R.I.P. FY2017 Budget

The prospects of a congressional budget resolution are nearing zero. For weeks members in the House and Senate searched for a path forward. As of today, each institution is trail-blazing paths toward a budget but neither appears to meet up with the other. At this point in time, the budget process appears dead in the water.

As early as January House conservatives indicated they would not vote for a budget resolution that met the numbers outlined in the 2-year deal struck by President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader McConnell in October of last year (PL 114-74). Basically, any budget that meets the topline $1.07 trillion will be opposed by House conservatives without a guarantee to find $30 billion in savings in other parts of the budget, namely mandatory programs. The House Budget Committee cleared a budget resolution on Wednesday but only on the condition that the Speaker either agrees to procedural changes or commits to a procedural maneuver that would force the Senate to address a separate bill with $30 billion in savings before they vote on appropriations bills or a budget. It’s possible procedural changes assuage their demands. However, sending a CR or omnibus to the Senate with a side-car is potentially devastating and will likely be opposed by House and Senate leadership at all costs.

The Senate is in an entirely different situation. In a little reported provision included in last year’s budget deal allows the Senate Budget Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), to “file” appropriations numbers. In other words, the Chairman can walk on the Senate floor between April 15 and May 15 and simply insert the 2-year discretionary spending number ($1.07 trillion) in the Congressional Record. This circumvents the budget process entirely. No hearings, markups, amendments, or floor debate or votes are necessary. Essentially, the House and Senate authorized the Chairman to circumvent the FY17 budget process last November.

The key lesson here should be obvious. This 2-year deal was for the Senate. The budget deal was widely considered the Obama-Boehner agreement. However, it was not the President or the House that really needed this agreement. With seven vulnerable Republican seats in states Obama carried in 2012 (nine if you count states Obama carried in 2008), Republican senators need every opportunity to avoid politically damaging and risky votes. The budget process is one of the few bills where tough amendment votes were inevitable. Avoiding these votes will give some political cover to those vulnerable members while also reducing – somewhat – the risk of a shutdown.

The remaining question is whether House leaders can find a way forward on an omnibus spending bill or a CR. A shutdown a month prior to the November election would be catastrophic for the majority. Should that happen, Republicans would lose the Senate and the House would be up for grabs, something no one has, or should have, envisioned when the deal was struck.

In this decade a failed budget process is more the norm than exception. What is exceptional is the inability to write budget and spending bills with numbers already in place. This September Speaker Ryan may find himself between conservatives who continue to vote against large spending bills and Democratic colleagues who have heavy political incentives to watch his majority fail dramatically just a month before the November election. Finding 218 votes to prevent a shutdown is far from impossible but will require some acrobatics. The Speaker may need to limber up if he wants to hold onto his majority.

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Simulating the Senate Vote to Confirm Merrick Garland

On Wednesday, President Obama appointed Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.   Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (IA) have said that Garland will not receive a vote in the current Congress.

Despite McConnell and Grassley’s statements, one of the reasons President Obama selected Garland is the fact that he is relatively moderate, as indicated by this Monkey Cage post, and was thus approved by the Senate in 1997 by a vote of 76-23.  Notably, Garland was appointed to the DC Circuit in that year by a Republican controlled Senate, receiving the support of a majority of Senate Republicans (32 for, 23 against).

On the surface, this would seem to bode well for Garland’s chances of making it to the Supreme Court despite McConnell and Grassley’s obstructionist claims.  However, much has changed since 1997.

In this context (and many like it) the biggest change since 1997 has been the increase in ideological polarization in Congress.  Countless studies have documented that Democrats and Republicans have drifted further apart over the past three decades.  My work on this topic argues that a major reason for the Senate’s polarization has been the increase in the number of senators who first served in the (more polarized) House of Representatives (see here and here).

A straightforward analysis can help us adjudicate between these competing expectations about Garland’s likelihood of being confirmed (and crudely estimate how many votes he might receive).  Although this analysis has a number of limitations, it can give use a rough sense of what to expect.

I estimated a simple logit model of the 1997 vote to confirm Garland to the DC Circuit.  All data came from Keith Poole’s Vote View website.  The model includes just two variables: a senator’s ideology and whether they are from the South.  Although this is a very simple model for sure, it performs well, correctly predicting 88% of the yeas and nays in 1997.

Based on that model’s estimates, I then predicted what would happen in the current Senate.  Data on the ideology of senators in the 114th Congress also came from Poole’s Vote View website.

Figures 1 and 2 below present a senator’s predicted probability of voting for Garland (on the y-axis) by their ideology (on the x-axis).  Liberals are on the left, conservatives on the right.  Figure 1 is for the actual for Garland in 1997 (105th Congress) and Figure 2 is for the simulated vote in the current Congress (114th Congress).  Democrats are in blue and Republicans are in Red.


In the current Congress, the model estimates that 60 senators would vote for Garland and 40 would vote against his confirmation.  Looking at the figure, 60 senators are above the 50% threshold (more likely to vote for Garland than against) and 40 senators are below the 50% threshold.

All Democrats are predicted for Garland as are 14 Republicans.  The predicted Republican yes votes are: Alexander (TN), Gardner (CO), Capito (WV), Flake (AZ), Rounds (SD), McCain (AZ), Hoeven (ND), Heller (NV), Portman (OH), Hatch (UT), Ayotte (NH), Kirk (IL), Murkowski (AK), and Collins (ME).

While this prediction may seem surprising given what we know about party polarization, the two figures reveal how the Republican Party’s shift to the right changed the landscape of Senate confirmations.  Indeed, if just 14 Republicans vote for Garland that would represent a net decrease of 18 Republican votes from twenty years ago.  In the first figure above we can see how in the 105th Congress, a number of moderate Republicans have high probabilities of voting for Garland according to the model (and indeed, moderate Republicans did vote for Garland in 1997).  But as new, more extreme, senators replaced these moderates, the individual probabilities of a “yes” vote drop well below 50% line.

Let me emphasize, again, that this is a crude analysis.  It assumes that ideology and region–alone–shape how a senator votes on confirmations.  Of course, there are electoral and strategic reasons why a senator would vote for or against a president’s Supreme Court nominee.  In addition, an excellent Monkey Cage post by Kastellac, Lax, and Phillips discusses how public opinion in a senator’s state is a key piece of the puzzle.

At the minimum, however, the analysis gives use a sense of what a vote on Garland’s nomination might look like and how the landscape of Senate confirmations has been shaped by ideological polarization.  Of course, there’s a good chance we will never know if this prediction is right or wrong.

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New Budget Drama and Procedural Inventiveness. Got to love the House.

The optimism following the 2-year budget deal struck last October is officially over. Many House majority members who were unhappy with the deal remain unhappy. Over the past month House conservatives have signaled they will not vote for a budget unless they find $30 billion in cuts.

Passing a budget (or appropriations) below the discretionary numbers in the 2-year deal appears to be a nonstarter. So conservatives are attempting to find the savings in mandatory programs. They are circulating an interesting plan to reform major entitlement programs on appropriations bills through the reconciliation process. Here are the major take-aways from that last sentence: conservatives want to circumvent the House Ways & Means Committee, authorize changes to mandatory spending through the discretionary spending process, and do so using a straight majority process rarely used for appropriations.

This is a huge deal. It’s also a lot to unpack. It combines several processes into a plan akin to procedural acrobatics. It’s not impossible, though it would be unprecedented.

The first criticism of the plan is it violates House rules. Those rules state that members cannot add authorizing language (i.e. insert language changing Medicare benefits, taxes, etc.) in appropriations bills. Is this true? Yes. Does it matter? No. The reality is for the last couple decades this rule is waived (read: is not binding) any time an appropriations bill is brought to the floor. So would this rule violation really prevent the House from passing this mega-bill? If they have the votes, no.

The second criticism is that you can’t use reconciliation to pass appropriations bills. Actually, you can, though it has only happened twice. The last time reconciliation was used on appropriations was in 1981 for rescissions in previous spending bills (basically taking away previously awarded budget authority). It has never been used to circumvent a committee of jurisdiction or provide budget authority for executive agencies. In this respect, this is a huge unprecedented step for both reconciliation and the appropriations committees.

The plan has the advantage of attaching mandatory spending cuts to must pass spending legislation. This is something the President could not avoid if it made its way through Congress. There is a catch though: they can’t touch Social Security. That is expressly forbidden in the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act and would subject the bill to a 60-vote point of order in the Senate, something conservatives are using this process to avoid.

Keep in mind this plan is extremely hypothetical. If they somehow navigate the minefield of very powerful people in the House (like Ways & Means Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX)), its chances in the Senate are very small at best.

Regardless, the plan gets big time kudos on style points. What it lacks in regular order it more than makes up for in procedural jujitsu-y-ness.

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Senate SCOTUS politics in 2016

The passing of Justice Antonin Scalia this past weekend throws a new wrinkle into Senate politics. As if things were difficult enough for Majority Leader McConnell, he now has to navigate one of the Senate’s most important votes, or lack thereof, as he attempts to defend seven vulnerable Republican seats.

President Obama is expected to send his nominee to the Senate as soon as next week, when it returns from recess. It is uncertain how the Senate’s “advice and consent” will unfold in coming months. Here are a few possible scenarios.

Senate does not consider the nominee

This is the least likely option. Despite Leader McConnell’s remarks following the news of Justice Scalia’s passing, and reports that the Senate Judiciary Chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), would not hold hearings on a nominee, outright refusal to consider the nominee simply will not happen. Senator Grassley himself is up for reelection in a state Obama won in 2012 by almost six points. The Senior Senator is viewed as a fairly safe bet to win reelection. He will not want to jeopardize his lead with overt political maneuvers that do not play well in a state with a significant Democratic presence.

Republicans have been fighting an obstructionist label since they retook the majority. Refusing to consider Obama’s choice would not only validate that label, it would be a transparently snide political move that would garner the wrong kind of media attention.

Republicans are protecting seats in seven states won by Obama. None of those senators will likely support a stall-all-costs approach to a respected figure. There will almost certainly be a vote.

Dragged out process with no ultimate confirmation

The remaining scenarios are largely dependent on the presidential nominating process.

If the Republican nominee is a candidate senators believe can help their own reelection, then it’s likely the Senate votes, in some form, on Obama’s nominee. It may even be the case that 4 or 5 vulnerable Republicans from states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and possibly Ohio support seating a centrist jurist on The Court. However, the likelihood of a filibuster is astronomically high.

Democrats would need 14 Republican votes to break a filibuster. Short of a damaging presidential candidate winning the nomination, its unlikely 14 Republicans vote with Democrats. There simply aren’t enough moderate or swing states to break the filibuster. For example, many experts peg Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) as the 8th or 9th most vulnerable Republican up for reelection. Kentucky is not a swing state. Betting on Paul to break a filibuster is a long shot. Convincing an additional five or six votes from senators in states like Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, or Alabama to unblock an Obama nominee of this importance is even less likely.

This tactic satisfies critics calling for the Senate to perform their advice and consent function while also playing to the Republican base and blocking the President’s nominee. A very plausible scenario results in a historically long SCOTUS vacancy.

Senate confirms a nominee

If the nominating process plays out differently with no establishment candidate rising to win the Republican nomination, things could go very differently.

If Senator Ted Cruz or Donald Trump wins the nomination it could change the appointment dynamics in the Senate. Both of these candidates perform very well in Republican primary contests but could be liabilities in swing states Republicans are trying to defend. If Republican senators in swing states view the nomination as a drag on their own reelection, it may shift the politics enough to break a filibuster and force a nomination.

That said it would have to be a major drag on the ticket. If by July, the nominee seriously threatens the Senate majority, it’s possible swing state Republicans convince their colleagues to allow a straight up or down vote on the nominee which could then seat the next justice.

It is not likely this happens. The nominee would have to be terribly damaging for the party with some possible missteps heading into the convention. That said it’s not implausible.

The key elements here are the five seats Republicans need to maintain their majority. If those look like they are under threat, it’s possible the expected confirmation politics change dramatically in mid-2016.

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Quantifying the Value of Nikki Haley’s Endorsement

It was leaked this afternoon that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will endorse U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.  Questions about Haley’s endorsement have persisted for months.  Until today, the only reliable information was that she would not be endorsing Donald Trump.

Needless to say, Haley’s endorsement is welcome news for Rubio’s campaign as voters head to the polls on Saturday for the GOP primary.  But just how much is Haley’s endorsement worth?

According my data, Haley’s endorsement should net Rubio an additional 4% on Saturday.  But first, a little background.

Perhaps the most contentious issue among election forecasters this cycle is the extent to which party elites shape presidential nomination contest outcomes.  Although primaries and caucuses give voters the power to decide who wins the nomination, and even though parties are hardly monolithic teams that act in perfect harmony, the conventional wisdom is that party elites do indeed have considerable power over who wins the nomination.

In large part this view stems from a book appropriately titled “The Party Decides.”  Written by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, the book proposes that one of the key tools used by party elites is the power of their endorsement.  It is a testament to Cohen et al.’s work that Nate Silver–the most influential election prognosticator–has written extensively about the party decides thesis and has even catalogued endorsement data this cycle.  Silver calls it the “endorsement primary.”

Although most political observers accept the general wisdom of the “The Party Decides,” the contentiousness surrounding this book concerns how (if at all) Donald Trump fits into the thesis.  Given that most Republican elites are apprehensive (to put it mildly) toward a Trump nomination, and Trump he has secured so few endorsements, there are questions about the book’s predictive power in 2016.  For a more thorough discussion of these issues, see Nate Cohen and Nate Silver.

Back to Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio.  If endorsements do indeed affect who wins the nomination, it should be possible to quantify just how much Haley’s endorsement is worth.

I have been working on a project with two College of Charleston students that examines the factors that correlate with success (or failure) in South Carolina’s nomination contests.  Our data cover the period from 1988 to 2012, giving us an even balance of five contested Democratic elections and five contested Republican elections.

Our primary predictors of a candidate’s vote share include their performance in New Hampshire and Iowa, how much media attention the candidate received, a candidate’s demographic characteristics, and the volume of their endorsements by state party officials.

We plan to release the model’s full predictions Friday evening and discuss more fully what factors have shaped South Carolina’s election results from 1988 to 2012.  Spoiler alert: endorsements are indeed an important factor in the model.

But just how much does a governor’s endorsement matter.

According to the model, from 1988 to 2012 the governor’s endorsement has netted the endorsed candidate an additional 4% of the vote.

Clearly, 4% is not enough to vault Marco Rubio past Donald Trump (at least, not on its own).  According to most polls, Trump has a 19-point lead over Rubio (35% to 16%).  However, a 4% improvement in his vote share would put Rubio in second place ahead of Ted Cruz (who is polling around 18%).

Going forward, a second place finish would be of considerable value for Rubio’s campaign.  A third place finish, however, could dim Rubio’s long term prospects.

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How long will the “open process” last?

During the Republican retreat two weeks ago Speaker Ryan doubled down on his commitment open the process in the House. The original pledge was offered to satisfy conservative members’ desire for greater input and influence. Anyone with a deliberative-democratic bone in their body should welcome this change and the pledge. However, it comes with some major risks. And if history is any sort of guide, this commitment may be short lived.

The tweaks to the Republican Steering Committee haven’t changed much in the House. House majority leaders still control the process. Any bill of consequence will need to go through the Rules Committee, which is still firmly in the hands of Speaker Ryan. This means the Speaker is voluntarily opening the process to his rank-in-file and the minority for amendment, deliberation, etc.

In the past these types of voluntary commitments have had a limited shelf life. Since the reforms of 1975, restrictive rules – that limit opportunities to amend legislation on the floor – have been the norm. The speaker puts a bill under a process that prohibits members (either totally or in part) from amending its language. Members can only vote for or against the bill. Restrictive rules were used a whopping 92% of the time in the 113th Congress. That’s down from the record high of 98% in the 111th, but dramatically up from previous Congresses. For example, restrictive rules were used 75% of the time in the 108th, 55% of the time in the 101st, and only 16% of the time in the 95th Congresses.

Leaders use restrictive rules for a variety of reasons. But one of the most important reasons is to limit minority party mischief. When in the minority, both Democrats and Republicans have used open rules to disrupt policymaking. They intentionally offer amendments to drive wedges in the majority party coalition, making final passage of the bill difficult or impossible.

In the late-1980s, Republicans became a very effective opposition by offering amendments that undermined policy on the floor. Democrats responded by increasingly closing opportunities for amendment. Republicans retook the majority in 1995 promising to achieve what Democrats couldn’t: more open debate and amendments for the rank-and-file. Democrats reacted predictably, offering hundreds of political amendments that undermined the new majority’s bills. Republicans leaders reigned in their commitment to an open process just a few months after taking office.

Polarization and partisan warfare have undermined serious efforts to reopen or maintain amending processes in the House and Senate. This week the Senate is struggling to pass an energy bill through a maze of amendments ranging from small adjustments to charged language relating to the Flint water crisis.

Given the polarized environment of the House, if Speaker Ryan wants to keep his pledge to open the process he may also need to commit to failing. An open process will undoubtedly force votes that many of his members would rather not see on the House floor. It’s downright likely that an open process will cost the majority some major policy victories at the expense of more deliberation. Given the size and safety of the House majority, Ryan has some freedom to take these hits and retain the majority. However, Speaker Ryan’s commitment to open deliberation will likely come at a cost that include policy wins and possibly seats in the House.

Previous leaders changed course after flirting with open procedures. A couple months of costly political votes were enough to renege on their promises. The extent the process is opened, or remains open, in 2016 will depend on how much risk Speaker Ryan and his colleagues are willing to shoulder. That willingness will be closely tied to the number of vulnerable Republican seats and presidential odds in 2016.

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Is Nikki Haley a Strong Vice Presidential Candidate? Evidence from Research on the “Veepstakes”

After seven years in office, last night President Obama gave his final State of the Union address.  Immediately following Obama’s speech, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivered the GOP’s primetime response.  Naturally, journalists and pundits are debating whether Haley’s speech helps her chances of securing the vice presidential nomination.

In a half dozen studies , political scientists have examined the factors that increase a candidate’s chances of being chosen in the so-called “veepstakes.”  Based on this body of research, it seems to me that Haley matches a lot of the criteria found to predict who is selected to join the ticket and should be considered a strong candidate.

What follows is based on four studies: two by Baumgartrner (2012 & 2008), one by Sigelman and Wahlbeck (1997), and another by Hiller and Kriner (2008).  Although the selection of a running made would seem (on its face) to depend on the preferences of the presidential candidate and the context of the election, these studies have a fairly high degree of predictive accuracy over a fifty year period.  For example, Baumgartner’s (2012) model correctly predicted 70% nominees from 1960-2008 while Sigelman and Wahlbeck’s model correctly predicted 68% from 1940 to 1996.

One of the most important factors is the candidate’s age.  On the one hand, Sigleman and Wahlbeck (1997) and Hiller and Kriner (2008) find that presidents seek an age balance on their ticket.  Older candidates were more likely to select a younger running mate while younger candidates were more likely to select older candidates.  At the same time, Baumgartner (2008, 2012) finds that younger candidates have a higher chance of being chosen (all else equal).

At just 43 years of age, Nikki Haley is younger than all of the Republican presidential candidates (Marco Rubio, the youngest, is 45, and Ted Cruz is 47).  Aside from Rubio and Cruz, Haley is at least ten years younger than the rest of the Republican field and would thus help balance the ticket (she is Donald Trump’s junior by 27 years).

Another consistent factor in these studies is whether the potential running mate ran against the party’s presidential candidate in the primary .  As you might expect, rivals are less likely to be selected (Sigleman and Wahlbeck 1997; Baumgartner 2008).  Another point in favor of Nikki Haley.

Significant media exposure is a third factor that seems to increase the probability of being chosen as a running mate (Baumgartner 2008, 2012).  Needless to say, Haley’s GOP rebuttal will almost certainly go a long way toward increasing her national media exposure.  And although Haley is not as well-known as other Republican governors (Chris Christie, Rick Scott, Scott Walker), she gained significant national exposure in the aftermath of last year’s shooting at Emanuel AME Church and for her leadership in removing the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.

Receiving much of the attention in debates of Haley’s likelihood of being the GOP running mate is her ability to balance on the ticket in a demographic sense.  As a woman and an Indian American, she would certainly add diversity to the ticket.  In two studies, gender and ethic balance were found to increase the likelihood of selection (Baumgartner 2012; Hiller and Kriner 2008).

Lastly, there is some evidence that a candidate’s experience matters.  Generally, the longer a candidate has served in national or subnational office, the more likely they are to be tapped as a running mate (Baumgartner 2008; Hill and Kriner 2008).  Having served as South Carolina’s governor for five years and in the South Carolina House for six years before that, Haley certainly has some notable political experiences.

Although Nikki Haley certainly fits the above criteria, there are some potential negative effects that should be discussed.

Conventional wisdom says that presidents select running mates from large states in an effort to increase their vote share.  However, the effect of state size has yielded mixed results in the above studies.  State size matters in Sigleman and Wahlbeck’s (1997) analysis but not in Baumgartner’s (2008) or Kriner’s (2008) analyses.  Notably, the two most recently published articles (with data for the most recent elections) find no effect of state size.  In contrast, there is no evidence that presidents are more likely to seek a regional balance on their ticket, picking a running mate from a different part of the country (Baumgarnter 2008; Hiller and Kriner 2008; Sigelman and Wahlbeck).

So, South Carolina’s relatively small population size may not be as big a deterrent as most people think.  And even if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz win the GOP nomination, an “all south” ticket does not seem to hurt Haley’s chances either.

Another common claim is that presidents select candidates in an attempt to boost their vote share in pivotal “swing” states.  One study, however, suggests that running mates do not add very much in terms of additional votes (Dudley and Rapoport 1989).  In this study, presidential candidates gain just 0.3 percent in their running mate’s home state.  In all likelihood, the small bonus in the in the running mate’s home state is simply not enough to overcome other strategic considerations.  As evidence, consider that the last two vice presidents were from solidly blue and red states (Delaware and Wyoming) as were the last two running mates on the losing side (Wisconsin and Alaska).

In the above studies, only one factor is a clear negative for Haley’s likelihood of selection: she never served in the military.  In both studies by Baumgarner (2012 & 2008), veterans were significantly more likely to be chosen.

All in all, Nikki Haley seems like a strong contender for the Republican Party’s vice presidential slot.  Based on studies in political science, she matches most of the criteria identified as key predictors of who gets selected.  Of course, the running mate will depend on who wins the GOP nomination in the first place.  But Haley looks like a strong choice at the present time.

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