White House

How to Tell If Republicans in Congress Turn Into Lap Dogs

It's too soon to dismiss Republicans, despite a new statistic showing them voting with the president 99 percent of the time.

Will Republicans in Congress hear the call of the wild?

Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

Is the Republican Congress a lap dog for the new president? That's what one widely-noticed Nate Silver Tweet said, based on a FiveThirtyEight calculation:

It's not nearly that simple, however. 1 There are very good reasons not to assume agreement with the president on floor votes is a valid measure of how much support the president is receiving from members of Congress.

  • Republicans have majorities in both chambers, which means they control what comes to a vote and what doesn't. They are unlikely to bring items to the floor opposed by a same-party president, especially if they don't have the votes for a potential veto override. Nor are they likely to schedule votes on items which they expect to fail because a handful of Republican dissenters ally with Democrats to defeat most Republicans. So a bill authorizing building a border wall which would hypothetically lose, with 40 Republicans defeated by 12 Republicans and all 48 Democrats, would never receive a vote and therefore mask the strength of opposition.

  • Congressional Republicans may have the initiative on some measures, with the White House willing to jump on the bandwagon. That appears to be the story with regulation repeal bills which have gone through Congress early. Yes, Trump supports the bills, and he did run against what he considered overregulation, but the specific items selected for early action appear to have been chosen by Congress, with Trump merely going along. Interpreting that as support for the president isn't a very good characterization.

  • Most of the Senate votes so far have been cabinet confirmations, which are normally uncontroversial, especially for the president's party. Three same-party defections so far (Rand Paul on Mike Pompeo for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins on Betsy DeVos for secretary of education) won't produce a very impressive percentage, but it's actually above normal.

  • But even then, it probably understates the Senate's role in the process. John McCain and other Republican Russia hawks voted to confirm Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but only after pushing him for reassurances on the administration's policy. Similarly, McCain and other torture opponents appear to have received commitments from Secretary of Defense James Mattis in that area -- commitments which have, at least so far, seemed to have prevailed over the president's instincts. And that's just after the nominees were announced. In normal administrations (and perhaps in this one), the White House floats trial balloons and pays attention to the results. We don't know which potential candidates, if any, were never chosen because of pushback from Capitol Hill. None of this, however, shows up in support scores.

Selecting Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court will be an excellent example yet of how congressional support scores can mislead. Trump explicitly farmed out this nomination to conservative organizations. Of course, mainstream conservatives in the Senate will go along; they have as much or more claim to have influenced the selection as the president does. If Trump had chosen, say, his sister (a federal appellate judge), she would have lasted about as long as George W. Bush's selection of a family friend, Harriet Miers. Who, it should be said, withdrew after opposition from Senate conservative Republicans well before she ever reached a floor vote, and therefore didn't prevent almost unanimous support score for Bush Supreme Court nominees among Senate Republicans.

We can certainly say that, so far, congressional Republicans have been almost completely willing to ignore Trump's various ethical lapses. And to say that Trump may sometimes be following, not leading, isn't necessarily a criticism. Good presidents know when to pick fights, and when to join a parade which has already started. It's just that conceptualizing things this way builds in assumptions about presidential influence which are not supported by how the constitutional system actually operates. 

At least when it comes to legislation, watch Trump's signature proposals that violate conservative orthodoxy or the interests of Republican members' constituents and Republican-aligned interest groups. If those -- a large infrastructure plan, the border wall -- get through Congress, it will really mean that Trump is in the lead. For much of the rest, no matter how much of a circus this White House is, we're still talking about a warm body to sign whatever mainstream conservatives agree on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Not to criticize Silver and FiveThirtyEight; collecting and tabulating the numbers is certainly worthwhile, as long as they're used very carefully. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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