Friday, July 8, 2011

Interest Group Spending, the Public Debt, and Tester-Rehberg

Remember my earlier blog about Citizens United and special interest dollars? Well, Crossroads GPS--the organization put together by Karl Rove and which was quite instrumental in the 2010 congressional races--has dropped some money on Montana television targeting Senator Tester. You can read about the ad and watch it here.

A couple of points about the ad. First, there's nothing new here. Without saying so directly, this is a standard "[INSERT DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE NAME] is too liberal for [INSERT STATE]" type ad. It focuses on one of the key reputational issues that divides the Democratic and Republican Party: taxes and spending. And it's an issue that is salient to voters--not only in Montana, but nationally.

Second, the ad makes the point that Senator Tester voted five times to increase the public debt. All the votes are cited at the bottom of the ad, so you can carefully check the veracity of the ad's claims. And yes, the claims are true: Senator Tester voted on all five occasions to increase the public debt limit (although, in some cases, the debt limit increase was part of a larger bill). The votes are very carefully chosen--in all five cases, Congressman Rehberg voted no.

But, as I tell my students, votes need to be placed into context. As such, there are two important points to be made about increasing the public debt limit.

First, votes to increase the public debt are tied to votes on the budget--which is submitted by the administration. It is the job of the administration to submit a budget with its priorities--and these priorities often represent key cleavages between the parties. As such, they are partisan votes. The president's party supports the budget, and the opposition party does not. Very simply put, Tester--as a member of the president's party--supported his president's budget. Congressman Rehberg, as a Republican--did not.

Second, the majority party must govern so it must pass a budget--balanced or not. If the majority party in Congress does not pass a budget and does not increase the public debt limit, the country goes into default. All kinds of bad things can happen when this occurs, and the majority party would squarely shoulder the blame. Passing budgets and increasing debt limits is what governing is all about.

Watching the ad, it appears that the Democrats and Senator Tester are profligate spenders--and when you check the record--Republicans seem to be the champions of fiscal responsibility. But, if we go beyond these votes to look at previous congresses when the Republicans and Congressman Rehberg were both in the majority and had to govern, we find both the Republican majority and Congressman Rehberg voted to increase the public debt limit.

For example, in the 107th Congress (the first in which Congressman Rehberg served), the Congressman and his party voted to increase the public debt limit on Senate Bill S2578 (roll call vote is here).

In the 108th Congress, again, we see the Republican majority and the Congressman voting to increase the public debt limit on Senate Bill 2986 (see roll call vote here).

Due to changes in the House rules, the record is a bit harder to trace in the 109th Congress--the vote on raising the public debt limit is not "clean". According to THOMAS, the bill to raise the public debt limit (House Joint Resolution 47) passed pursuant to House Rule XXVII and House Resolution 95--which the Republican majority and Congressman Rehberg supported (see roll call vote here).

Heck, even Dick Cheney voted to increase the public debt limit when he served as a House member in the 100th Congress. He did so on House Joint Resolution 324, Roll Call 330 (sorry, no link, as I had to search Lexis Nexis Congressional Universe which is only available to subscribers).

Both parties are to blame for the debt situation in which we now find ourselves. Both parties have passed budgets that have increased spending and increased the public debt. Even Republicans serving with Ronald Reagan as president supported budgets which have added to the public debt. Neither party should shoulder the blame alone, and frankly, neither should Senator Tester.

Of course, Crossroads GPS is an independent organization that cannot legally coordinate with Congressman Rehberg's Senate campaign. He had nothing to do with the advertisement, and both candidates are well-aware that these kinds of ads--while not telling untruths--do not tell the whole story. This is yet another example of how the Citizens United decision allows independent organizations not accountable to the electorate to wrest control of the campaign agenda from the candidates and their parties.


MTSentinel said...

I'm desperately searching this blog for the explanations of why 3rd Party Expenditures against Denny Rehberg are unfair. Coming up empty.

I guess this marks the point where "Big Sky Political Analysis" becomes nothing more than an apologist blog for Jon Tester. Sad.

Also, misguided because I don't think the ad even mentions the debt limit vote. You set up a straw man and then knock it down. Intellectually dishonest, but effective for your purposes.

The ad isn't about the debt limit. It mentions the stimulus, Obamacare and trillions in new spending. Remember, Jon Tester has NEVER been in the minority - he's been in the majority party in Congress since he was elected. He owns the spending from 2007 until today. He voted for almost all of it.

He voted against the majority of Montanans for the bailouts of Freddie and Fannie. He voted against the majority of Montanans for the Stimulus. He voted against the majority of Montanans for Obamacare.

Since he gave his party a 1-seat majority in the Senate, the national debt has increased more than at any time in American history.

Did Republicans cause deficits? Of course. After 9/11 and the dot-com bubble burst, the economy flagged and spending went up to fund the GWOT. But that deficit was slowly shrinking and approaching nil when the big spenders (Jon Tester) took over. Then the deficit soared.

"Both parties" are to blame is a cop-out. It's like equating someone going 70 in a 65 zone to someone going 125 in a 65. Yeah, both are speeding, both are ignoring the law, but they are hardly guilty of the same public endangerment.

David Parker said...

@MT Sentinel: Give me time--I can't blog about everything every day. If you had read an earlier post, I defended Congressman Rehberg against claims he voted to support the Ryan plan. And yes, the ad does mention the public debt limit votes (did you not review the votes plainly listed in the ad and mentioned by the narrator? It clearly states, in bold, that "Tester voted to raise the debt limit five times."). Follow the link--it's there for you to review. And I focus on the debt limit because it is the subject of current debate in Washington.

My job is to cover this race as even-handedly as I can. And I will do so. Please trust me to try to do that. I am not an apologist for either side and I have no political agenda. I challenge you to read my research and let me know how--and if--it is partisan.

MTSentinel said...

Okay, so you based your entire article off a footnote in the ad while ignoring the copy - the actual script:

Debt (the actual spending, not the after-the-facts limits)

THOSE are the reason Tester is in trouble in Montana. That is the analysis that warrants a post this long.

Instead, we got a "Republican = Democrat", "Tester = Rehberg" cover story. Sir, if after the last 4 years you still think that there's no difference between the parties or the candidates, you have not been paying attention.

David Parker said...

@MT Sentinel: I suppose we can disagree, but I chose to highlight one aspect of the ad to make a broader point about independent expenditures and the current debate about the public debt limit. Given the prominence in the ad (it was in bold print on the screen), this does not seem to be merely a footnote. My point was less about Rehberg-Tester, and more about the fact that political ads often do not tell the whole story when they use congressional votes. In this case, it was a conservative organization. In other cases, liberal organizations do it as well.

As to the broader point--that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans--I did NOT make that point. I made the point on the public debt limit issue that both Republicans and Democrats have added to the debt and both have voted to raise the debt limit. Any political scientist worth their salt--and I hope that I'm included in that--would not say that there is no difference between to the parties. That was not and is not my intent here. Look at any data out there, and it clearly shows that not only are there differences--those differences have been increasing over time. Indeed, I make this point in my book (The Power of Money in Congressional Campaigns). In fact, the parties stake their reputations on very different ground. Republicans tend to make economic arguments in their ads (such as the Crossroads GPS piece) and Democrats tend to make arguments based on entitlement programs.

In any case, I hope we can continue to have a discussion and debate while remaining respectful.

David Parker said...

If I can piggyback on my last set of comments, political scientists use a measure of ideology called DW-NOMINATE (see Keith Poole's website for a discussion).

In the 111th Congress, Senator Tester's DW-NOMINATE Score was -.292. Congressman Rehberg's was .496 (negative scores are more liberal, positive scores are more conservative). Congressman Rehberg is slightly to the right of the mean House Republican, and Senator Tester is slightly to the right of the mean Senate Democrat.

So, yes. There are key ideological differences and I would not dispute that point.