January 31, 2006

January 31, 2006 | Commentary on

Moderate House Democrats Hold Key to GOP Agenda in 2006

With leadership elections roiling the waters in the House, senators further degrading the judicial confirmation process, and Democrats raising the flag of corruption at every turn, it's been a long time since a session of Congress began with tempers so short and knives so long.

One way to assess the prospects for 2006 is to review the 1,000 or so roll-call votes cast in the House and Senate last year. Can we decipher any trends or patterns that will help us better understand this Congress?

I selected several dozen votes in both chambers that forced lawmakers to take a principled stand in three broad areas -- whether to increase or reduce federal spending and taxation, to promote or inhibit economic freedom, and to limit the excesses of the trial bar. (There were too few votes relating to national security issues to compile a meaningful scorecard.)

Scorecard

Among the votes selected on federal spending: an amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to shave $10.7 billion from the bloated highway bill, an amendment by Sen., Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) to add $5 billion to federal education spending, and an attempt by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to jettison this year's Medicaid reform effort (which still might yield some budgetary savings). There were also House votes on the lean budget submitted by the Republican Study Committee, an effort to restore funding for inefficient Amtrak routes, and the House Democrats' campaign to defeat the GOP effort to trim federal programs by 1 percent.

The "free enterprise" votes include efforts to permanently repeal the death tax, deny federal assistance to local governments that abuse the rights of property owners, impose a 50 percent tax on "windfall" oil company profits, and (my favorite) Ted Kennedy's proposal to finance a "Child Poverty Elimination Fund" through an additional 1 percent tax on millionaires. The legal-reform votes include a bill to prohibit class-action child obesity lawsuits against fast-food chains.

Though much of what I found reinforces the conventional wisdom -- Congress is a partisan snake pit with Democrats lined up one side and Republicans congregating at the other, I found some evidence (mostly in the House) that a bipartisan majority exists to advance proposals consistent with the principles of free enterprise and commonsense legal reform.

Specifically:

  • Democrats, from Northern liberals to Southern moderates, are united as never before in opposition to any effort to reduce federal spending. Moderate Democrats insist they will consider spending cuts but only if such restraint is accompanied by hefty tax increases on the "rich." In sharp contrast, significant blocs of Republicans in both chambers consistently align with Democrats to scuttle many efforts to limit the size and scope of government.

  • Republicans are nearly unanimous in their support of proposals to deregulate the energy sector, reduce burdensome taxes, require debtors to assume greater responsibility for their actions, limit frivolous lawsuits, and overhaul the Endangered Species Act. To the extent that frustrated conservatives wonder what keeps Republican moderates tethered to the Republican Party, they should review these votes.

 Bipartisan Collaboration

Because these issue areas do not normally overlap, we saw two types of bipartisan collaboration in 2005. First, approximately 40 House and as many as 20 Senate Republicans repeatedly joined Democrats in opposing spending-control measures.

In the areas of free enterprise and legal reform, however, the opposite bipartisan dynamic took root. Approximately 25 (and sometimes more than 40) House Democrats consistently joined Republican-led efforts to lighten the regulatory load on the private sector, eliminate the death tax, and so on. Several dozen House Democrats also defected from their leaders on security-related bills such as the renewal of the Patriot Act and border security legislation.

Significantly, this bipartisan free-enterprise bloc was nowhere to be found in the Senate.

This review suggests that moderate Democrats comprise the single largest obstacle to the conservative vision of a smaller and smarter federal government. The challenge seems to lie in convincing them that their preferred solution -- spending restraint coupled with the same level of personal and corporate taxation on Americans that hobbles economies in France, Germany and most of Western Europe -- would undermine the American economy and extinguish the American Dream of intergenerational upward mobility. Their embrace of other free-market policies suggest that this effort could bear fruit.

House Democrats Worth Watching

The following House Democrats took the pro-free enterprise and pro-legal reform position most of the time in 2005, yet consistently opposed efforts to restrain spending:

Jim Matheson (UT)
Chet Edwards (TX)
Robert "Bud" Cramer (AL)
Dan Boren (OK)
Jim Costa (CA)
John Tanner (TN)
Henry Cuellar (TX)
Sanford Bishop (GA)
David Scott (GA)
Albert Wynn (MD)
Mike Ross (AR)
Colin Peterson (MN)
Charlie Melancon (LA)
Marion Berry (AR)
Lincoln Davis (TN)
Bart Gordon (TN)
Jim Marshall (GA)
Jim Cooper (TN)
Allen Boyd (FL)
Stephanie Herseth (SD)
Dennis Moore (KS)
Mike McIntyre (NC)
Jim Baca (CA)
Solomon Ortiz (TX)
John Barrow (GA)
Ben Chandler (KY)
Ike Skelton (MO)

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events