Monday, February 28, 2011

The U.S. Senate, Seniority, Term Limits, and Legislative Productivity

After the dust died down from the 2010 elections, I wanted to try and put what had happened into some broader historical perspective--especially where the Senate was concerned. As we know, the Senate is supposed to be the saucer cup that cools the "hot passions" of the House (said George Washington). Only 1/3rd of U.S. Senators are up for election in a given campaign cycle, so the chamber should provide more stability. Sure enough, turnover doesn't happen as much in the Senate in a given cycle--it takes many elections to have a lot of turnover in the upper chamber.

But we have had, in rather quick succession, three such elections: 2006, 2008, and 2010. A fair number of Senate incumbents lost in each election. I wondered: how much turnover had happened during this period and was it outside the historical norm? Finally, what might the implications be of a relatively less experienced and junior Senate?

I examined three pieces of data: the average time of years of service in the Senate at the beginning of each session, the percentage of members who were new to the chamber, and a rolling average (that is, the percentage of members who were serving their first term during a six-year period). The first chart shows in a bar graph the average term of service in each Senate session from the 104th through the 112th Congresses. The second chart shows both the percentage of new members in the chamber and the rolling average over the same period.

First, Senate careers. Note that they have been getting longer, on average, but the 112th Congress does NOT represent the low point in the time series. The 105th Congress does. The election of 1994, of course, brought in many new members but the 1996 election was almost as transformative: there were 16 open Senate races in that cycle alone. Replacement can happen not only through elections, but through death and retirement--and many senators chose to leave in the 1996 Congress. This, combined with the electoral earthquake of 1994, brings the average time of service down to about less than eleven years. This number then creeps up to more than 13 in the 111th Congress (an all-time historic high), which then drops sharply in the 112th Congress--the result of some long time incumbents losing.

The 2010 elections do represent a high point for the number of new members entering into the chamber with 16 percent of the members new to the Senate. This is slightly higher than the 105th Congress, which consisted of 15 percent new members. What is really striking, however, is the fact that over the last threeCongresses (the 110th, 111th, and 112th) 36% of the membership is new to the Senate. That's the high point during period examined.

What does all this new blood mean? Empirically, it should mean less legislative productivity. The one thing we know from studies of congressional careers is that members with more seniority and time in service tend to produce/write more legislation (see the work of John Hibbing for more specifics). Constituent service actually tends to remain rather stable over a member's career, but the true benefit of all that experience appears to be legislative expertise, success, and productivity. One possible consequence of term limits is, simply put, a legislative branch that does less legislating. We might expect, then, that the 112th Congress will be relatively less productive when compared to its immediate historic counterparts.

How does the 112th Congress stack up against other historic congresses in terms of turnover? I took another slice of Congressional history: the 89th through the 97th Congresses. This represents a period of some electoral turbulence: the 1966, 1974, 1978, and 1980 elections were particularly hard on incumbents. I did the same analysis as above for length of service and the percentage of new members in the chamber.

During the late 1960s and the 1970s, members generally served shorter careers than today. However, a series of elections and retirements brought the average time of service from 10.56 in the 90th congress to merely 7.43 in the 97th Congress (which began in 1981 during Ronald Reagan's first year in office)!

This final chart shows why: incumbents were devestated by the elections of 1974, 1976, 1978, and 1980. What is striking is how few incumbents returned after the 1978 election. Many were defeated in primary and general elections, but many also chose to retire voluntarily. The 1976, 1978, and 1980 elections had brought in more freshman to the Senate than any election between 1994 and 2010. The culmulative effect was, by the time the 97th Congress showed up for work in 1981, more than half of the Senate were serving in their first term.

Why was there so much more turnover during the late 1970s? The answer is not retirements. If you look at retirements in 1976, 1978, and 1980 and compare them to retirements in 2006, 2008, and 2010, approximately the same number of senators retired (22 versus 20). The real difference is senators losing reelection: far more were defeated in the late 1970s than now. This might suggest that the incumbency advantage has actually strengthened in the Senate over time. Or, perhaps the desire for change among the electorate was greater in the late 1970s than now?

In any case, we can conclude the following:

1. The 2010 election, in the Senate, did bring more turnover to the chamber when compared to recent elections.

2. The amount of turnover, however, is not especially high when compared to other historic periods.

3. Incumbency is still a powerful electoral force and, contrary to what one might think, its power seems to have increased in the Senate over time as demonstrated by the number of incumbents losing reelection in the late 1970s when compared to a similar period today.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How Not to Abuse Statistics

This past weekend, former Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives wrote a guest column that appeared in the Bozeman Chronicle. Read it here.

As a social scientist, I stress to my students the importance of using statistics correctly when developing an argument. To use statistics properly and to use them well, it is incumbent upon the person making the argument to place those statistics in their proper context.

What is notable in Mr. Sales' column is how he uses context when it serves his argument, and ignores context when it does not. I should make it clear that Mr. Sales is not alone in doing this; folks on both the right and the left are guilty of cherry picking statistics.

In any case, I wrote the following response which appeared today in the Chronicle:

To the Editor:

I read with interest Mr. Sales’ guest column yesterday. Although Mr. Sales provides a lot of information suggesting that the state of Montana is profligate, he fails to put those figures into their proper context. One example makes the general point: Mr. Sales makes much out of the fact that 780 state employees earn more than $100,000, a number that has increased by 278 since 2005. This is not justifiable, he claims, given that Montana ranks in the bottom 25 percent in personal income.

Mr. Sales fails to explain, however, who exactly receives such “outrageously” high pay. A quick perusal of the one hundred highest paid employees in the state (a search readily available at the Montana Policy Institute’s website at reveals that nearly all are doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, judges, and top administrators—some of whom have worked for the state for more than two decades. The accurate yardstick with which to judge these salaries are national or state medians for these positions—not the median salary of all Montanans. These positions require extensive education and experience, and the amount Montana provides in compensation is not out of line with private sector salaries. In fact, these state salaries are likely much lower than the amount such professionals could obtain in private practice. Many likely serve the state of Montana out of a sense of civic duty and pride.

I do not disagree that Montana faces some tough budgetary choices; however, factual arguments divorced from their proper context certainly do not return us to the “values that [have] served us so well.”

Context matters. Indeed, it is everything.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Political Theory Consortium discusses Friedman on Economic and Political Freedom

The Political Theory Consortium met last night for the third time this semester, to discuss Milton Friedman’s essay “The Relationship Between Political Freedom and Economic Freedom.” Friedman is best known as the twentieth century’s most persistent public voice for free market capitalism. This essay, published in 1962, begins from the premise that most intellectuals believe that politics and economics are “separate and largely unconnected; that individual freedom is a political problem, and material welfare an economic problem.” In response to this “delusion,” Friedman argues that the two are intricately linked, that only specific economic arrangements can foster particular political freedoms, and that “a society that is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom.”

I am skeptical about Friedman’s basic characterizations here. Our differing perceptions may stem in part from the fact that he’s writing as an economist and not a political theorist. I think one would be hard pressed to find a political theorist (in the twentieth century, at least, but going further back in the tradition as well) who saw economic conditions and political freedom as radically distinct. Of course, I may have already modified Friedman’s claim in talking about “economic conditions,” by which I mean people’s material well-being, and not “economic freedoms,” by which Friedman means the liberty to do business without government regulation. I also dispute Friedman’s conclusion that socialism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. Again, though, I have in mind states like Sweden, England, Germany, France, and the Netherlands today, which all seem to do a decent job balancing the two. Friedman, in contrast, has in mind totalitarian socialist states such as the now defunct Soviet Union (he’s writing in the early ‘60s, so of course).

The debate last night was heated. There were some staunch Friedman defenders, who did a good job articulating the values that draw them to his approach. But there was also a general distrust, articulated by a number of participants, of any theory that does not seem to at least minimally account for issues of social justice. And of course, we went off a ways on the requisite tangent regarding whether there is any such thing as a “self made man” (or woman) in this day and age.

The question I put to the group, and keep coming back to in my own head, is what Friedman has to offer a person who is not sold on his very limited conception of personal freedom (i.e. free enterprise, or the freedom from government regulation of economic activities), as well as a person who does not accept his account of socialism as contemporarily relevant. In Modern Political Thought this week we read Hobbes. It’s entirely possible to read Hobbes as kind of paranoid and fearful, which explains why he advocates an absolute sovereign power (and a monarch, to boot) as the source of order and thus some semblance of peace in the land. Needless to say, the picture of government he paints is not especially attractive to modern democratic citizens. And yet, we can still learn so much from Hobbes about conceptions of human nature and society, theories of sovereignty, latent notions of what the “various contentments of life” might be, the relationship between autonomous states, etc.

I want to give Friedman the benefit of the doubt, but I’m curious how much punch this account of the benefits of free market capitalism packs, given the intellectual and historical glossing he seems to do here (and I’m not alone in thinking so. In an obituary for Friedman, Paul Krugman sang his praises as an economist, but voiced a lot of skepticism about his authenticity and accuracy in his role as a public intellectual). Thoughts??

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wolves and the 2012 Montana Senate Election

Interesting piece on how wolves factor into the 2012 Senate race here in Montana (thanks to Dr. Jerry Johnson for this). You can read the editorial here.

Two quick points. First, the issue of wolves fits within the broader discussion happening here in Montana concerning states versus federal rights. The Montana Legislature is considering legislation to nullify federal statutes.

Second, Rehberg and Tester are going after what will be a key constituency group in the 2012 election: ranchers and farmers. Both can lay strong claims to support from these groups, and the wolf issue is highly salient to them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Recruiting Quality Challengers

MSNBC is reporting that incumbent Democratic Senator, Jim Webb, will not be running for reelection.

For all the attention paid by the media to the Tea Party and the election of newcomers during the 2010 cycle, the candidates who have the best chance to win election to Congress are those with previous electoral office experience. And the best chance for a party to keep a seat is by running an incumbent, unless they are scandal-ridden or have serious health problems.

One sure bet is that quality challengers and incumbents pay close attention to shifts in the political winds affecting their election prospects. And one good way to gauge party prospects is by looking at the decisions made by quality challengers and incumbents to run or not.

Democrats had good years in 2006 and 2008, in part, because they congressional committees recruited excellent challengers who saw the prospects of the Democratic Party on the rise. In the same vein, a number of Democratic incumbents in the Senate and the House chose retirement in 2010 knowing the political winds where blowing fast in the other direction.

Congressman's Rehberg's decision to run against Jon Tester and today's announcement by Senator Webb to return to the private sector are two indicators of each party's prospects going into the 2012 cycle. The Republicans have recruited perhaps the best possible challenger for Tester, and Democrats have lost their conservative incumbent in Virginia. Both states have moved in the red direction and represent excellent pick up opportunities for the Republicans. With the electoral math already stacked against them with so many Democratic incumbents up for reelection, both of these developments bode ill for Democratic prospects to retain the Senate.
Republican prospects, on the other side of the coin, look particular bright at this moment.

Watch closely the decision of incumbents and quality challengers in both parties. Good recruitment coups are signs that the party is doing well, while retirements suggest the opposite.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More Developments in the Montana Senate and House races

What's fascinating about living in a state like Montana is how one change in the statewide political opportunity structure quickly creates other opportunities. Montana is a small state with an even smaller set of political elites. Smart candidates carefully keep their power dry and wait for the best and most opportune moment to run for higher office. One of best chances to win a race comes when there's no pesky incumbent to beat. Why? Incumbents get reelected quite frequently and challengers have all kinds of barriers to surmount (mostly substantially--the lack of name recognition among the public).

Today, a series of events quickly changed the political landscape in the state and opened up new opportunities for that very small political elite. The big event of the day? It appears--according to several sources--that Congressman Denny Rehberg is going to announce on Saturday at the Lincoln-Reagan dinner in Helena that he's running against Senator Jon Tester in 2012. Rehberg, as the state's lone congressman, wouldn't be changing his constituency, but merely his address in Washington. As a former state legislator, Lieutenant Governor, and Congressman for the past decade, Congressman Rehberg represents a recruiting coup for the national Republicans. His name recognition is on par with Senator Tester's, he's capable of raising substantial sums of money, and he's experienced in the ways of Washington. Tester, in short, has a tough race ahead of him. Incumbents don't lose often, but when faced with a quality challenger, the odds of losing certainly increase.

More importantly, Rehberg's announcement creates an open House seat. The best and most qualified Democrats have largely left Rehberg unchallenged. Now, however, a group of Republican and Democratic candidates who have been itching to run for federal office have presented to them the best opportunity to win: that open seat.

Since the news leaked about Rehberg's intentions, in short order we've seen:

The Daines campaign state that they are making a major campaign announcement on Thursday (which will be that Steve Daines is now running for the House and taking his nearly quarter of a million dollars with him).

State Representative Franke Wilmer, who represents HD 64 in Bozeman, announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to the House of Representatives.

We may see other candidates emerge as well (although I suspect that Daines nice fundraising haul will scare off any serious challengers) for the House race.

I will also remind the readers of this blog that there's an open Governor's seat up in 2012 as well.

All of this means we will see a lot of money spent on political advertising in Montana in the next two years, and a lot of national media attention. Frankly, I know some will not be excited about all of this money and all of these ads. But, political science research has shown that reducing the cost of obtaining political information increases voter learning and the propensity to turnout. In other words, all this sound and fury we'll see will signify something and voters be better able to identify candidates, their issue positions, and make informed judgments at the voting booth. And that's a good thing.

One last note. I should disclose the obvious: Franke Wilmer is a colleague of mine in the political science department and a friend. As a friend and colleague, I'm excited she's decided to run (anyone who knows me knows that I'm a political nerd and I think the prospect of a friend running for higher office is really, really cool). That said, my job here as a political scientist and political commentator is to provide the best and most objective analysis I can about political events affecting Montana. I pledge to my readers that, when writing and discussing this race, I will continue to do just that. At the end of the day, I call them as I see them and I value my reputation as a political observer who can see--and discuss--both sides of the political issues.

Big Sky Battle

Breaking news. Roll Call Magazine reports that Congressman Rehberg is running against Tester for the Senate. This has implications for the House race (it appears Steve Daines will be moving to the open seat race for that contest), and potentially, for whether Tester decides to run for reelection.

2012 we'll have:

-An open House seat

-An open Governor's seat

-A competitive and expensive Senate race

Stay tuned! This is going to be AWESOME.