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Breaking Down the Tax Vote

2:40 PM, Dec 17, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Last night's vote in the House of Representatives to extend the current tax rates marked an ironic end for the 111th House of Representatives. As unpopular as she has become, House speaker Nancy Pelosi did an extraordinary job of holding her caucus together for tough votes. However, last night the Democrats did something they hardly ever did during her four-year tenure as speaker: they split almost down the middle over the final tax provision. The final roll call vote had 139 Democrats voting in favor of the package while 112 voted against. From a Republican's perspective, this is exactly what you want to see. Roll call votes that unite your side and divide the opposition are just what you want from a legislative perspective, and that's exactly what the vote last night produced.

Breaking Down the Tax Vote

Interestingly, there were no clean ideological divisions on the Democratic side. For instance, liberals like Jim McDermott of Washington and George Miller of California voted against the package while Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois voted in favor of it. On the opposite side of the caucus, Walt Minnick of Idaho supported it while Charlie Melancon of Louisiana did not.

Still, it is pretty clear that ideological considerations did play at least some kind of role.  Let's quantify this by using the DW-Nominate system, first developed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. DW-Nominate is a very complex methodology that produces a very simple result. Legislators are given an ideological score that ranges from -1.0 to 1.0 -- with -1.0 being extremely liberal, 0.0 being moderate, and 1.0 being extremely conservative. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the Democrats fall on the negative side of the ledger, although some (like Minnick) tilt slightly to conservative end.

Here's the ideological distribution of Democratic nay votes, i.e. those that opposed the tax package.

Now, here is the distribution of the yea votes, i.e. those that supported the tax package.

As you can see, ideology did play some kind of role last night. The average ideological score of those opposing the tax package was -0.44 while the average score of those supporting the tax package was -.28. Both votes are distributed fairly evenly around these averages, and there is some pretty good ideological separation between the two vote clusters.  Again, however, ideology was not determinative -- some liberals voted for it while some moderates voted against it. What might account for the fact that ideology was a factor, but not the factor?  

My thinking is this. For Democrats, there were two competing considerations last night. On the one hand, few Democrats in the caucus were comfortable with extending the current tax rates, first implemented when George W. Bush was president, for the wealthiest Americans. From a purely ideological standpoint, that is just something that most Democrats today, even the more moderate ones, do not like. On the other hand, Democrats had to contend with more practical considerations -- namely, the effect of raising taxes in the face of a struggling economy. If you listened to the "debate" last night on the House floor (which was marginally more interesting than the Chargers-49ers game), you heard liberal Democrats talk about the unfairness of this tax "cut." That's the ideological way to frame the argument, but practically speaking last night's vote was not a vote for/against tax cuts as it was a vote against/for tax increases -- to take effect, no less, in a year when economists forecast "relatively modest growth."  

That is why, I think, so many Democrats ended up supporting the package, or at least one reason why. From the vote result last night, it looks as though the more moderate a Democratic legislator was ideologically, the more credence he or she gave to the practical argument.

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