Mapping the Super Committee

by Sarah Binder on August 11, 2011 · 6 comments

in Legislative Politics


With all twelve appointees selected for the Super Committee (aka the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction), we can map the general ideological makeup of the panel (with apologies for the less than aesthetically appealing figure above).   For now, we can set aside the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of calculating legislative voting scores, and I’ll just  note that I’m relying here on Poole and Rosenthal’s “Common Space” DW-NOMINATE scores.   (For an alternative, see Seth Masket’s use of Simon Jackman’s ideal point estimations here.)  The advantage of Common Space scores is that they allow us (with a few assumptions) to scale members of the House and Senate as if they served in a single legislature, using the voting records of the 636 legislators in Congressional history who served in both chambers to orient House and Senate members on the same scale.  In other words, as Poole and Rosenthal point out, each legislator is given a single ideal point for his or her entire congressional service.  The advantage of the measure is that it puts all members of the Super Committee on a single scale, even though they served in different chambers and often at different times.  (Let’s leave aside for now the disadvantages of such a scoring system.)


Two observations are in order:


First, in many ways, the members of the joint committee reflect the overall makeup of the two chambers: There’s no one in the ideological middle.  The lack of centrists, of course, is now a well documented phenomenon, reflecting the disappearance of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans over the past two decades.   Legislative deals do get done under conditions of polarized parties.  But the ideological gulf between the parties around the table of the joint committee will be as wide as the chasm between the two congressional parties at large.   As the figure suggests, the super committee inherits the polarization that led legislators to kick the can over to the committee in the first place.


Second, in much of the commentary about the chances that the committee will be able to secure 7 votes for a deal, observers often speculate about which Republican might be willing to join a group of six Democrats or which Democrat might be willing to cross over to the Republicans.  However, given the political dynamics that have arisen in recent tough economic votes (TARP, the April budget deal, the August deficit deal), these have not been left or right-sided coalitions: They have been ends against the middle coalitions. In other words, if there’s a chance that a majority emerges from the committee, my hunch is that it would isolate in the opposition the far left (Becerra and Clyburn) and far right (Toomey and Hensarling).  So while the ideological mapping might not be terribly predictive of the chances of an agreement, it does suggest who might be unwilling to agree.  Of course, it is hard to see the committee come to an agreement without at least tacit endorsement by party leaders.  And Becerra and Clyburn are both part of the House Democratic leadership.  In a world in which the committee manages to break bread before Thanksgiving, perhaps Toomey and Hensarling alone on the right sit out the holiday feast.

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