his career began to become more independent the longer he served. Indeed, we begin to see this drift during the 105th Congress (1997-1998). Three times, McCain's party unity average is almost a full standard deviation below the Republican mean: in the 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses.

McCain is no Ralph Hall (who exhibited party unity scores in the 20s and 30s as a Democratic Representative from Texas in the House. He later switched parties and became a Republican). But he's clearly NOT the party unity poster boy Biden's comments make him out to be.

Now, what about Obama? Well, I only have data from the 109th Congress available to me. The Democratic party unity average in that session was 89 percent. Senator Obama's average was 96 percent. This suggests there is some truth to McCain's claim that he has the record of a maverick and Obama does not. Even Obama's running mate rated a 90 percent in the 109th Congress.

Now whether you knew McCain was a maverick from last night's speech, that's a different story.

Next time, I hope to do an analysis of pre-VP nomination experience to evaluate the claim that Palin has precious little experience compared to other past nominees.