An Anti-Establishment Vote?

This image from Keith Poole’s Voteview blog displays how members of the House voted on the debt ceiling deal. Each member of the House is displayed by a point in a two-dimensional space that reflects how they voted on all bills prior to last night’s vote. The horizontal axis reflects the liberal-conservative scale. So, legislators on the left are the most liberal members of the House and those on the right the most conservative. The vast majority of votes divide Congressmen along this axis. But, as you can see, this does not apply to the debt-ceiling vote. It is not necessarily the most liberal Democrats or the most conservative Republicans that deviate from the party line but those with low scores on the second dimension:

So what is this second dimension? Keith Poole and collaborators suggest that it may be picking up establishment vs outsider divides in both parties:

Note that many of the members of the Tea Party Caucus (on the right) and the Progressive and Black Caucuses (on the left) share negative scores on the second dimension, even though they are quite distant from one another on the liberal-conservative scale (we isolate the membership of each of these Caucuses in separate plots below to highlight this trend). These groups were also more opposed to the deal than the rest of the chamber: the Progressive Caucus voted 14-57 against the deal, the Black Caucus opposed it 17-23, and the Tea Party split 32-27 on the bill. We have previously suggested that the second dimension may be picking up intra-party differences within the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the 112th Congress based on an establishment/outsider divide. Though still too early in the 112th Congress to more deeply assess this trend, this particular vote does support it: Republicans and Democrats with high second dimension scores (and perhaps more “establishment” figures) are classified as supporting the bill.

Indeed, “Yea” voters include party leadership in the House like Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), on the left, as well as Reps. John Boehner (R-OH), Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), on the right. Even though these House members are hardly centrist, they are apparently more willing to “fall in line” to move legislation. Conversely, “Nay” votes joined unlikely bedfellows Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Maxine Waters (D-CA), on the left, and Reps. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Joe Wilson (R-SC), on the right. Of course, these groups opposed the deal for opposite reasons (it cuts too much or too little), but if the second dimension is picking up establishment vs. outsider divides in the House, both groups place greater priority on principle and purity rather than compromise and legislative deal-making.

This is an interesting interpretation although I am not sure if I would characterize anti-establishment voting as placing “greater priority on principle and purity.” It seems equally plausible that these legislators voted against a bill that on policy grounds they preferred to the status quo in order to signal their anti-establishment chops to voters. Being perceived as anti-establishment is not a terrible electoral strategy in hard times.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.