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Who Wins from Hyper-Partisanship As Olympia Snowe Departs?

David Callahan

Moderate Republicans from the Northeast used to be a common species in the U.S. Congress. Remember John Chafee, Jim Jeffords, Chris Shays, and Alfonse D'Amato? Or, for that matter, George H.W. Bush?

That sure seems like ancient history. For years now, such Republicans have been on the endangered species list and, with Olympia Snowe's departure from the U.S. Senate, will move one step closer to outright extinction. Snow has been ranked the most liberal Republican in the Senate.

This is part of a great shaking out of American party politics that's been going on for decades. Once upon a time, there were many Republicans in Congress who were more liberal than certain conservative Democratic colleagues, mainly from the South, and vice versa. Those moderates are now entirely gone. As Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal write: "In the last few Congresses, the overlap has vanished; that is, the most liberal Republican is to the right of the most conservative Democrat."

Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe have the closest overlap of any two members of the U.S. Senate. Next year, they will both be gone.

In addition to what's happened to Republicans in the Northeast, numerous moderate Democrats have lost their seats in the South and elsewhere since the 1980s. The result, as Nolan McCarty has written, is that by "almost all measures of partisan polarization, the divide between Democratic and Republican members of Congress have widened deeply over the past twenty-five years, reaching levels of partisan conflict not witnessed since the 1920s." Poole and Rosenthal go further, drawing on more updated data, to say "Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the late 19th century."

Nobody seems to like the intense partisanship in Congress, which often stops that body from getting things done. But a particular problem with this trend, as McCarty points out, is that "it has a conservative effect, especially on economic and social policy." McCarty writes:

First, a politically polarized Congress will have difficulty in responding to economic shocks. Second, gridlock erodes the value of non-inflation indexed social benefits by preventing the legislative actions necessary to prevent the erosion of real benefit levels.  Over the long term the level of non-indexed benefits will converge to the levels preferred by the most fiscally conservative pivotal decision maker.   This dynamic suggests that, especially in the case of social spending and non-indexed programs, political polarization biases policy in a fiscally conservative direction.

 As an example of this phenomenon, consider the Federal minimum wage.  While there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to index it to the cost of living, absent new legislation, inflation erodes its real value.  Absent deflation, the status quo is always moving in a conservative direction.

The failure of Congress to respond decisively to the unemployment crisis, beyond its initial round of stimulus, underscores McCarty's first point.

Today's partisanship has especially conservative effects because Republicans in Congress have moved far more to the right than Democrats have moved to the left. Poole and Rosenthal's data, based on roll call votes going back over a century, show a very sharp move to the right by GOP members in just the past fifteen years. Democrats have headed left, but at a slower pace.

So what will happen when Olympia Snowe departs the U.S. Senate? There's a good chance she will be replaced by a Democrat, and there's a good chance that Democrat will be Representative Chellie Pingree. And what do we know about Pingree? Well, among other things, Americans for Democratic Action gave her a perfect 100 percent score for her liberal voting record in 2010 and named her an "ADA Hero." Pingree also got a very high, 81 percent, "composite liberal" score for her voting record from National Journal in 2009.

There are fair odds, in other words, that the most liberal Republican in the Senate will be replaced by one of the most liberal Democrats in the House.

That's not an outcome most liberals are going to complain about. But it's hard not to admit that the overall trend here is pretty disturbing.