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By Jay Cost

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Obama's Tactical Mistake

Since the time of FDR, Democratic Presidents have often had trouble with their congressional committee chairs. Prior to the Great Depression, the Democratic Party did not extend far beyond the South and New York. What this meant was that the senior Democrats in the chamber were mostly from Dixie. So, when the Democrats came to control the Congress in 1930, southerners ascended to the committee chairmanships. This frequently created tensions with New Deal liberals, especially regarding civil rights.

The Democratic Party changed in the decades after the Great Depression - and the relationship of the committee chairs to the broader party changed as well. We can quantify these changes via a few simple steps:

-We will measure the ideology of the median House legislator from 1948 onwards. This legislator has half of the House to his or her left and half to the right. On ideologically divisive issues, he or she can be thought of as the pivotal vote in the House.

-We will measure the ideology of the median House committee chair from 1948 onwards. This is the chairman who has half of all chairmen to his or her left and half to the right.

-We will measure the ideology of the median House prestige committee chair from 1948 onwards. The prestige committees are defined by Davidson, Oleszek and Lee (2008). These are: Appropriations, Budget, Commerce, Financial Services, Rules, and Ways & Means.

-We will look only at the House, more specifically at years when the Democrats control the House. That way, the median legislator is a Democrat.

-We will use DW-Nominate scores to measure the ideology of these House members. They generally run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative).

These steps produce the following chart:

Alternative Legislators, Chairs, and Prestige Chairs 2.jpg

From 1954 to 1970, there was generally a tight correspondence between the committee chairs and the median legislator, with each being pretty moderate. In the mid-70s, they all tacked to the left - but whereas the median legislator quickly swung back to the right, the chairs kept trending leftward. By the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the differences had become quite substantial - with committee chairs being well to the left of the median legislator. After 12 years of Republican rule, the Democrats returned to power - and their chairs had moved farther leftward while the median voter was basically unchanged. The 110th Congress (2006-07) exhibits the largest divergence between the chairs and the median legislator since World War II. We don't yet have ideological scores for the current Congress, but I am sure there is still a great deal of space between these groups.

Much of this deviation can be explained by the system of seniority that governs chairmanships. It's not a formal rule among House Democrats, but nevertheless:

[Nancy] Pelosi, unlike her GOP predecessors, chose to follow seniority in designating committee chairs. As a result, many of the Democratic chairs are liberal "old bulls" who either headed or were senior members of several of the most influential committees prior to the GOP takeover in 1995. [Davidson, Oleszek, and Lee (2008), 213.]

I mentioned last week that Bush's median share of the 2004 vote in the districts of current chairmen was just 36%. Democrats in liberal districts are less likely to be defeated, meaning that they are around long enough to ascend to chairmanships, and more likely to be liberal.

Meanwhile, thanks to majority-minority districting, as well as the party's overwhelming strength in densely populated urban areas, Democrats win 80-90% of the presidential vote in many congressional districts, which means they are quite safe. But it also means that to find 218 seats, they have to carry districts where their presidential candidates win less than 50%. Thus, you get a phenomenon like the current one: Heath Shuler (D-NC) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) make the difference between majority and minority status, but Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Barney Frank (D-MA) gavel the key committees once the majority has been achieved.

So, given all this, should we be surprised that House leaders produced a health care bill that is too liberal for the swing Democrats?

Ideally speaking, we might expect these leaders to craft a bill with their marginal members in mind - ensuring that it has enough votes for passage. We might also expect the leadership to put pressure on the chairmen and bill writers so that few (if any) members have to vote against their districts in order to get the bill through. However, when we move away from the clean results of assumption-driven rational choice theory into the real world - it is inevitable that practical problems will creep into situations like this. Namely, can we really expect Henry Waxman (D-CA) to have a good sense of what moderates like Mike Ross (D-AR) can support and what they cannot?

I'd say no. We shouldn't be surprised that the Congressman from Beverly Hills and the Congressman from Hot Springs haven't been able to see eye-to-eye on this one. Generally speaking, the ideological divergence between the liberal party leaders and the moderate swing Democrats is so large that this was bound to be a danger; there was always a chance the liberals would push for a bill beyond what their pivotal moderates could support.

I'd ask: where was the White House on this one?

The President is the country's only nationally elected official - so he should have the kind of broad perspective necessary to spot a liberal committee chair who is producing a bill too far to the left of the pivotal legislator. Unlike representatives who are electorally bound to serve a tiny sliver of the nation, the President has an interest in a consensus that unites the diverse segments of the country he had to woo to become President. That goes double for this President, who campaigned on a pledge to build such a consensus. Above all, the President is the one with the prestige needed to muscle intransigent leaders into drafting a broader bill. Again, that goes double for President Obama - the first president in 20 years to come into office with a majority of the popular vote and an enormous bank of good will upon which to draw.

President Obama has the perspective, incentive, and prestige to push Congress to produce policy reforms that can win a broad consensus. But apparently he did not do that. If anything, the President's insistence on such a speedy timeline probably increased the likelihood that such a problem would emerge. Bridging the divide between the liberals and moderates was going to take more time than what the President was allowing. This is quite clear when we consider the bipartisan snail's pace in the Senate Finance Committee; committees that met Obama's deadline have all produced bills that appear far too narrow for passage.

Why did the White House allow these committees to draft bills that would upset so many moderates? Did they think the Blue Dogs would simply fall in line, just weeks after they had to make a difficult choice on cap-and-trade? Did they forget that there are 49 Democrats who come from districts that voted for John McCain - or did they think these members would have no problem getting behind a bill produced by coastal liberals like Waxman, Rangel and George Miller (D-CA)?

I can appreciate why the Obama White House wanted to take a more hands-off approach on health care reform than what President Clinton tried in 1993. At its core, the reasoning is sound: if the critical task is for Congress to reach a consensus, it makes sense to have the Congress find the consensus itself. But I think the reasoning was taken too far; the White House has been too hands off. It should have stepped in earlier, playing go-between for the leadership and those crucial moderates to make sure the bill was still on track to get to half-plus-one votes (or, hopefully, many more). It should have understood that the ideological distance between the leaders and the median legislator in this Congress could threaten reform efforts.

Bill Clinton made a mistake in 1993 by having the executive branch draft the reform proposal. Barack Obama was right to want to correct this, but he over-corrected. If Clinton left too little to Congress, Obama left too much. This was a tactical mistake.

This does not necessarily mean that health care reform is doomed. There is still a good chance that the liberals and the moderates will find common ground. But this was a needless setback - one that has made President Obama, the House leadership, and the Democratic Party look bad. It has given the GOP an opening to lobby against the proposed reforms. The Democrats in Congress cannot respond with a single voice, and the President is too busy softening all his firm deadlines. It's no surprise that Obama's poll numbers are dropping, and the public has grown skeptical of the proposals on the table.

It didn't have to happen this way. The White House could have found some middle ground between Clinton's approach and the approach it chose. It could have still left the design of the reform to Congress, but made sure that the liberal leaders did not overreach. It could have seen to it that the moderate Democrats who are decisive on the House floor were brought into the negotiations earlier. This intra-party battle may have been inevitable, but it could have been waged in private rather than in public.

Committee assignment data:

Garrison Nelson. Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947-1992: House of Representatives/81st through 103rd Congresses, Accessed 7-23-09.

Charles Stewart III and Jonathan Woon. Congressional Committee Assignments, 103rd to 110th Congresses, 1993--2007: House of Representatives/110th Congress, Accessed 7-23-09.

Publicly available here, courtesy of Professor Charles Stewart III.

-Jay Cost