How Partisanship Transcends Ideology: An Investigation into U.S. Congress members’ Voting Records on Abortion

Abstract

Each congressional session, NARAL(1) and NRLC(2) publish their scorecards on legislators’ performances on votes related to abortion. Ostensibly, abortion is one of the most divisive issues in American politics and the ideological positions of candidates would be imperative for abortion-centered voters. Recently, the polarization of American politics has almost erased moderatism, creating a hyper-partisan environment that disallows centrists to express their centrist endeavors. The author’s personal observation on NARAL and NRLC scorecards evokes a point that “pro-choice Republicans” and “pro-life Democrats” are in sharp declines and the terms no longer apply strictly to their meanings. In this paper, the link between a congressional representative’s votes on abortion and his or her partisan affiliation is investigated and results analyzed using spreadsheets and scatterplots.

Methodology

The voting records of each congressional representative in the 114th Congress are investigated by NARAL and NRLC as a part of their electoral scorecard programs. The scorecards list their partisan affiliations as well as their record on abortion-related issues (e.g. contraception, access to abortion, planned parenthood funding, etc.) (3). This project extracts such data and lists them in a spreadsheet format listing each congressional representative’s name, partisan affiliation, NARAL score, and NRLC score. The results are then analyzed to find two correlations—the links between a congressional representative’s partisan affiliation and his or her NARAL score and NRLC score. In the diagrams, each congressional representative’s “Pro-Choice” score represents the sum of each representative’s NARAL score plus 100 minus his or her NRLC score. Expressed in an equation format, this is S_p=S_NARAL+100-S_NRLC.

Findings and Diagrams

Figure 1: “Pro-Choice” score for U.S. Senators in 114th Congress

In the Senate in 114th Congress, there is no significant variations among members’ “Pro-Choice” scores. Only two Democratic Senators have a non-200 “Pro-Choice” scores, and only three Republican Senators have a non-zero “Pro-Choice” score. Senator Lisa Murkoswki (R-AK) received 66% from NRLC because of her vote in favor of “Collins Amendment to preserve funding for Planned Parenthood” to H.R. 3762, the budget reconciliation bill introduced to repeal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2015. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) received 25% from NRLC for her vote against H.R. 36, Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (see Footnote 3), her vote for her own amendment to H.R. 3762, as well as her vote against the final passage of H.R. 3672, which Sen. Murkowski voted for. However, Sen. Collins voted against an amendment provided by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) to provide 1 billion in funding for Planned Parenthood, giving her 25 points for NRLC. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) voted against NRLC positions in all four votes, including for the Murray amendment, becoming the only Republican receiving a perfect pro-choice score of zero. For Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) voted for H.R. 36, against Murray amendment, against preserving funding for Planned Parenthood, but against the final passage of H.R. 3762, earning him a NRLC score of 75. Another senator, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) earned a NRLC score of 25 for voting in favor of H.R. 36, but against NRLC positions for the remaining bills. Some Republican Senators broke with leadership in voting against defunding Planned Parenthood in 2015, which is a position NARAL favors in its scorecard. This includes Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Sens. Murkowski and Collins received 50 on NARAL for some other votes in favor of their positions, and Sen. Kirk received 80. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) received 45 from NARAL, for his votes against NARAL positions four times out of seven. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who has a perfectly zero NRLC score, received three strikes from NARAL and earned himself a score of 60. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) received zero from NARAL in 2015. However, every single Democratic Senator received 100 from NARAL in 2016 and every Republican received zero. This result is indicative that although Senators sometimes break rank with party leadership in voting in favor/against some issues in abortion, they are unlikely to break rank at all times (indicative of Manchin’s 0 in 2015 and 100 in 2016).

Onto the House of Representatives. In the House of Representatives, congressmen and women displayed a variety of opinions deviating from their partisan norms. Yet, only two Republican can be considered “pro-choice”, and only one Democrat can be considered “pro-life”, according to the scorecards. The House scorecards had much more scoring items and are likely better reflections to Representatives’ true positions than the Senate scorecards are. In the House scorecards, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) received a 91% from NARAL, and a 21% from NRLC, totaling a pro-choice score of 170, indicating pro-choice positions. Rep. John Katko (R-NY) received 62% from NARAL, and 40% from NRLC, totaling a score of 102, indicating a weaker but nevertheless pro-choice position. Onto the Democratic side, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) received a 9 from NARAL, and a 86 from NRLC, totaling to 21, indicating a strong pro-life position. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) received a 66 from NRLC and a 59 from NARAL, indicative of a weaker, but still strong, pro-life position. The values all other representatives indicated are not nearly enough to be considered deviating from their partisan norms and do not display strong test-cases for indications for ideological positions transcending partisanship.

Discussion

A statistical analysis displayed that the r^2 value for Senate pro-choice score and partisan affiliation is 0.96x, and is 0.975 for the House. These correlation numbers display that partisanship is an excellent predictor on how an individual congress member would vote on abortion-related issues. Self-identified ideology bodes very little significance upon voting. For instance, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) identifies as pro-life and her father was the respondent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in his official capacity as Pennsylvania’s governor. Sen. Casey received a pro-choice score of 160, a score slightly less pro-choice than other Democratic Senators, but still strongly pro-choice. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), a self-described pro-choice and campaigned on a pro-choice platform, received a score of 0. Examples also include the case of Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who has been described as “more socially liberal than Casey”. Rep. Dent showed extreme pro-life tendencies when he votes for bills concerning abortion, yet he campaigns on a platform advancing and promoting “safe, legal, and rare”. Dent’s views are unsurprising-Republican national organizations—most notably NRCC—help keep politically endangered Republicans in office; however, NRCC leadership is composed of hardline political Republicans, with its chairman being hard-line pro-life Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH).

The same issue prevails for Democrats, although less promisingly so. The vast majority of Democratic candidates for Congress either take no position on abortion, or identify as pro-choice, and vote in a pro-choice way. The Time magazine only identified three pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives. Even so, the three pro-life Democrats do not have a strongly pro-life voting record. Next to Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) is Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar (D). Cuellar received a 48 from NRLC and a 64 from NARAL, placing him roughly in position with Rep. John Katko (R-NY), the second pro-choice Republican in Congress. The problem is less profound for Democrats than for Republicans is because of Democrats’ softer and weaker self-identification on abortion issue, yet Republicans have a stronger self-identification. Bob Casey indicated a pro-life position, but his voting records are very pro-choice, only voting against NARAL position three times and against all NRLC positions in the 114th congress (all Democratic Senators either missed the vote or voted against invoking cloture on H.R. 36, Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, including Casey, Donnelly, and Manchin). Democrats also had fewer members that had a score other than 200 than Republicans had for a score more than 0.

This paper, however, relies heavily on recent voting data provided by NARAL and NRLC in 114th congress only. Although the recent congress is not a concern given the large number of departures and arrivals from party caucus each election. However, it would be easier to acquire the whole picture on abortion and partisan issues if the scope of the investigation is provided to track a longer period of time, such as beginning in the 104th congress when polarization started to evolve in America. In 2006 and 2010, the extreme amount of polarization almost erased liberal Republicans representing Democratic presidential districts and conservative Democrats representing Republican presidential districts, respectively.

The degree of primary competition has also influenced how an individual representative votes in Congress. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) represents West Virginia, a state that voted more than 40 points for the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. In order to sate his wider constituents, Manchin sticked to a strictly centrist to center-right approach in voting, confirming Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General and Steve Mnuchin to be Treasury Secretary. However, his centrism attracted primary opponents—environmentalist Paula Jean Swearengin (D-WV) announced a Democratic primary run against Manchin on an anti-coal and staunchly liberal platform (4). Although it would be difficult for Swearengin to prevail, there is certainly a history of Republican tea party candidates defeating establishment centrist Republicans deteriorating Republican electoral successes. Christine O’Donnell, a tea-party backed candidate, defeated Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) in the Republican primary, almost guaranteeing a Chris Coons (D-DE) victory given Delaware general election voters’ dislike for a hard-line conservative candidate like O’Donnell. Polls before primary showed a significant Castle advantage over Coons. Coons defeated O’Donnell by 17 points despite O’Donnell overspending Coons 2-1. Similar story happened in Nevada the same year, where tea-party backed Sharron Angle defeated establishment backed Sue Lowden in the Republican primary. Angle lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Harry Reid by 7 points. In 2012, moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) was defeated by State Treasurer Richard Muerdock (R-IN) in the Republican primary, giving then-Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) an opening to acquire a Democratic Senate seat in Indiana. All these examples indicate that voting against party’s official position—especially in non-swing or opposing party states—is politically risky. Therefore, a strong primary election risk disables politicians to vote against their party’s official positions.

This research can definitely be improved by providing a long-term trend line comparing positions on abortion from previous congresses and infer a long-term shift in abortion-related position alterations.Yet, voting positions still depend on state and constituents represented. Sen. Murkowski was elected in part because Democrats and independents broke heavily writing her in in 2010 to defeat tea partier Joe Miller, who won the Republican primary over Sen. Murkowski. Murkowski still voted in a conservative way that the Democrats and Independents who elected her would not be extremely satisfied (Sen. Murkowski received 39.9% in 2016, the lowest percentage of votes an incumbent senator running for reelection received in 2016). Sen. Donnelly represents a 60% Trump state, and Sen. Manchin represents a 70% Trump state—although they have conservative views on abortion, they are still much more liberal than what a Republican would be expected to vote. In conclusion, partisanship trumps ideology, at least on the issue of abortion. An individual congressperson’s personal ideology would not be as determinative as their partisanship would suggest.

Endnotes

  1. “Congressional Record on Choice.” NARAL Pro-Choice America. Accessed July 07, 2017. https://www.prochoiceamerica.org/laws-policy/congressional-record-choice/.

  2. “Legislative Action Center.” National Right to Life Committee. Accessed July 07, 2017. https://www.capwiz.com/nrlc/home/.

  3. “Key Roll Call Votes.” National Right to Life. Accessed July 07, 2017. https://www.capwiz.com/nrlc/vote.xc?votenum=314&chamber=S&congress=1141&voteid=68834631&state=US.

  4. “Paula Jean.” Brand New Congress. July 07, 2017. Accessed July 09, 2017. https://brandnewcongress.org/paula-jean.

Bibliography

Cohn, Nate. “Jay Rockefeller’s in Big Trouble in West Virginia—and So Are the Dems.” New Republic. November 29, 2012. Accessed July 09, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/ 110549/democratic-losses-in-coal-country-put- rockefeller-in-danger.

Cooney, Samantha. “Democrats Who Support Anti- Abortion Legislation Are Men – Motto.” Time. May 18, 2017. Accessed July 09, 2017. http://motto.time.com/4782994/democrats-anti- abortion-men-congress/.

Lett, Phoebe. “The Endangered Pro-Choice Republican.” The New York Times. December 24, 2015. Accessed July 09, 2017. https:// takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/the- endangered-pro-choice-republican/.

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