Elections May Divide Congress Even More

By John Fortier, a research fellow at AEI and writes a weekly column on Congress for The Hill (THE WASHINGTON POST, 14/11/06):

Since last Tuesday’s momentous election, there has been much talk about a return to the sensible center and the new importance of incoming moderates in Congress. A closer look, however, reveals that while there are some prominent moderates in the incoming Democratic class, there were far more Republican moderates swept out of office.

The Democratic victory on November 7th was broad. It swept in many Democrats of different stripes across the country including some who won in Republican districts and who are socially conservative on issues like guns, abortion, and gay marriage. There were also victories by Democratic military veterans, who projected a more hawkish outlook than much of their party in Congress. But all in all, these social conservatives and veterans make up a minority of new members, at most one third of Democrats who took Republican House seats.

On the other side of the ledger, the ranks of Republican House moderates were severely thinned. Let’s assume that there are no changes in the leaders in the several outstanding House races and that Democrats end up with a gain of twenty-nine seats. Among the House seats that changed hands, nine out of the twenty most liberal House Republicans lost, using the rankings of political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal (voteview.com). And nineteen seats that changed hands had been held by Republicans in the more liberal half of their caucus.

Or look at it a different way. Before Tuesday’s elections there were eighteen House Republicans who represented districts that John Kerry had won in 2004. Ten of those eighteen lost.

At the same time, the geographic differences between the parties have become even more accentuated. In presidential elections, the south, with the exception of Florida, has become solid Republican territory. Only two Republican incumbents lost in these states, and one of them was the unusual case of Tom DeLay’s district, where the Republican candidate had to run as a write in candidate.

Conversely, eleven formerly Republican held seats in the northeast switched to Democratic control. In New England, there is only one Republican representative remaining, Chris Shays, who won a close race with 51% of the vote. New York State is similarly blue. After Tuesday, if you get into a car in Manhattan and drive north out of the city, you would have to go nearly 200 miles until you reached territory represented by Republicans.

Once the 110th Congress convenes, the polarization will manifest itself in the great change from very conservative leaders and committee chairs to liberal ones, with only a sprinkling of moderates. Denny Hastert ranked the 57th most conservative member while Nancy Pelosi ranked 52nd most liberal. The Judiciary Committee chairmanship moves from Jim Sensenbrenner, the 28th most conservative member to John Conyers, the 4th most liberal. Not all the committees are moving from very conservative chairs to very liberal ones, but with both parties dominated by their extremes, the middle is less represented in the power structure than it was a generation ago.

Add to this increasing polarization the debates that will occur within the Republican and Democratic parties after such a one-sided election. On the Republican side, there will be contested races for all of the significant leadership positions in the House and therefore a vigorous debate about the future direction of the party. While there may be some calls for moderation, there are already conservatives making the argument that had Republicans stuck closer to their core principles they would have performed better.

On the Democratic side, the importance of voters’ concerns with the outcome of the Iraq war will embolden the liberal anti-war wing of the Democratic Party. While the initial days of the Democratic Congress will be marked by unity of purpose, it is not hard to imagine that serious differences on the conduct of the war will emerge between President Bush and Congress. And the more liberal part of the Democratic Party will ask: what was this election about if not being able to force a significant change in policy toward Iraq?

While there is much talk about the electorate wanting to move politics back to the center, the reality is that Congress is more divided than ever.