Voting in Congress

Voting in Congress

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Voting in Congress

House and Senate members are called upon to cast a large number of votes each year - in 2008, 690 recorded votes in the House and 215 in the Senate. They might be voting on budgets, amendments to bills, second or third readings, bills from conference committees, constitutional amendments, or in the Senate on treaties or appointments made by the president. And they will probably be rushing to the floor to cast their vote, having just broken off a committee hearing or a meeting with constituents or staff. 

What factors make them vote as they do? In the UK House of Commons, the answer would be quite simple - party. But in the US Congress, political parties are only one of a number of factors that determine the way members vote.

Consider six important determinants of voting:
(1) Political party
(2) Constituents
(3) The administration
(4) Pressure groups
(5) Colleagues and staff
(6) Personal beliefs

The important of these will vary from one politician to another and from on vote to another. 

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Political party

Political party is one of a number of determinants of voting in Congress. For some members, on some issues, it may be the most important determinant. But it is by no means the all-important determinant that it for MPs in the UK House of Commons. 

There are five important reasons for this difference:
(1) Political parties in the USA are far less centralised and ideologically cohesive than their UK counterparts.  
(2) US political parties do not have the 'sticks' and 'carrots' that their UK counterparts have as incentives to party unity - 'sticks' such as threats of de-selection or 'carrots' such as much sought-after jobs in the executive branch
(3) Constituents control the selection of candidates - through congressional primaries - so House and Senate members have to be far more watchful of constituents' views than of party view
(4) House members are subject to elections every 2 years, increasing their reliance on the views of their constituents.
(5) The executive branch does not depend for its existence on getting its policies through the legislature, as it does in the UK.

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Political party cont.

It is also important to realise what political commentators mean in the USA by a party vote in the legislature. In the UK HOC, a party vote would mean all the MPs on the government sides of the House voting against all the MPs on the opposition side. A huge number of votes in the UK HOC would fit that description. But in the US Congress, when we talk of a party vote, we mean one in which the majority of one party votes against the majority of the other party. 

Take the example of a vote in the HOR, on the 9/11 Recommendations Implementation bill on 8 October 2004:

  • It passed by 282 to 134
  • Republicans vote 213 yes; 8 no
  • Democrats voted 69 yes; 125 no
  • The Independent House member voted 'no'
  • The majority of Republicans voted 'yes'
  • The majority of Democrats voted 'no' 

Therefore this would classify as a party vote, despite the fact that 77 members (8 Republicans and 69 Democrats) broke with their party majorities. 

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Political parties cont. (2)

Despite this very low threshold for qualifying as a 'party vote', in recent years only around 50-60% in each chamber have been party votes. 

E.g. 47% of votes in the House in 1999 were party votes. 63% in the Senate.
In 2008: 53% in the House and 52% in the Senate.

A more typical vote in the House or the Senate is one in which the majority of members of both parties vote the same way.

Take, for example, a vote in the House, on 7 December 2004, on the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention bill:

  • It passed by 336-75
  • Republicans voted 152-67
  • Democrats voted 183-8
  • Independent voted 1-0
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