When the Congress passed major legislation this week to raise the debt limit and set top-line spending numbers for the next two years, it received the support of only a minority of House Republicans—79 of the conference’s 247 members. Who were these members? Here’s the anatomy of the so-called “vote yes, hope yes” caucus:
1. On average, they are more moderate than the Republican conference as a whole.
If we look at political scientists’ workhorse measurement of legislators’ ideology (the so-called DW-NOMINATE scale), members who supported the budget deal were clearly, on average, less conservative than their voting-no peers. On a roughly -1 to +1 scale, with -1 being the most liberal and +1 being the most liberal, the average NOMINATE score of a Republican who supported the deal was 0.36, while the average score of a GOP opponent was 0.54. This is not at all surprising; other analyses have demonstrated similar patterns on important fiscal votes in recent years, including those to reopen the government after the October 2013 shutdown and to keep the government running through December 11 of this year.
2. They’ve been in Congress longer.
As a report the Pew Research Center recently noted, the typical member of the House Republican conference has been in the chamber for notably less time than his average peer in the Democratic caucus: the mean tenure of the former is roughly 4.6 terms, while the average length of service for the latter is 6.7 terms. For Republicans, that figure is almost as small as when Republicans, aided by 73 freshmen, retook the House after the 1994 elections.
While a majority of Republican House members are in their first, second, or third terms, the average “yes” voter on the budget deal has been around much longer than that: 5.3 terms, as compared to 4 terms for “no” voters. Put differently, in each of the last three classes to enter the House, “no” voters outnumber “yes” voters by at least two-to-one. Of the 68 members of the “Tea Party” class of 2010, only 13 voted yes. Similar patterns hold for the subsequent classes of 2012 and 2014: 10 out of 32 members of the former supported the measure, while 13 of 49 in the latter did so.
What should we make of these differences? Certainly, one possibility is that longer serving members are more likely to retire and thus care less about the electoral consequences of their voting record among GOP voters with whom the deal may be unpopular. As of now, only five of the Republican supporters of the budget deal have announced they are retiring, but more retirements may be coming. Another potential electoral explanation might involve the notion of the “personal vote,” which has been explored extensively in political science. If part of the reason that incumbents enjoy an electoral advantage is their non-policy reputation with what Richard Fenno classically termed their “re-election constituency,” then perhaps a longer tenure makes members feel safer to cast votes at odds with the majority of their co-partisan colleagues.
Empirically, it is important to note that length of service is related to ideological moderation among members of the House Republican conference, though somewhat weakly; extremity on the NOMINATE scale and tenure are negatively correlated at -0.14. While some may attribute this to Tea Party effects on more junior members—indeed, the number of Tea Party activists in a member’s district is associated with voting in favor of the group’s position—other new research by Jordan Ragusa provides a more nuanced possible explanation. While Ragusa’s work focuses on how serving with an extreme partisan cohort in the House affects a member’s voting behavior when he or she moves on to serve in the Senate, his basic argument that what legislators do can be affected by the context in which they enter the chamber long after their first term may also help explain why longer-serving members tended to vote one way and more junior members another.
3. They—or their predecessors—have done this before.
In recent weeks, observers have noted that the path to 218 on a vote to raise the debt ceiling had become more difficult for supporters of an increase since the last vote on the issue in February 2014. Of the 28 Republicans who voted to lift the limit last year, 19 (including outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)) are still in the House. An additional 8 Republican supporters have since been replaced by new, freshman Republican members, as have 14 Democrats who voted for the increase. As the vote approached, it was unclear how many of those legislators, especially the freshmen, would get behind raising the limit.
In the end, almost all of the “repeaters”—15 of the 19—supported this week’s increase, just as they had in 2014. Of the “replacements,” let’s consider first the 14 Republicans who now hold seats held by Democrats who supported the 2014 increase: half supported this week’s deal, and half did not. Notably, these seven D-to-R replacements are largely relatively moderate Republicans who took over for relatively moderate Democrats. (The only exception is Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME), a more typical Republican who replaced former Rep. Mike Michaud, a more average Democrat.) On the R-to-R replacement side, only three of the eight freshmen voted for this week’s deal. Unsurprisingly, the three supporters in that group—Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY), and Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ)—are the most moderate of the R-to-R replacement group, and like their counterparts in the D-to-R group, they took over for relatively moderate predecessors.
These similarities in voting behavior may be driven by constituency preferences—if voters in these districts preferred their members to support raising the debt ceiling last year, chances are they want the same this year. Alternatively, given evidence that voters respond to incumbents’ positions and not the outcomes of the votes they cast, these freshmen may be hoping to avoid having the issue of the debt ceiling brought up in their next campaign in their moderate-electing districts.
As many have argued, passing a budget-debt ceiling deal this week does much to clear the decks for incoming Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). At the same time, Congress must still take steps to push federal dollars out the door for the rest of the fiscal year before mid-December. While this week’s package has lowered the temperature for that process, the possibility of another confrontation over controversial policy riders remains, and the new Speaker may need to resurrect this week’s “vote yes, hope yes” caucus to keep the lights on for Christmas.