Sifting through congressional party unity scores compiled by Congressional Quarterly one year ago, I heartily applauded Democrats on Capitol Hill for posting their strongest numbers in this field in years and for finally closing the gap with Republicans, who tended to vote more in lock-step than Democrats. As I wrote then, "Democrats were more unified in their opposition to Republicans than nearly any other point in the last fifty years -- and these numbers don't even include the Democrats' successful effort to save Social Security from the President's partial privatization plan."
Well, it appears the Democrats built on their success of 2005 during the second session of the 109th Congress, again coming together at near-record levels. Jonathan Allen has the story for CQ Weekly.
Since 1953, Congressional Quarterly has been tracking "party unity" floor votes -- those in which a majority of Republicans line up against a majority of Democrats -- to gauge the voting habits of individual lawmakers, the fluctuating fortunes of the two parties, and the strength or frailty of their leadership.
In 2006, the Democratic leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, kept the troops in line to record their best rates of success on party unity votes in years. House rules are written to give the majority party an overwhelming advantage. Still, House Democrats won 20 percent of the almost 300 roll call votes that divided the two parties last year. That pace of victory was the highest since 2000 for House Democrats, who averaged a 15 percent success rate during the first five years that President Bush was in office.
In the Senate, where procedural votes often require more than a simple majority and a minority of 41 can block action, the Democrats were triumphant a third of the time last year. It was their strongest showing since 2002, when they were last in the majority.
House Republicans averaged an 88 percent unity score in 2006; House Democrats averaged 86 percent. In the Senate, both parties had average unity scores of 86 percent.
With the parties holding ranks at such a level, victory typically goes to the majority, but the minority can win if it does a better job of thwarting defections in its ranks. That's how the Democratic leaders prevailed: On critical votes, they regularly lost fewer members of their caucus than did the Republicans.
Amplifying that tendency, for the first time since 1986, House Democrats were unanimous on more party unity votes last year than were their GOP counterparts. Senate Democrats were unanimous more often than Senate Republicans for a second straight year in 2006.
To begin, one cannot overstate what the Democrats accomplished over the past two years, both in terms of remaining steadfast in opposition to the disastrous policies of the Bush administration and standing unified in votes in which the majority of their caucuses lined up against the majority of the Republican caucuses. As the majority in both the Senate and the House during the 109th Congress, the Republicans had the capacity to put Democrats in politically difficult positions by calling for votes on legislation specifically crafted to embarrass the Democrats, most notably this past year on the so-called "trifecta" bill that tied increasing the minimum wage to extending a number of tax cuts and drastically lowering the estate tax.
But it is not enough to achieve high levels of party unity in the minority, when, as Allen notes, "victory typically goes to the majority." If the Democrats intend on succeeding in passing the type of legislation, both small and large, to restart the progressive project, they will need to boost their unity levels in both the House and the Senate closer to 90 percent -- a level maintained by congressional Republicans for the first four years of the Bush presidency. As we saw in the past Congress, when the majority party's average unity score drops even a few points it can become extremely difficult, if not impossible to govern effectively.
The first test for the Democrats will be to move their 100 Hours agenda quickly through the House and hopefully attain enough votes in the Senate to at least get the bills to conference committee. But as I've said before and Chris put it so well, it will not be enough for the Democrats to just pass the most widely popular items on their platform. Rather, Congressional Democrats will need to show success on at least some other more controversial measures important to their base, and indeed to a majority of Americans, like beginning to bring closure to Iraq or passing immigration reform. Though such moves would be politically risky and no doubt stretch the will of individual members to remain loyal to the party, thus potentially lowering the overall level of party unity, the rewards for success would far outweigh the risk.