The Fallout: Does Boehner’s Absence Change Anything?

Speaker John Boehner finally succumbed to the three-year pressure campaign waged by House conservatives. As politically weak as Boehner was in his conference, he was never going to be forced out of his position. He’s powerful enough that he could leave on his own terms. On Friday, he did just that. The question now is: where does that leave a divided and unwieldy House majority?

Over the next month this potentially untethers Speaker Boehner from the hard right. A short-term continuing resolution (CR) will pass next week and potentially set the stage to pass the Highway Trust Fund bill and other priorities currently stuck in limbo. In short, Boehner is free to do what he has done for the last five years: enable Republicans to get out of their own way on what should be easily passed bills. Boehner has deftly moved his conference around problems that truly threatened the Republican brand and fundraising from the Doc-Fix, the Violence Against Women Act, trade promotion authority, to the debt ceiling and his handling of the shutdown in 2013. In his last month, that will likely remain his focus. This time, however, he likely won’t feel tied to demands from the right that could endanger these deals or the party.

Once he leaves Republican politics become trickier. Conservatives waged this rebellion, finally succeeding after nearly three years. They will want a successor with proven conservatism or at least gain assurances their demands will gain more traction in the legislative process. In this scenario more distant obstacles may become even more difficult. Critical legislation such as the December continuing resolution and the debt ceiling may become the battlefield in which newly emboldened conservatives will challenge the rest of the party to follow their lead. The problem is the structural features of government that have prevented conservative wins in several showdowns remain in place. The President will still veto any legislation that defunds Planned Parenthood, undermines Obamacare, undermines non-defense programs in unacceptable ways. Senate Democrata will still filibuster spending bills. 

In other words, this potentially makes an already bad situation worse in the time remaining in the 114th Congress. It’s unclear who will succeed Boehner, how they’ll manage the factions within the conference, and if they can chart a path toward victory in 2016. However, removing Boehner won’t change the broader dynamics causing dysfunction. It arguably makes them worse.

Conservatives won the battle they’ve been fighting for years. However, it’s unclear they’ve furthered their cause in the war.

Posted in leadership, Legislative Politics, Political Institutions | Leave a comment

How John Boehner would Lose his Job: He Chooses to.

This is the week Speaker John Boehner will supposedly face a vote to remove him from the speakership on the House floor. Don’t buy the hype. Amid multiple headlines claiming Speaker Boehner is facing his most strident rebellion yet, it’s important to keep the procedural context in mind. The only way John Boehner will vacate the speakership is if he decides he no longer wants the job.

Some have claimed they can force a vote to remove Boehner through a “privileged resolution.” Privileged status doesn’t guarantee a vote. Privileged status means a member can interrupt regular business to bring up a bill up. But it does not guarantee that it will be considered. For example, several current bills with privileged status remain in limbo. Agriculture, Financial Services, DHS, Interior and Environment, State and Foreign Ops appropriations bills are all privileged but have yet to receive a vote. Until the Speaker officially recognizes a member on the floor, even a privileged bill will fail to be debated, let alone receive a vote. Greg Koger has a nice summary of how that kind of conversation would unfold on the floor. That is a key point. The Speaker must recognize a member for the explicit purpose of bringing forward a vote to fire him. It’s not likely.

Another consideration is that the current resolution is not written in privileged form. In other words, the only way the current resolution, sponsored by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), would come to the floor is through the Rules Committee – which is handpicked by the Speaker – or by the suspension of the rules – which would require 2/3rds majority to vacate the chair. Neither of those routes are particularly likely either.

This is a pressure campaign. The right-wing of the caucus is attempting to place enough pressure on Boehner that he is forced to step aside so [insert unknown and unclear successor here] can lead a divided and unwieldy majority. It should be noted, it is a pressure campaign the right has waged, on and off, for nearly four years. It’s possible Boehner folds to the pressure. Many lieutenants are reportedly jockeying for jobs, anticipating a potential chance to move up the leadership ladder. But the chances Boehner is fired prior to the shutdown are practically zero, and the likelihood he’s removed at all are slim.

The Speaker may be politically weak but procedurally he’s very strong. And for all intents and purposes, Boehner retains the power to determine his own retirement.

Posted in Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure | 2 Comments

Conservatives’ Playcalling: Hail Mary… Repeat.

(Hail Mary, noun, 2. (FOOTBALL) a very long, typically unsuccessful pass made in a desperate attempt to score late in the game.)

It appears Speaker Boehner may have another rebellion on his hands. Will this be the toughest challenge to his speakership? Maybe. That is if you don’t include the last two speakership elections, multiple Hastert violations, DHS funding, or any of the other events that sparked overthrow rumors the last four years.

Speaker Boehner’s demise has received at least as much press as many former speakers who eventually resigned their positions. But this is different from those historical examples. The difference between speakers Reed, Henderson, Gingrich, et al., is this rebellion will almost certainly not succeed in the 114th Congress. Conservatives do not have the votes to vacate the chair. They’d need Democratic votes on multiple series to accomplish that. And short of nominating a member even more moderate than Boehner, the minority has little to gain from helping the right overthrow their leader.

However, this rebellion is notable in that it is part of a string of more aggressive tactics emerging from the conservative wing of the party. Just before recess Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) tried to circumvent Majority Leader McConnell to force votes on amendments to kill the Iran deal and Obamacare. Their procedural gambits ended when neither could produce enough supporters for a  roll call vote (a very low threshold of only 11 in the Senate). Around the same time Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) offered a resolution to declare the speakership vacant, attempting to force a family discussion about the direction of the party. Changing Senate process or unseating a sitting Speaker can only be described as Hail Marys, plays with such low odds they are only called in moments of desperation.

The irony is that conservatives are winning on several issues. Leadership has gone out of their way to accommodate conservatives on a variety of votes. CQ recently released a study (gated) showing that the most frequent party defectors do not come from the House Freedom Caucus or the Tea Party. Moderate Republicans are the ones most likely to vote against the party’s position. To put it differently, when scheduling floor votes House leaders appease the right’s requests more often.

This makes these high profile attempts puzzling. They are Hail Mary throws to the end zone. And just like in football, 99% of these plays will end in failure. The question is: at what cost?

Unlike football, there is a lot of time left on the political clock. The game will go on. For conservatives, this likely won’t end well. In the process of flexing their muscles they may turn the ball over to Democrats, giving them leverage on many issues from highway funding to budgetary issues. Boehner will have to move forward on a continuing resolution (CR) that does not include an amendment for Planned Parenthood. Once that is passed, a highway bill, omnibus spending package, and other issues remain.

Hail Marys are entertaining plays but they fail more often than not. And unless conservatives temper their play calling, they risk losing a lot of policy games.

Posted in College Football, Legislative Politics | 2 Comments

Why the House is to blame for the Senate’s polarization

In the American political lexicon, the Senate is said to possess “coolness” and “wisdom.”  Words like “decorum,” “comity,” and “respect” are frequently used to describe the institution as well.  In recent years, however, cracks have appeared in the Senate’s high-minded veneer.  For example, in July of this year, Ted Cruz was admonished by his own party for calling Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a “liar” on the Senate floor.  A number of political observers have remarked that senators seem to be behaving more like the “uncivilized masses” in the House of Representatives.

Academic studies confirm that the Senate has become a more extreme place over the past two decades.  By just about any measure, the Senate has polarized ideologically at about the same rate as the House.  According to political scientist Keith Poole, both chambers are more polarized than at any period since the late 1800s.  What’s puzzling about the synchronous polarization of the House and Senate is the fact that the chambers should respond the polarizing pressures very differently.  With longer terms and more diverse constituencies, senators should move toward the extremes at a much slower rate than the representatives.

All this begs the question: Why do we see similar patterns of polarization in both chambers?

Although the House and Senate are quite different from electoral and institutional standpoints, they share one important thing in common: the same members.  In the current Senate, about half of senators first served in the House.  Examples include staunch liberals like Barbara Boxer and Dick Durbin as well as staunch conservatives like James Inhofe and David Vitter.  Notably, this seems to be a modern development.  In the 80th Congress (1947-1949), just 19 percent of senators came from the House.

Can the increase in the volume of shared members explain the Senate’s polarization?

In a forthcoming paper, I argue that it can (see here and here).  In the paper I argue that lawmakers learn extreme partisan behaviors in the House and simply continue those learned routines after winning election to the Senate.  Although this theory has intuitive appeal and fits the timing of the Senate’s polarization, it is unconventional in the congressional literature.  Indeed, virtually all studies view polarization as a function of lawmakers’ rational or goal-seeking actions (designed to secure preferable policy outcomes or win re-election).  In contrast, my work theorizes that lawmakers’ roll-call behaviors are also the product of social-psychological processes.

I propose that there are two main ways this “partisan learning” happens.  First, political parties use their organizational powers to intentionally socialize junior members.  What junior members learn in this context is the utility of party loyalty and a norm valuing teamsmanship.  While uncommon in the contemporary congressional literature, research by Sinclair, Loomis, and Dodd make similar arguments.  Second, lawmakers learn partisan behaviors as a by-product of the House’s hyper-partisan environment.  Political scientists Arthur Lupia and Matt McCubbins summed it up best: “Legislators, like most people, learn by watching what others do and listening to what they say”.

I test the theory of partisan learning in a series of statistical models.  In simple terms, the models tell us why some senators are so extreme in their voting behavior and others are relatively moderate.  A key aspect of these models is that they account for the “usual” explanations of polarization (things like party identification and state characteristics).  More importantly, however, they account for possible selection effects caused by electoral dynamics (maybe extremists are more likely to run for the Senate?) as well as a senator’s ideological extremism before they won election to the House.

Ultimately, the results validate the theory that senators adopt partisan behaviors in the House and continue those behavioral patterns after winning election to the Senate.  Among results, I find that senators who came from the House display greater ideological extremism if they (a) served in the House within an extreme partisan cohort and (b) won election to the Senate after representing a partisan district.  In other words, ideological extremism is fostered when lawmakers are surrounded by extreme co-partisans as well as when they represent extreme constituents.

Figure 1 shows just how substantively important the two factors are for Democrats and Republicans.  In the figure, the causes of ideological extremism are broken down by era according to whether a senator served before Newt Gingrich was elected in 1978, during Gingrich’s time in the House, and after Gingrich resigned in 1999.  The blue “base” causes of a senator’s ideological extremism represent the “usual”.  Needless to say, factors like party identification and state characteristics have the biggest overall effects in both parties and in every time period.  At the same time, however, we can see that the effect of a senator’s House cohort (red bar) is quite large as well.  This effect is most visible on the Republican side in the post-Gingrich era, where the cohort effect accounts for roughly 35 percent of a senator’s ideological extremism.

Untitled

It is important to note that my paper is not the only one that documents these patterns.  Sean Theriault and David Rohde were the first to report that the replacement of moderate senators by extremists from the House has been a major cause of the Senate’s polarization.  And Theriault followed up on that article with an excellent book on the same topic.  But like most landmark studies, their work raised additional questions.  Namely, neither project was able to isolate what–exactly–happens in the House that causes ideological extremism in the Senate.  In a review of Theriault’s book, political scientist Gerald C. Wright noted the following:

“More could be done to address the question of why these senators are so different. Theriault deals with the question indirectly in some rough quantitative controls for state characteristics, but he does not confront the question head on.”

In both projects, Theriault and Rohde refer to the House’s effect on Senate polarization as a consequence of a peculiar cohort of lawmakers they call the “Gingrich Senators”.  In simple terms, their work identifies Republican senators who came from the House after Gingrich’s election (from 1978-2010) as key to explaining the Senate’s polarization.  My results, by comparison, show that the underlying causes of this effect are not isolated to Newt Gingrich or the Republican Party but are, instead, part of a more broadly generalizable behavioral process.  In fact, some of the most partisan senators in the past decade (Jim DeMint, Pat Toomey, and David Vitter) entered in the House after Gingrich had resigned.

In the end, I prefer the term the “Housification” of the Senate.  It may seem like academic quibbling over vocabulary, but the distinction has important implications for conveying why the Senate has polarized as well as our theoretical understanding of legislative behavior.  In my view, one of the biggest takeaways from both projects is that legislative behavior is not just the product of rational, goal-seeking motivations.  Congressional behaviors–like ideological extremism–can be learned as well.

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Note: Another version of this post was published on the London School of Economics and Political Science’s blog.

Posted in Empirical Theory, Legislative Politics, Legislative Theory, Polarization, Political Institutions, Political Parties | Leave a comment

Will the Senate Go Nuclear Again?

Put this in the “it’s not really nuclear” category. Despite several accounts reporting that Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) plans to go nuclear, don’t believe the headlines.

That said this is likely the most interesting thing that will happen in the Senate this year, at least from a procedural standpoint. After cloture is invoked Senator Lee will attempt to revote an Obamacare repeal amendment to the highway bill that is also carrying the Export-Import Bank authorization, which is the bill the Senator really wants to kill.

Unlike regular debate, nongermane amendments are not in order after cloture has been invoked. In other words, you cannot attach the Obamacare repeal after cloture has been invoked on the highway funding bill with Ex-Im attached to it. Major reforms to the healthcare industry are simply not that relevant to fixing bridges or giving out loans. Therefore, the Senator’s motion will be ruled out of order. The Senator will then appeal the ruling of the chair, which is decided by the Senate by a majority vote without debate.

The fact that this motion will be decided by majority vote without debate is the major commonality. Forcing a majority vote in the Senate is no small feat. However, the effect of this change would not be as significant as Reid’s nuclear option, reducing cloture to a majority on executive and judicial nominees (excluding the Supreme Court).

If Senator Lee attempts this motion, it would change germaneness rules while under cloture. The effect would simply open the door to more extraneous amendments while under cloture. Put differently, this would make the Senate under cloture more like the Senate when not under cloture. In regular debate (though not on appropriations) Senators can offer completely random amendments to bills. It’s arguably the second most important feature of the Senate outside the filibuster. For example, the lack of a germaneness rule is how we arrived at this scenario in the first place. Majority Leader McConnell is amending the “Hire More Heroes Act of 2015” (H.R. 22) and replacing it with the highway funding bill and adding the Export-Import Bank, neither of which are germane to hiring heroes. This would be impossible in the House (except under a rule from the Rules Committee).

It’s unlikely but we could see a major change to Senate operation. There are a variety of ways that the leaders or others in the chamber could thwart Senator Lee’s plans. Even if there was a change, it’s not on the same level as the nuclear option. Rather, it would make cloture debate more like regular debate. It would be significant but I wouldn’t call it nuclear.

The real underlying story is the method. Since the Senate went nuclear in November of 2013, senators have learned you can change nearly any Senate process if you can find a nondebatable motion. We’ll see that method employed again as conservatives try to kill the highway/Ex-Im bill.

(For process geeks: there is an excellent paper by Tony Madonna and Richard Beth on nondebatable motions and the nuclear option that was presented at the 2014 APSA Annual Conference.)

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Gun Control is Unlikely in this Congress: Here’s Why

It happened after the Aurora shooting.  It happened after Sandy Hook.  It happened after the shooting in Charleston.  And it’s happening now after the killing of five service members in Tennessee and two moviegoers in Louisiana.

I’m referring, of course, to calls for stricter gun laws.  According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans favor policies such as background checks, mental health restrictions, the creation of a federal gun database, and bans on assault-style weapons.

But despite calls for stricter gun laws, equally predictable is the fact that gun control isn’t likely to happen.  It’s something of a paradox: Congress repeatedly fails to pass gun control despite mass support.

Political scientists have a number of explanations for why stricter gun laws are so difficult to pass even though surveys show support for specific gun measures.

Institutional Reasons

At the macro level, there are big structural impediments to gun control in the current Congress.  One is obvious to even casual political observers while the other is not so obvious.

First, the obvious reason.  With Republicans controlling the House and Senate in the 114th Congress, stricter gun laws are unlikely to be enacted into law.  Consider the fact that no gun control measures were passed in the previous 113th Congress after the Sandy Hook shooting.  In the Democratic-controlled Senate, just four Republicans voted for the bipartisan amendment to require background checks on all commercial gun sales.  It was the closest gun control came in that session of Congress.  In the Republican-controlled House, while a gun measure did pass, the amendment actually weakened gun control.

A less obvious structural impediment to gun control is the Senate’s bias against large states.  Among the Constitution’s many compromises, the decision to give states equal representation in the Senate (irrespective of population) was among the most significant.

Why does this matter for gun control?  In establishing a “malapportioned” Senate, the Framers created an undemocratic body that gives disproportionate power to small, rural states.  While it’s a simple feature, it has enormous implications.  For example, research by political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer shows that small states receive more federal funding on a per capita basis than the large states.  In the context of gun control, senators from rural states (even Democratic ones) are less likely to support gun control.

Consider Montana.  With just over 1 million residents, Montana is about 1/40th the size of California.  And because Montana and California have just two senators, Montana’s rural population is over represented in the Senate by the inverse proportion.  But despite these differences, both states had two Democratic senators in the 113th Congress.  Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester cast just four liberal votes on gun measures in the 113th Congress (on seven gun amendments, for a possible total of fourteen votes).  California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer cast fourteen total liberal votes on gun measures.

So, even if Democrats controlled both chambers, there would still be a major structural impediment to stricter gun laws given the Senate’s bias in favor of rural interests.  And I didn’t even mention the fact that in the modern Senate, almost everything requires 60 votes!

Individual Reasons

At the micro level, passing gun control requires the support of individual lawmakers.  Understanding why lawmakers support (and oppose) gun control is a key piece of the puzzle.

Let’s begin with the most contentious topic: the NRA.  Does the NRA cause lawmakers to vote against gun control?  Some research says yes.  Studies by Lipford (here) and Langbein and Lotwis (here) show that campaign contributions from the NRA indeed affect how members of Congress vote on gun legislation even after controlling for a lawmaker’s party affiliation and ideology.

However, there’s an important caveat.  While the effect of the NRA is “significant” in these studies, the magnitude of this effect pales in comparison to the effects of ideology and party affiliation.  Simply put, the NRA is unlikely to be the deciding factor in whether gun control passes or fails.  Indeed, the NRA typically gives campaign contributions to conservative Republicans who already oppose gun control.  Of course, this caveat needs a caveat: this does not dismiss the NRA’s importance.  Rather, research suggests that the NRA’s greatest influences are electoral—helping to defeat lawmakers—or in the policymaking process—through it’s informational powers.

Another effect on how individual lawmakers vote is public opinion.  In general, researchers have established a clear connection between what citizens want and how elected leaders vote.  In the context of gun control, however, this general pattern raises major questions.  As noted earlier, there is something of a “paradox” between mass support for stricter gun laws and the fact that individual lawmakers are unlikely to pass gun control.

A popular explanation for these contradictory conclusions is that proponents of stricter gun laws, while more numerous, are simply less enthusiastic about the issue than opponents of gun control.  For example, the Pew Research Center survey cited earlier asked respondents whether they would vote for a candidate who disagreed with their position on gun control.  According to the results:

Among those who prioritize gun rights, 41% say they would not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on gun policy, even if they agreed with the candidate on most other issues. Fewer gun control supporters (31%) say gun policy is a make-or-break voting issue for them.

Simply put, from a lawmaker’s perspective, responsiveness to one’s constituents is not a function of what surveys reveal, but who is likely to write letters, give campaign donations, and vote (all of which are more likely among opponents of gun control according to the Pew Survey).  In addition to this enthusiasm gap, while Americans support specific gun control policies—like background checks—people are generally lukewarm to the issue of “gun control” (see here and here).

As a whole, yes, gun control has widespread support when you ask Americans on a survey about specific policies like background checks, mental health restrictions, and bans on assault weapons.  And it may seem like the public outcry in the wake of recent shootings in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana will compel Congress to act.  Unfortunately for proponents of stricter gun laws, however, there are major institutional and individual-level obstacles in the way.

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Simulating the Vote to Remove the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s Capitol Grounds

Do opponents of the Confederate flag have the votes to remove it from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds?

In an attempt at answering this question, Charleston’s newspaper, The Post & Courier, did the yeoman’s work of contacting all 170 state lawmakers and recorded their position on the flag (see here).  It’s an important bit of journalism, one that informs citizens and holds lawmakers accountable, drawing praise from a number of media outlets (see here and here).

As of Thursday at 5:00pm, the Senate looks certain to vote to take down the Confederate flag.  At the time of this post, 33 senators have expressed their support for removing the flag while only 2 stand in opposition.  With just 46 senators, this clears the requisite 2/3rds majority needed to secure passage.

However, the House is short of the necessary votes.  While it seems like a safe bet that the lower chamber will eventually cross the 2/3rds threshold, there are reasons to be cautious. Indeed, The Post & Courier’s data suffer from an inherent and unavoidable problem known as “non-response bias.”  In this case, the data almost certainly overstate support for bringing down the flag.  At the present time, nearly 90% of representatives support removing it from the Capitol grounds.  However, among those that haven’t responded, 100% (all of them) are Republicans (and many are from very conservative districts).

Simply put, if a large enough bloc of these “non-respondents” are secretly “no” votes, the effort to take down the Confederate flag could be in jeopardy.  Looking at the breakdown of these lawmakers, it’s apparent that some (most?) of the non-respondents hiding their opinion by not answering.  It’s a classic—yet frustrating—problem in survey research.

Fortunately, common statistical models can help us “fix” this problem and simulate the final vote total (but see some important caveats below).  In this analysis, The Post and Courier’s data serves as the dependent variable (using a lawmaker’s “yes,” “no,” and “missing” responses).  Independent variables include a lawmaker’s party affiliation as well as demographic data from the counties in their legislative district: (1) Obama’s vote share in 2012, (2) the percentage of Black residents, (3) the percentage with at least high school degree, and (4) the percentage 65+.  (County data is an imperfect proxy for a lawmaker’s constituents as districts span parts of a county.  However, it’s the only data available.  Add this to the list of caveats.)

Without including too many of the boring details, two models are estimated: one predicting why a lawmaker has yet to reveal his or her position (which helps “fix” the non-response bias) and a second predicting a lawmaker’s response.  What the model gives us is the predicted probability that the non-respondent will be a “yes” or a “no” vote.

In the figure below, I report the predictions (again, this is just for those who have yet to reveal their preference).  A blue dot signifies the predicted probability of voting for removing the Confederate flag while the red bar represents the prediction’s variability.  A larger red bar indicates the model is less certain about how a lawmaker will vote.
House

At the bottom of the figure, William “Bill” Whitmire (R) is the most likely non-respondent to vote against removing the flag (the model gives him a 2% chance).  In Oconee County—where his district is located—just 28% of voters voted for Obama in 2012.  Further, only 8% are Black and Oconee County has the second largest percentage of residents over the age of 65 in South Carolina.

In contrast, at the top of figure, Kirkman Finlay, III (R) is the most likely non-respondent to vote for removing the flag (the model gives him a 99% chance).  In Richland County—where his district is located—65% of residents voted for Obama in 2012.  Richland County also has a high percentage of Blacks and residents with at least a high school degree and a low percentage of those over the age of 65.

Most importantly, among the 37 hold outs in the state House, only 12 are predicted to vote against removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds.  In contrast, 25 are predicted to vote for removing the flag.  Note that this is based on assigning those <50% to the “no” column and those >50% to the “yes” column.  An obvious caveat: there is significant variability in the model; this is not the kind of thing that can be predicted with certainty.  For example, while James “Jay” Lucas is currently in the “yes” column (at 61%) and Ralph Kennedy, Jr. is in the “no” column (at 40%), it wouldn’t be surprising if either voted the opposite way.

Finally, if we include the declared “yes” and “no” respondents in the tabulation, we get a final vote in the House of 101-23.  Needless to say, this crosses the 2/3rds threshold.

A few more caveats.  First, my gut feeling is that the model is too bullish on the “yes” probabilities.  While I think the House indeed has the votes to remove the flag, I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of the non-respondents predicted to be “yes” votes end up being “no” column when the actual vote happens.  Second, The Post & Courier’s dataset records support for removing the Confederate Flag in the abstract.  At the present time, there are three bills that have been introduced in the General Assembly.  Furthermore the committees receiving referral of the those bills can make their own statutory additions or subtractions.  In the end, the nature of the bill could change the predictions dramatically.

But while there are still reasons to be cautious, it seems like a good bet that the Confederate flag is coming down from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds.

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