Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Speaker Zinke Redux: Still Too Liberal?

This evening, Congressman Paul Ryan announced his willingness to serve as Speaker if House Republicans agree to unite behind him. As Congressman Ryan Zinke has already indicated he would support Ryan if he were to run for the Speakership, it would appear that Zinke's Speakership bid (such as it was) appears to be over. Unless, of course, the House Freedom Caucus still thinks Congressman Ryan is too liberal.

I wrote last week that Congressman Zinke appeared to be too liberal to obtain enough support from the House Republican Caucus. Using a common measure of ideology employed by political scientists, I demonstrated that the Congressman was to the left of both the House Freedom Caucus and the House Republican mean. In fact, among the many names bandied about for the Speakership, Congressman Zinke was the second most liberal.

The Congressman's spokesperson, Heather Swift, took to Twitter to dispute my claim. She pointed me to GovTrack's measure of ideology. Swift pointed out that it was important to not only consider votes taken on the House floor (which is the basis of the NOMINATE score), but legislation that is sponsored and co-sponsored but which has not (and very well will not) receive space on the House agenda, therefore, will not receive a formal roll call vote.

Swift is not entirely wrong on this point. In fact, as I argue in Battle for the Big Sky, bill sponsorship is a better measure of true preferences because of the substantial resources required to submit and advocate for a piece of legislation. I don't entirely buy the argument that co-sponsorships is a good indicator of real ideological preferences, however, because a co-sponsorship could represent a member's true, revealed preferences or it might simply represent "cheap" talk--an attempt to look more left or right than one actually is.

In any case, I was happy to investigate the data that Swift pointed me to in order to see if I had missed something or had misrepresented the Congressman ideologically. I went to GovTrack, read their account of their ideology measure based upon bill sponsorships and co-sponsorships, and downloaded it. The folks at GovTrack note that their measure of ideology, while based on different information than Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal's NOMINATE scores, correlated well with those scores. You can read about the methodology here and grab the scores yourself.

The first thing I did was merge the NOMINATE data with the GovTrack Ideology measure and ran a simple correlation in Stata. Sure enough, the measures correlated robustly at .90. In other words, the measure of ideology based on roll calls was very similar to the measure of ideology based upon co-sponsorship patterns. In the political science business, this is what we call a high degree of face validity.

Next I simply ran a quick scatterplot of the NOMINATE and ideology scores for each member of the 114th Congress. Again, visually the data show that the two appear to measure the same thing. The upper right corner represents the Republicans while the lower left represents the Democrats. Here's that plot with the X-axis the Poole-Rosenthal NOMINATE and the Y-axis the GovTrack Ideology measure.

The next two graphs separate out the seventeen Republican speaker candidates mentioned in the news. The first chart replicates the scatterplot above, while the second simply graphs the speaker candidates from left to right using the GovTrack ideology score alone. In both charts, I add the mean value of the House Republican caucus, the mean value of the House Freedom Caucus, and the value for one standard deviation above and below the mean.

What do I find?

Essentially the same story I found when looking at the NOMINATE data alone. Congressman Zinke is now the fourth most liberal among those mentioned as Speaker candidates when looking at the GovTrack ideology measure. NOMINATE had him at second most liberal. He's still to the left of the Republican House Caucus mean. And he's still considerably to the left of the House Freedom Caucus. Using these data, Paul Ryan, Ryan Zinke, and Darrell Issa are all essentially the same ideologically--and all are to the left of the House Republican Caucus.

The take away point? Congressman Zinke, whether using roll call votes or co-sponsorship patterns, is on the left ideologically among his House Republican colleagues. In fact, there are 62 other members who are closer--using the GovTrack ideology measure--to the House Republican mean.

And, again, if Congressman Ryan is too liberal to be Speaker according to the House Freedom Caucus, than isn't Congressman Zinke?  #data

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Congressman Ryan Zinke: Too Liberal to be Speaker?

Montana's lone Congressman, Ryan Zinke, has recently been floated as a possible candidate for House Speaker. Apparently, the Congressman is taking the possibility of a campaign for the Speakership seriously and may throw his hat in the ring.

Zinke's leadership as Navy Seal propelled him to victory in 2014, and he--and others--think his leadership skills are exactly what are needed to right the Republican House Caucus.

I think this idea is crazy for lots of reasons, and I've gone on the record as to why I don't think it's a good idea or feasible (here and here). But to be clear: Zinke's leadership skills are not the problem.

One item I did not mention in my interviews is the Congressman's ideology relative to this peers in the House Republican caucus because I had not reviewed the data. Now that I have, I can say with some confidence, that the Congressman's ideology would present a serious problem in any Speakership bid. And, contrary to a recent press release from the Montana Democratic Party, it's not because Congressman Zinke is a "Tea Party sympathizer." Instead, Congressman Zinke might be too liberal to be Speaker of the House.

On this blog, I have long referenced the DW-NOMINATE scores produced by political scientists Keith Poole and his colleagues over at voteview.com. Using roll call votes cast, Poole and his fellow number crunchers develop a measure of ideology arrayed along a left-right dimension that plots each member of the Senate and House from most liberal to most conservative, roughly constrained at -1 for the most liberal member and +1 for the most conservative. In the past, these data have only been available after a congress has concluded. Now, however, they have developed a measure of ideology which they update weekly once roll call votes have been concluded.

I downloaded these weekly DW-Common Space scores earlier this week (available here), stripped out the Senate, and then calculated the mean ideology score for the House Republicans and then the House Freedom Caucus (using wikipedia's membership list to determine who was in the caucus). I then plotted those values along with the ideology scores of every conceivable speaker candidate from least conservative to most conservative. The results are reported below. Click on the chart for the best view.

Table:  Ideology of House Speaker Candidates in the 114th Congress

As is plain to the reader, Congressman Zinke is well to the left of the House Freedom Caucus, slight to the left of the average Republican member, and--among all the possible Speaker candidates mentioned--the second most liberal to Congressman Greg Walden, the NRCC chair from Oregon. He is more liberal than Congressman McCarthy, who withdrew from the speakership race. And, he is certainly more liberal than Congressman Ryan, who, according to The New York Times, is possibly too liberal for some members of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman Zinke will not be Speaker of the House. He's simply too liberal for House Republicans.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hate Forest Fires in Montana? Then Let's Overcome Cognitive Dissonance and Address Root Causes

Summer is my favorite time of year in the Gallatin valley, perhaps because it is so fleeting (which makes it ever-so precious). I hike, bike, and run about town in the wonderful sunlight, surrounded by blue skies and hot, dry heat.  Of course, this weekend, my beloved Bozeman has been choked with smoke from a wildfire out in Three Forks. One of the costs of living in Montana, and the West more generally, is the fire season which is so essential to life and renewal here. Of course, that fire season has been getting worse and longer, which makes it harder on me when I exercise outside due to my asthma, a condition I've learned to manage throughout my life.

Over the weekend, I had time to reflect on forest fires and how sound public policy might help bring them under some control. I revisited Senator Daines’ recent op-ed in the Billings Gazette discussing wildfire and forest reform, which I read with interest. First, Daines hits the nail on the head concerning a critical challenge facing the US Forest Service and other federal agencies responsible for managing healthy forests: money. The US Forest Service’s budget is burdened with ever-increasing fire-fighting costs, which drain its ability to spend on other important activities such as trail, campground, and facility maintenance. Daines’ solution to this problem is his Wildfire Disaster Funding Act “which ensures large forest fires are treated and funded as the true natural disasters they are, similar to hurricanes or tornadoes.” I hope the bill—which Daines is co-sponsoring along with Senator Tester—finds a solid reception among critical allies of both parties, particularly those senators representing East Coast states hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. (Montanans also should hope that they don’t hold then-Congressman Steve Daines’ very first roll calls against him, given that he voted against a bill funding Sandy relief efforts.)
But what troubled me profoundly was the blame the senator placed for the “deteriorating conditions” that are responsible for increased wildfire risk. Senator Daines notes that we are at risk due to beetle kill in our forests “being left untreated”—a risk that he says is compounded by “years of inadequate forest management practices, spurred by obstructionist litigation from fringe groups and excessive regulations.”
Really? Well, I guess it’s time for me to whip out some “fancy” social science and give a little lesson in the funnel of causality. This is a theory developed by Campbell et al in their path-breaking work The American Voter, published in 1960. Essentially, Campbell et al argue that while the proximate decision influencing how someone votes is a person’s issue position, those issue positions are the product of a person’s party identification, which itself (often?) is a function of how the person was socialized into politics by his or her parents.
In other words, there’s a causal chain one needs to follow to understand the best and most powerful predictor of voting behavior, and that predictor is partisan identification—a bundle of attitudes and beliefs that is not immediately proximate to the voting decision. Issue positions don’t really matter—it’s the partisanship behind those positions that do.
Now let’s apply the funnel of causality to Daines’ argument on wildfires: According to his op-ed piece, the proximate causes for the risk we face, which are the tired trope of “government mismanagement” and “fringe environmentalists,” are the real problem Montanans face and the ones that require attention and redress.
But one must ask: Why is there more beetle kill in the first place? And why has the size of wildfires been on the rise in the United States, Canada, and globally—both as the charts below indicate and a recent study demonstrated? Oh, right: Because the warmer winters associated with global warming mean fewer Pine Bark beetles are dying off, enabling them to leave behind more dead trees strewn about waiting to burn up. All of this is well-documented Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle. And, again, a recent study demonstrates that increasing temperatures lead to more wildfire activity globally.

Total Hectares Burned by Wildfires in Canada, 1970-2013. Source: Canadian National Forestry Database

Total Acres Burned in the US (in millions of Acres), 1960-2014. Source: CRS Report, "Federal Funding for Wildfire Control and Management," July 5, 2011 and National Interagency Fire Center.

Daines is giving far too much credit to proximate causes: lawsuits and mismanagement. The root problem is global warming. We need to address that if we really want to get a handle on our wildfire risk. And to address that we, as global citizens, need to come to grips with our role in global warming via our insatiable appetite for carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, Senator Daines voted against an amendment earlier this year during the Keystone XL debate acknowledging the human role in climate change and, when running for the House, indicated in an interview a few years ago that the “jury is still out” on the role of CO-2 emissions in our ever-warming world.

The jury is not out. Ninety-seven percent of studies unambiguously endorse the notion that rising carbon dioxide levels, the result of human activity, are an important and substantial contributor to global warming. Check out the information yourself at NASA.
How many of you, when running a business or a household, place your bets on the 3 percent versus the 97 percent? If Senator Daines did this during his business career, I assure you, his career would have been much shorter and far less successful than it was. If I said it is only a "theory" that how people vote is a product largely of their partisanship, I'd be drummed out of the profession with good cause. The problem is that it is very hard for people to accept information that conflicts with their priors. Humans don't like cognitive dissonance, so instead, we reject information when it doesn't fit our beliefs. Worse, we search for justifications to confirm why that information is wrong and why what we believe is right. It is hard to overcome cognitive dissonance, but we--and those whom we elect to serve us--must.

The senator is a bright, articulate public servant. He is a graduate of Montana State, and has a degree in engineering. One would think that he would, as a man of science, make public policy on science and not advanced smoke-and-mirrors arguments about a very real threat our forests face from wildfire. How we fund fire fighting absolutely must change: Daines is right on that. But if we are really going to make our forests safer today and for future generations, we need to stop blaming red herrings and, instead, face the facts staring us straight in the face with regards to climate change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2016: Is there a Republican NOT running for President? Bueller? Bueller?

What's more than the number of NFL players at team can have on the field?

The number of Republican candidates who have formerly announced their campaign for the presidency in 2016.

That's 16 Republican candidates to 11 NFL players. And, when you count the number of announced Democratic candidates (5), you almost have a complete offensive and defensive line!

As I sat and contemplated that number, I thought it had to be not only largest Republican presidential primary field, but the single largest presidential primary slate for the two major parties combined in the modern era.

Turns out, I was right.

OK, first the caveats. I define the modern presidential era with the 1972 campaign because that's the year that the McGovern-Fraser reforms, adopted by the Democratic Party, transformed the presidential nomination process. Essentially, the reforms opened up the selection process to voters in primaries and caucuses and while the reforms were established by the Democratic primary, the consequences of the reforms quickly spread to the Republican Party.

Second, it is hard to develop a hard and fast rule first for determining whether a candidate is seriously contesting the nomination.  I took the lead of political scientist Matthew Dickinson who recently opted for the standard used by Bill Mayer and Alan Silverleib: Did the candidate file a statement of candidacy with the FEC and who formally announced. For 1972 through 2008, I pulled from the list complied by Mayer and Silverlieb themselves in their chapter of the edited volume The Making of Presidential Candidates 2012. I then calculated the totals myself for 2012 and 2016, counting only the candidates that seriously contested the primaries or who had held previous elected office (so, Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann count, even though they were out before the first electoral contest, but so does Herman Cain of 9-9-9 fame).

Because I love charts, here's a chart. Click on it to enlarge.

What we get is 16 candidates in 2016--five more than the 11 Republicans running in 2008, 2012, and--yes--2000 (many people seem to think it was on McCain versus Bush, but there were many others who simply exited very early). With five Democrats announced today, that's 21 candidates total running for the Democratic and Republican nods. That's two more than in 2008, which saw 19 candidates total.

And, look at the resumes of just the Republican candidates. We have:

Former or Current Governors (8): Jindal, Bush, Perry, Kaisch, Walker, Christie, Huckabee, Pataki

Former or Current U.S. Senators (5): Rubio, Cruz, Graham, Paul, Santorum

Amateurs (3): Carson, Trump, Fiorina


Former or Current U.S. Senators (3): Sanders, Clinton, and Webb

Former or Current Governors (2): O'Malley and Chafee

Dickinson's article, linked above, explains why so many Republicans are running for the job, noting that there is no incumbent candidate, it is unusual for the sitting party to hold the White House for more than two consecutive terms, and some candidates may be running for reasons other than winning. I agree with the points he makes. What I'm interested in knowing is how Republican primary voters--and, to a lesser degree, Democratic primary voters, will be able to make clear choices in such a crowded field. As other political scientists have noted, including Washington State University professor Travis Ridout and Vanderbilt professor Larry Bartels, is election outcomes can quickly narrow the field both for the media and voters in subsequent primary contests.

That is, the media will concentrate its attention on the top three or four vote getters in the Iowa caucus and Republican primary and hence, voters will learn more about those candidates than the others. The major difference now, however, is the presence of Super PACs--which considerably changes the information game for voters. Between wealthy backers of candidates and state Republican Parties adopting proportionate delegate selection rules for early contests, the Republican primary process should be considerably lengthened. That, of course, is historically unusual given that the Republican Party historically has favored winner take all contests that allow an early frontrunner to quickly garner enough delegates to become the party's nominee early.

In 2008, McCain had the Republican nomination wrapped up by mid-March while the Democratic contest continued through early June. Democrats will likely think this is to their advantage, as a long, drawn out primary will bloody the eventual Republican nominee who will then go down to defeat to Hillary Clinton in November.

Of course, that's not how events played out in 2008, now is it? Competition tends to bring out the best in candidates and, more often than not, make the eventual nominee stronger. Perhaps the competition among Republicans and a longer contest may work to their benefit in 2016 as well.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A New Adventure and a New Blog to Document it

In case you've been wondering where that Parker guy went, you may want to check out my new blog (with today's inaugural post):

Montana Yankees in King Arthur's Court

I've been working furiously over the past year to put together a new course offering for students at Montana State that involves us learning about British politics up close, up front, and in the thick of the action. This has required a lot of my attention and bandwidth, as I've had to read up on developments and changes from an academic and practical perspective, create course content, and figure out whether we can do laundry in our hotels! The learning curve on any new course is steep and the gradient is steeper when you include arranging a travel itinerary and reaching out to current and former parliamentarians to convince them to meet 17 university students to talk about representation. But, all of it, has been an intellectual labor of love. I'm thrilled to be leading the first ever Montana State University political science study abroad class this spring.

Follow the blog above if you wish to travel with us. I'll add more content about US and Montana politics as the semester here begins to wind down.

And, as the English say, "Cheerio"!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is Ryan Zinke Aiming for the United States Senate in 2018?

Members of Congress go to Washington and establish reputational styles which help explain to constituents the work that they do while on Capitol Hill. There is no one way to “correctly” represent a place, but a representational style chosen by a member reflects in part the priorities of the geographic constituency the member represents and their own personal inclinations born from their pre-congressional careers. Richard Fenno (1978), in his book Home Style, documented the various representational styles developed by members of Congress and used by them when explaining their “Washington Work” back home. Fenno documents three rough representational types: the constituent servant, the policy expert, and the member of Congress as “one of us.”

I discuss these in detail elsewhere (Parker 2015, Parker and Goodman 2009, Parker and Goodman 2013), so I’ll be brief.. A constituent servant helps constituents with casework, policy experts work on legislation and develop proficiency in a particular issue area, while “one of us” representatives “work to display their connectivity to a place and a group—and through that connection, demonstrate trustworthiness” (Parker 2015: 15).

It is clear that Congressman Zinke is comfortably slipping into a policy expert representational style—emphasizing his defense and foreign relations credentials (which are bolstered by his membership on the House Armed Services Committee). This makes sense for two reasons. First, it allows him to draw upon a pre-political career, which is a considerable electoral and governing asset. Second, it allows him to establish a representational relationship without competing directly with Senator Jon Tester or Senator Steve Daines. I wrote a blog some time ago noting how House members representing a state share a representational space with two U.S. Senators (see also Wendy Schiller’s Partners and Rivals). Just as U.S. Senators need to figure out how to craft their own distinctive reputations, so, too, must House members representing a state. This is especially important because media coverage and space are at a particular premium in these smaller states; to get attention, you must be doing something different from the rest of the delegation.

Members of the House face an additional complication when they are the lone representative. Many House members develop constituent service reputations in the House. But, as the work of Lee and Oppenheimer (1999) demonstrate, constituents in small states are more likely to contact their senators to solve problems and address casework concerns because senators are just as accessible, if not more so, than the House members in small states. In fact, the Montana’s senators have nearly twice the personal staff as the House member and have more offices back home. One of Congressman Denny Rehberg’s biggest challenges in his 2012 campaign was overcoming this official resource disparity to compete successfully with Senator Tester—and it is this disparity as much as other issues that was responsible for his loss.

Congressman Zinke, in choosing to develop a policy expert representational style, is consciously avoiding the problem faced by Congressman Rehberg and other House members representing entire states. He is striking out in a policy area not clearly owned by either Tester or Daines, and he can establish a favorable reputation among constituents without necessarily being in the position to be unfavorably compared to the Senate delegation from the get go. Congressmen simply cannot effectively compete as constituent servants against their Senate delegation in big states. It is a losing proposition. 

But, Congressman Zinke is doing far more with his policy expert representational style than becoming a statewide voice on national security matters and simply settling into his House seat for the long haul. Indeed, Congressman Zinke is consciously building a media presence well-beyond the statewide Montana media. 

Congressman Zinke, unlike his fellow House freshman, is getting noticed by national news outlets. He has appeared on CNN’s State of the Union, on the O’Reilly Factor, and on Fox News with Sean Hannity. He was mentioned in a New York Times piece on veterans in Congress, and had an op-ed published in the Washington Times. This is very unusual indeed for a freshman House member.

How unusual? Let’s go to the data!

I searched Lexis-Nexis Academic between January 5 and February 19, 2015 for each instance a freshman member of Congress’ name appeared in print, in the transcripts of national news broadcasts, or on blogs. I then produced two quick scatterplots. Both scatterplots have each freshmen house member, alphabetically listed by state, on the X Axis. 

The first scatterplot here has the number of mentions in national broadcast news broadcasts on the Y axis. The black line is the mean number of mentions, which is a bit more than one mention. The modal category is zero—meaning most House freshman in the 114th Congress are simply not mentioned by national news broadcasts. Congressman Zinke had five mentions—well above the average. I also indicate the other House freshman who had more mentions that Congressman Zinke. (Click on the plot for a larger version)

This actually underestimates, however, the attention Zinke has received. Congressman Zinke was not just mentioned—he was an invited guest on these programs on five occasions he shows up in the database. In each instance, Congressman Zinke focused his remarks on national security and foreign policy. 

Only Congresswoman Mia Love, a freshman Republican from Utah, who is both Mormon and a Haitian-American, has received anywhere close to the attention from the national networks. And while she has been mentioned more than Zinke on national television, she has only been a guest on a national news program twice. In fact, what seems to explain the attention given to the other freshman are special descriptive qualities about them. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress. Congressman Curbelo is a Latino Republican who is becoming the party’s face on immigration. And Congressman Lee Zeldin is the only Jewish Republican in the chamber and is a vocal critic of the administration from his perch on the foreign relations committee.

In the second scatterplot, the Y-axis represents the total number of mentions of each freshman House member of the 114th Congress on national news and in non-home state newspapers and blogs. The mean mention was seven (indicated by the bold black line). Again, Congressman Zinke outperforms this by far, with a total of 16 mentions—more than twice the average mentions across all three media platforms. (Click on the plot for a larger version)

(Quick side note: As other scholarship has shown, members of the majority party seem to get a media attention bonus and that’s the case here—Republican freshman in the House have slightly higher mentions on the web, in newspapers, and especially on television than Democratic freshmen).

Developing strong national defense credentials from which to build a constituency beyond Montana helps Zinke both in terms of reelection to the House and burnishes his credentials in a possible challenge to Jon Tester in 2018. How?

First, national media attention is often seen as desirable by constituents. In one study of national media exposure of U.S. Senators, Barbara Sinclair (1990) found that the number of mentions in The New York Times is associated with higher job approval ratings and feeling thermometer scores from individual constituents. Second, national media attention can also lead to additional power within the hall of Congress itself. Sinclair also writes that “within the Washington political community, national media exposure serves as an indicators that the senator is a player of consequence and, by showing she or he can command an audience, it increases the senator’s clout” (489). Zinke benefits by seeking out and successfully obtaining national media coverage on the campaign trail and in Washington.

But, thinking long term, developing a national media attention brings an added bonus beyond the obvious exposure to a network of national Republicans critical to raising the substantial sums necessary to fund a competitive Senate bid against an incumbent. It helps craft the perception of an activist representational style that constituents tend to expect from U.S. Senators more so than from individual members of Congress.

I present two pieces of evidence in support. The first is from Fenno’s book on North Dakota Senator Mark Andrews, When Incumbency Fails (1992). In that book, Senator Andrews—elected to his first term in 1980—is concerned about the prospect of facing a strong challenge from the state’s Democratic Congressman, Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, unlike Andrews, received considerable positive publicity around the North Dakota and was constantly holding forums with constituents. Andrews, on the hand, came home less often and spent much of his time mired in policy detail behind the scenes—while garnishing negative media attention due to a malpractice lawsuit he and his wife had launched against the state’s medical establishment in Fargo. Fenno argues that Andrews was trapped by the constituent service, small ball legislative politics style he developed as a member of the House Appropriations Committee—a style which seemed too little for the expectations North Dakotans had of their U.S. Senator.

The second is my own book, Battle for the Big Sky. In that book, I did three focus groups with voters in Gallatin County. One of the questions I asked was whether they saw senators and members of Congress playing different roles. On the whole, they agreed that the two positions were qualitatively different. Here’s what Nicholas, a 60 year old retired policeman said on the subject:

“I tend,” said Nicholas, to “see a senator as having the potential to be in the role as a statesperson much more than a representative.”62 Senators could “get something done” because the House members are “one per­son in a sea.” Not only would the Senate get more done but it would be more careful, “more considerate. [They] will more thoroughly look at something, be more educated on the topic” (153-154).

In this vein, Zinke looks—in cultivating his representational style and national media attention—like he’s positioning himself for a run at the U.S. Senate. Add to this the fact that he has been openly critical of Senator Tester on more than one occasion (here and here) since taking office, and I very much suspect that he will try to do what Denny Rehberg could not: Unseat Senator Tester.

I asked Zinke about this on KBZK this morning. Watch the interview here.

He pooh-poohed the idea, saying that as a member of the "loyal opposition" it was his job to occasionally criticize the other side and that there's nothing amiss in his relationship with Montana's senior senator.

Will he run and, if he runs, will he succeed? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I will be paying careful attention in the months and years ahead for hints and clues as to the Congressman’s true intentions.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Roll Calls, Lies, and Keystone XL

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed after extensive debate a bill greenlighting the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The final vote was 62-32 in favor, two votes more than the 60 vote threshold required to avoid a filibuster. The Senate version of the bill will either go back to the House where they can pass it as is, or the House can request a conference committee to hash out the differences. If the House goes the conference route, the committee will produce a report subject to a straight up-down vote in both chambers. In either case, everyone anticipates that some form of Keystone legislation will be sent to the president within the next week.

But, it really doesn’t matter. Because President Obama has indicated he will veto any Keystone XL bill, as he believes that Congress is intruding on his presidential powers by authorizing an infrastructure project crossing an international boundary. And, as there are not enough votes in either chamber to override his veto, Keystone XL will be again delayed and remain unbuilt unless and until Obama gives the project his assent.

The political realities of Keystone did not prevent political gamesmanship in the wake of the vote here in Montana though. Republicans have been chomping at the bit to get this legislation passed, giving it the designation of Senate Bill 1 to signal the importance of the issue. But the legislation has been debated for weeks now and subject to scores of amendments. To expedite the bill’s passage earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed a cloture motion to end debate on the bill and prevent additional amendments from being considered. As you all know, a cloture motion is used either to prevent or stop an ongoing filibuster, and if it passes, places strict limits on further discussion before moving to a vote on final passage.

This cloture motion failed 53 to 39 (again, the motion needed 60 votes), with Montana Senator Jon Tester voting against cloture. Montana’s freshman senator, Steve Daines, supported McConnell and voted to end debate. 

 (Caption: Montana's congressional delegation, presumably before the vote on Keystone XL)

 Freshman Congressman Ryan Zinke immediately took the opportunity to blast Tester. “To me, a vote against the Keystone is a vote against Montana,” he said. “I’m a proud co-sponsor of the House bill to build the Keystone XL Pipeline because it is proven to be safe and in the best interest of Montana. I will always put Montana before raising money from special interests in Washington, D.C.” (Full story here).

Zinke implied, of course, that Tester’s a flip-flopper and in the pocket of special interests—special interests that are opposed to the construction of Keystone and the production of good paying Montana jobs.

Yesterday’s press release from Montana’s State Republican Party was much more hyperbolic than Zinke’s statement. Here is what they sent via e-mail to those subscribing to their list:
Last November, Tester voted to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
On Monday, Tester joined Senator Democrats’ delay tactics and
voted against the Keystone XL pipeline
  • Tester claimed he wanted more amendments and debate but last November- when Tester voted for the Keystone XL pipeline- there were no amendments allowed and just 6 hours of debate. 
  • Under the Republican-led Senate, there have already been “more amendment votes than in all of 2014 under Democratic control” on the Keystone bill alone.  And, the Senate has spent 3 weeks debating the bill
On Wednesday, Tester voted to support President Obama’s latest land power grab, allowing Obama to declare land in Phillips County a national monument and immediately halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Both Congressman Zinke and the Montana Republican Party, in their eagerness to score political points, are pushing a narrative spun of cynicism and obfuscation instead of an honest consideration of the facts. And this, I find as a political scientist, quite disturbing. 

Let’s consider reality for a moment.

Tester supports construction of Keystone XL, but with some qualifications, and as he has since the project was proposed. I spoke with him about Keystone XL and energy development in the Bakken on Veteran’s Day in 2011 as we flew between Billings and Helena—an interview I conducted as part of the research for my book, Battle for the Big Sky. Here is the transcript verbatim:

David:                  Do you have any problems with more development in the Balkan?
Sen. Tester:          No. 
David:                  No?
Sen. Tester:          No.  As long as it's done right.  It's kind of like the Keystone pipeline, as long as it’s done right, you can do it.  Now, I'm going to tell you what.  There's a lot of times that this stuff isn't done right and taxpayers for generations and generations to come have to fix the problem.  Take a look at a lot of the abandoned mines around.  Yeah, they create a bunch of jobs and then when they left, it becomes a Superfund site the taxpayers have to pick up.  That isn't a false choice.  That should have been -- the rules should have been dictated early and that's what I'm saying is make sure we get the playing field established so that it is done right so that it isn't a false choice.
David:                Are you confident with the rules and regulations in place now that the Bakken can be drilled safely?
Sen. Tester:          Yeah. 
David:                Well then let me ask the follow-up question to that.  If we sit and put our eggs in the Bakken basket, don't we risk basically having Butte part 2 over again?  All this development happens, big towns happen, oil's gone, it collapses.  How do we, as a state, look beyond that?
Sen. Tester:          I don't know that I say we put all our eggs in the Bakken basket.  I think we've got incredible opportunities in wind and solar and renewable energies across the board, but we also need to do right because they can be done wrong, but do those right and expand upon those.  I think the Bakken [play], if that's all we're going to look at for energy future, big mistake, big mistake.  I think if we developed the Balkan right, there are going to jobs there for many, many years and there can be a level of energy security there for many, many years. 
David:                      But what about the environmentalist movement?  There's a number of folks that are really opposed to the pipeline, opposed to drilling the Bakken and ostensibly those people are going to be people who are probably going to want to vote for you and not Denny Rehberg [Tester’s opponent in 2012], isn't there a risk that they're not going to show up and turn out to help you?
Sen. Tester:          I always think common sense is going to be the deciding factor when it comes to elections and I think, if you develop in a common sense way, everybody can win.  That’s the basis of my Forest Jobs bill.  And there's going to be people on the hard right and the hard left that want it all their way, but that's not practical and it’s not common sense.  So you've got to be thoughtful about it.  You've got to make sure you do it right.  You've got to make sure that folks follow the rules.
                              And if agency folks don't follow the rules, by the way, I don't care if you're talking about benefits for veterans or you're talking about drilling in the Bakken or whatever, that's an important part of the equation.  So but no, I think enviros in the end can take a look at what I stand for.  You know, it is a good choice, it is a clear choice for them because you've got, on the one hand, the guy [Rehberg] who built the Keystone pipeline, come hell or high water and I'm saying let’s use our heads about this.  Let's do it right if we're going to do it.  And the same thing with drilling in the Balkan, let’s do it right. 
I searched Tester’s Senate press releases, available on his Senate website, for the term “Keystone XL” to further understand his position on Keystone XL.  The first mention of the project came in 2010, when Tester questioned TransCanada’s request to operate the proposed pipeline at a higher than standard pressure—a request which TransCanada withdrew at Tester’s urging. The press release aptly portrays Tester’s position on Keystone XL: He wants it built, but with certain restrictions. Completely in step, mind you, with what he told me in fall of 2011 more than a year later.

That’s the same pattern you see when reviewing Tester’s votes on amendments to Senate Bill 1. Tester supported some amendments mandating that the pipeline to be built with American material and labor. He voted for an amendment clarifying that products produced from tar sands would be subject to federal petroleum excise taxes. He supported an amendment requiring a renewable standard for electricity production. He opposed an amendment requiring the federal home heating assistance program to be funded at a minimum level, and another restricting the transportation of petroleum coke. 

Most of these amendments, including those Tester favored, failed. And despite the fact Tester has long supported amendments requiring the use of American labor and material in the construction of Keystone XL, he supported the bill on final passage. To be clear, Tester did not get his ideal Keystone XL bill. But he voted for it anyway—figuring, I suspect, that half a loaf was better than none.
You can see all the roll call votes on the Senate website here.

So, where’s the alleged flip flop? As far as I can tell, in my review of previous pieces of legislation and Senate amendments concerning Keystone XL going back to 2011, Tester has always supported the construction of Keystone XL.

The “flip flop” is because Tester did not vote in favor of cutting off debate on Senate Bill 1 says the Montana Republican Party. He’s not a Keystone XL “purist” because he favored more debate and more amendments.

Well, a funny thing happens when a party moves from the minority to the majority. Because all of the sudden, positions the party once took become, shall we say, inconvenient. 

When Republicans served in the Senate minority in the last Congress, they expressed indignity when Senator Reid did not allow them the courtesy of considering Republican amendments to Democratic-crafted bills. Democrats did not allow the amendment process to run its full course, they said, and they felt debate was rushed and did not consider the minority party’s point of view.

Here’s Republican Senator Orrin Hatch in a National Journal piece on Harry Reid’s ironclad control over the Senate floor agenda, achieved by filling the amendment tree (thereby shutting out the minority party in the amending of legislation): "When the Senate Democratic leadership decides to bring a bill to the floor, far more often than not we are blocked from offering any amendments," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said on the floor last week.” You can access the article here. Republicans, of course, vowed to allow more amendments and greater debate if only voters gave them a majority in the Senate.

Majority status means majority control, and it often means that in order to get things done, you have to shut down debate and control what can and cannot be discussed. It also means limiting the amending process. I’ll bet you good money that we’ll see far less amend-a-thons on future bills in the Republican-led Senate. The Republicans, while in the minority, doth protest too much.

On this point, the Republican Party’s press release was disingenuous. But what followed next was either disturbing or laughable. Take your pick.

One of the amendments voted upon by the Senate AFTER cloture failed was Senator Steve Daines’ Senate Amendment 132, which expressed the “sense of Congress” that restrictions should be placed on the president’s ability to create National Monuments. You can read the text of the amendment here.

Tester voted no on that amendment—a vote which he never would have taken had the cloture petition succeeded—the same cloture petition that Tester was criticized for voting against in the same press release! 

So Tester’s faulted for voting against cloture, and then he is criticized for endorsing “President Obama’s latest land power grab, allowing Obama to declare land in Phillips County a national monument and immediately halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.” At least, that’s what is spun in the press release. Don’t believe it.

Facts are stubborn things. Had Daines’ amendment passed, it would have done nothing to change existing statute.

There is no land grab in Phillips County—and even if there was or is, Senator Tester’s vote on Senate Amendment 132 certainly didn’t express his views on it. At best, Tester voting no suggests that he believes that the executive branch has and should have the power to protect land by declaring it a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Every president since has created at least one National Monument—including Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It does not mean he wants President Obama to drop a national monument in Phillips County and stop Keystone XL because HE WANTS KEYSTONE XL BUILT.

The process of legislating is messy, tortuous, and complicated. To truly understand it requires taking each and every vote and placing it into its proper context. To do otherwise represents a gross distortion of the how the Senate and House operate, and at its core, represents elevating a politically-driven narrative at the expense of what Stephen Colbert termed as “truthiness.” 

Perhaps more importantly, no piece of legislation is perfect. To expect our legislators to vote for the perfect bill asks the impossible. No legislator can or should be held to that standard. But the way in which political operatives abuse roll call records, they aim to make us think there is only one way—the true way—to represent a political position and the interests of a place or a people. Everything else is craven and suspect. I fundamentally object to this standard, and to this particular misrepresentation of legislating. We ought to expect better of civic discussion and discourse.

One final point. Using the logic of the Montana Republican Party as expressed in their press release, I guess Senator Mitch McConnell hates Keystone, too, because he voted against his own cloture motion! He flip-flopped!

Don’t believe me? Go look it up here

No, of course not. He voted against it as a procedural matter so that he could later introduce a possible motion to reconsider on the bill. But hey, context doesn’t matter, right?