Dems Still Maintain Distinct Advantages Over GOP

Even considering President Bush's intransigence and his willingness to wield his veto stamp, as well as Senate Republicans' unprecedented use of the filibuster, few would voice much contentment with the results reached under the Democratic Congress. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that Americans are itching for a return to Republican rule. Far from it, indeed.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll (.pdf) shows that despite Americans' unhappiness with the Congress as a whole, the public still favors the Democrats to the Republicans or George W. Bush and generally agrees with the policies set forth by the Democdratic Party. As I noted in an open thread last night, Congressional Democrats' approval rating (38 percent) is higher than that of President Bush (33 percent) or that of Congressional Republicans (29 percent). Moreover, though 82 percent of respondents believe that Congress has not accomplished enough this year, the majority of this group (51 percent) say blame for this situation lies with President Bush and the Republicans in Congress while just a quarter (25 percent) lay blame with the Democrats. Clearly, the fact that the Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House have gone to historic lengths to subvert the will of the American people is not getting lost on Americans.

The Democrats' strong position relative to that of the GOP is not limited to these topline numbers. According to this survey, the Democrats are favored to the Republicans on every issue polled (though the Democrats' advantage on the so-called "war on terror" is within the margin of error). In fact, the Democrats have never before held as large a lead on the question of dealing with the situation in Iraq as they now do, and their lead on the economy is as large as it has ever been dating back to 1990. Even more profoundly, perhaps, while a decade ago Americans favored a less intrusive government to a more intrusive one by a 62 percent to 32 percent margin, Americans now favor an activist government by a 55 percent to 38 percent margin -- a thorough rejection of the Republicans' and conservatives' desire to shrink the size of government to the size at which it could be drowned in a bathtub.

There is little question that the Democrats need to be doing more. One need not read these polling results showing that by a 55 percent to 35 percent margin Americans believe the Democrats aren't going far enough to oppose the Iraq War to know this. That said, even as the Democrats need to work harder and more diligently if they hope to be returned to power next fall, Americans continue to reject the vision for this country put forth by George W. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress and don't seem particularly likely to back the GOP next fall, either.

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Analysis: AP's Budget Analyst Doesn't Know What He's Talking About

Yesterday the AP ran along its wires an article by Andrew Taylor under the headline, "Analysis: Dems falter on budget deadline." In fact the only person that falters in this regard is Taylor himself. He writes,

The most basic job of Congress is to pass the bills that pay the costs of running the government. After criticizing Republicans for falling down on the job last year, Democrats now are the ones stumbling.

The government's new budget year begins Monday, but Congress has not completed even one of the dozen spending bills appropriating money for the day-to-day operations of 15 Cabinet departments.

President Bush has lobbed veto threat after veto threat at Democratic spending bills because, taken as a whole, they would break his budget by $23 billion or more. Though Bush is sagging in the polls, his threats have majority Democrats tied in knots.

To begin with these three grafs, Taylor seems to be unfamiliar with the process by which bills become law (notwithstanding Don Young's insertion of an earmark after legislation had been passed by both houses of Congress and the 109th Congress enacting into law legislation that had not passed in the same form in the House and the Senate). Quickly, for a bill to become law it has to be passed by the President. So if the President, in his intransigence, refuses to make a deal with the Congress over the size of the budget, threatening a veto unless Congress does exactly what he wants, the President is at least as much as fault as the Congress -- and probably more so, in fact.

Later in passing Taylor writes,

This is hardly the first time that Congress has fallen behind schedule. Last year, when Republicans ran Congress, they gave up on the budget altogether and forced Democrats to finish it on Valentine's Day in February -- 4 1/2 months late.

Taylor seems to think that he is doing alright here because he is showing that the Democrats are just doing what Republicans have previously done, thus making his piece sufficiently balanced. But for someone providing "analysis," he sure doesn't explain the meaning of these facts whatsoever.

Why is the Congress now bumping up against the budgetary timeline? It's not because, as Taylor suggests, it is tradition for Congress not to pass spending bills on time. Instead, it's specifically because the Democrats had to spend more than a month doing the job of the previous Congress in passing spending bills for fiscal year 2007 because the Republican leadership hoped to stall the Democrats' agenda by saddling them with an extra responsibility.

Perhaps this is the type of analysis one might expect from the AP's analyst, but apparently not so. Instead we get GOP talking points hitting the Democrats. Nice going, Associated Press.

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Note to The Times: Conferences Upended by GOP, Not Dems

During the current Congress, the conference process by which the House and the Senate come together to turn two different versions of the same legislation into one has been upended, with the Democrats moving out of the traditional process into a more ad hoc one in which the leaders come together to hash out a similar deal, but outside of the normal scrutiny afforded to the more normal process. Whose fault is it that this situation has emerged? The press has come to its normal conclusion -- that both sides are equally at fault. Take a look at this article from The New York Times' Carl Hulse.

The Congressional conference committee, vaguely familiar to generations of Americans from their battered civics texts, is in danger of losing its prominent role in how a bill becomes law.

Once the penultimate stage in the life of any bill as a forum for House and Senate members to work out their differences, the conference committee has fallen on hard times, shoved aside in the last five years by partisanship and legislative expediency. As a result, there is often no public scrutiny of the last-minute compromises that produce a law.

The preferred alternative revolves around informal meetings mainly among senior Democratic lawmakers, who gather to cut a final deal and then bat the finished product back and forth between the House and Senate until it is approved. It is a makeshift process that has come to be known as Ping-Ponging.

[...]

Democrats blame Republicans for balking at negotiations over the health and ethics bills to prevent Democrats from posting any victories. Republicans say Democrats began the decline of the conference committee when they still controlled the Senate in 2002 and did not want anything to do with House Republicans.

Hulse gets the story a quarter right in that last graf quoted above. Indeed the Republicans have balked at negotiations over bills like S-CHIP reauthorization and ethics reform -- but that's not the full extent of it. Hulse does note that, for instance, on the ethics bill Senate Republicans refused to le the bill go to conference through a hold spearheaded by South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint. Hulse fails to mention, however, that Senate Republicans did the exact same thing on the children's healthcare bill, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to appoint conferees.

So the culpability here is rather unambiguous. Whatever the Republicans say about Democratic obstructionism in the past -- claims that are vastly overstated, but I can leave that to a later post -- it's completely immaterial to the issue at hand. Democrats are resorting to creative legislative processes due to the simple fact that the Republicans are refusing -- refusing -- to allow the normal processes that have worked for more than two centuries to go forward. It's that simple.

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Dems Making Good on "6 for '06" Planks

Yesterday I went to a free lunch here at Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley's law school) sponsored by the Federalist Society. (Yes, I know. Worry not. I'm not defecting -- I'm just getting a free lunch.) There the editor of The Weekly Standard, Terry Eastland, gave his outlook of the 2008 elections. You could say it was interesting.

Among the gems put forward by Eastland was the one saying that the Democratic Congress had largely failed to follow through on its promises for profound change. I believe he cited the common wisdom that the Democrats had only made good one a single one of the planks of the "6 in '06" platform. I don't think it would be difficult to argue that the Democrats have not accomplished what they had hoped to on Iraq -- they have been able to secure majorities in both chambers in favor of a timeline for withdrawal of American troops, a feat not expected to be possible at the outset of the Congress, but still far short of actually ending the war. Yet would it be proper to say that the Democrats have failed on their other promises, particularly those relating to domestic matters? The Hill editor Bob Cusack takes a look at the record of the Democratic Congress and writes the following today on the front page of his paper under the heading, "Democrats make progress on their checklist from 2006".

After a slow start, the Democratic-led Congress has started to gain traction on its domestic agenda.

The passage of the student loan bill on Friday is the fourth measure headed to  President Bush's desk from the Democrats' "Six in '06" campaign pledge. If Bush signs the education bill as expected, three of the Democrats' high-profile legislative promises will have become law less than nine months into their majority.

[...]

Raising the minimum wage, which was the first bill of the Six in '06 pledge signed into law this year, was included in the Iraq supplemental measure. But Democrats were in no mood to crow at the time, having lost the showdown with Bush on timelines for troop withdrawals.

Since then, Democrats have made steady progress on the domestic front.

In early August, Bush signed the bill that implements the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, another item on Six in '06.

That bill, along with the student loan measure, faced tougher-than-anticipated paths to passage. Provisions of the 9/11 measure ran into opposition from wary industry groups that feared enhanced government inspections would hamper commerce. It was also slowed by jurisdictional battles among House and Senate chairmen.

The education legislation faced fierce resistance from the student lending industry and veto threats from the White House. Democrats, however, worked with the Bush administration to alter the bill, and -- to the dismay of lenders -- the president is expected to sign it this month.

So of the six key planks of the Democrats' domestic policy platform, the Democratic Congress will have enacted into law at least three within the first nine months of its inception; sent another one to the desk of the President to be vetoed (increasing federal funding for stem cell research); and passed another one through both chambers, which is now moving through the reconciliation process (energy). In fact, the only plank the Democrats have not been able to pass through both chambers is legislation enabling the federal government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs, legislation that is holed up in the Senate due to a Republican filibuster.

I do not mean to minimize the entirely justifiable disappoitment many have with the Democratic Congress for not having ended the war. I, too, share such a sentiment, even as I acknowledge that the balance of powers make it much more difficult than I believe it should be for a change in power in Congress to effect a change in American foreign policy. At the same time, credit probably should go where credit is due. And the fact that the Democrats have been able to make good on a good number of their domestic priorities does warrant at least some applause from the peanut gallery, so it's good to see an article like this one in The Hill every once in a while.

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Senate: Record Unity for Dems, Record Disunity for GOP

There has been a lot of unhappiness -- much of which is well placed -- over the fact that Democrats in Congress have not achieved nearly as much as many had hoped they would have by this point. Particularly in the case of Iraq, but not limited to Iraq, many think the Democratic Congress should simply be doing more.

I've had a chance to see some numbers on the current Congress -- specifically the Senate -- as well as past Congresses to see how well the party leadership has been able to keep its members in line. Clearly on votes like the most recent Iraq supplemental bill there was a lot of agreement within the Senate Democratic caucus, though not necessarily on the right side of the issue, so these party unity scores are not a perfect metric by which to gauge the relative effectiveness of the party leadership. That said, it is a fairly good metric and one worth looking at.

Percentage of votes in which 90 to 100 percent of a caucus votes together

CongressDEMGOP
110-1 (2007)77.455.8
109-2 (2006)70.365.6
109-1 (2005)71.065.0
108-2 (2004)69.978.2
108-1 (2003)72.685.2
107-2 (2002)66.067.2
107-1 (2001)70.365.6
106-2 (2000)72.267.1
106-1 (1999)72.570.3

As you can see, by this reading the Democratic caucus has been more unified than any other Democratic caucus in roughly the last decade (the amount of time for which I have data). While this level of unity has been achieved at least in part due to the fact that there are fewer Democratic Southern conservatives and moderates in the Senate than there were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it is nonetheless a noteworthy occurrence given the necessity of party unity in a 50-seat (and at times, with Joe Lieberman's propensity to defect, a 49-seat) majority. It's no coincidence, then, that Harry Reid was recently voted the second most powerful person in Washington by those polled by GQ.

He could choose his words more carefully--and put away the cots--but his knowledge of Senate rules and his ability to keep Democrats (Democrats!) aligned make him a far more imposing majority leader than Bill Frist ever was.

At the same time as Senate Majority Leader Reid has been able to keep the Democratic caucus aligned at among the highest levels of unity on record, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has had a terrible time keeping his troops in line. Not only is Republican disunity at its highest level in the last several years, it is at its highest point by a fairly large margin.

Unfortunately the bar for the Republicans is much lower than that for the Democrats. While the Senate GOP needs only 41 votes to block progress (and Republicans are indeed on track to demolish the record for obstructionism), Democrats need 60 votes to pass legislation. Nonetheless, it's good to see that the Democrats are maximizing their ability to get things done by generally staying as unified as possible, which while not ensuring victory for a number of the reasons mentioned above at least makes victory on key issues more achievable.

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