Party switch

Senator Arlen Specter apparently is the newest Democratic member of the US Senate.

As The Fix notes:

Because of the shrinking Republican vote in the state [of Pennsylvania], Specter was seen as a dead man walking politically in the primary with polling showing him trailing [Republican primary challenger Pat] Toomey by ten or more points. The bar for Specter to run as an independent was also extremely high due to the rules governing such a third party candidacy.

That left a Democratic candidacy as Specter’s best option if he wanted to remain in the Senate beyond 2010.

And Specter himself justified his decision by saying “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”

Now, one might say that was a convenient “finding.”

But should we see this as “agency loss” (he was elected as a Republican, after all) or as “agent responsiveness” (his principal–the electorate of Pennsylvania–has shifted its preferences in the last five years)?

Whatever our answer may be in the case of the current US Senate and Pennsylvania, would it vary if the electoral system or constitutional context were different?

High speed stimulus

In a bicameral system, when one chamber proposes to spend two billion on some line item and the other proposes to spend zero, what do you expect the inter-cameral conference to propose?

One billion?

Good guess, but when it comes to high-speed rail in the recent US “stimulus” bill, that answer is a bit off.

The final bill authorized $8b.

In case that was too subtle, let me make it a bit more clear:


We can thank the third, uni-personal, legislative chamber for this: It was something Obama wanted. (Thanks, Barack!)

See National Corridors Initiative for details (including chamber comparisons on other rail and transit items, and a nifty map of approved corridors).

A tip of the engineer’s (or, rather, the Superintendent’s) cap to Sephen Karlson, whose post on rail in the stimulus has many other good links on this topic).

Combined with California voters’ passage of Prop 1A in November, this makes modern train service more real than it has been in a long time.

(I know eight billion is not really all that much. But you have to start somewhere!)

Finally, to those who would cry ‘pork’ upon knowing of spending on this, or other “pet,” projects advocated by specific lawmakers for their regions, the Washington Post notes that a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (who wants a maglev train between Las Vegas and Anaheim or Los Angeles) claims that the transportation secretary “will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds.” While the delegation of such authority to the transportation department does not guarantee the use of technical (merit) rather than political criteria, it makes it much more likely. In any case, if the bill does not allocate money to specific projects, or require congress or the executive to do so, it is not pork. At least not at this stage.

Appointed Senators

At one time, as is well known, US Senators were elected by their state legislatures. This is what the US Constitution says:

Section 3. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.

Then, in 1913, Amendment XVII, was ratified, superseding the above. The amendment says, in part:

When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

I know nothing of the drafting history here, but one might surmise that it was assumed that such executive-appointed Senators would serve for very short times, until a special election could be called by “writs of election” issued by the executive. In fact, I believe–and hope someone can confirm or correct–that most states allow the executive-appointed interim to serve until the next general election. Naturally, when a vacancy occurs immediately following one general election, the next general election is nearly two years away.

Currently, we have what might be an unprecedented number of Senate vacancies, owing to the election to President and Vice President of two sitting US Senators, and the announced nomination of several more sitting Senators for cabinet posts.

If the intention of the Democratic Party and its President-Elect has been to clean house Senate, then they can certainly say the mission has been accomplished. But here is hoping that the occasion of all these vacancies–particularly the high-profile case of Illinois where the scandal-plagued Governor now says he will go ahead and appoint a replacement for Barack Obama’s seat–will lead to reform of the process of filling Senate vacancies.

Not all states allow their governor to make a unilateral appointment for up to almost two years, but many do.1 And Illinois is one of them. In the likely absence of a correction to this process in all the states that currently allow unilateral executive appointment–action by the legislature of a state to dis-empower the executive in this area–a further federal constitutional amendment would seem to be in order. It would be sensible for the US Constitution to require election by the state legislature of an interim appointee, and/or clarify that any executive appointee must serve for only a few months at most and/or be subject to confirmation of the state legislature.

1. It is my recollection that in the one or two times in recent decades when California has had a vacant US Senate seat, the governor merely nominates a replacement, subject to legislative confirmation. A few states mandate a quick call of a special election. But it seems as if all the states with current or expected vacancies–Illinois, Delaware, New York, among them–allow unilateral action by the governor, and also allow the interim Senator to serve until the next general election.

Filling Senate vacancies

Nate Silver has a valuable rundown on the record of interim appointed US Senators. A data summary:

    * 13 of the 49 (27%) ran for office, but were defeated in the general election;
    * 7 of the 49 (14%) ran for office, but were defeated in the primary;
    * 10 of the 49 (20%) chose not to seek a permanent term (including one who was prohibited by state law from doing so).

(It occurs to me that the parenthetical case there actually did not choose not to run.)

From that record, including some of the specific cases discussed by Nate, it seems clear that the poor reelection record of these interim Senators would be expected from the common practice of Governors choosing objectively weak candidates. Apparently, many of them have had no prior electoral experience or other record of achievement. Of course, that may be deliberate, either as deference to the party or electorate or as a simple short-term patronage exchange (with the current Illinois scandal being an extreme case of the latter).

Nate also notes the institutional variation among states in filling vacancies:

states can move to solve the problem themselves by passing a “fast” special elections law, as states like Oregon, Wisconsin and Massachusetts now have (and Illinois soon will). Other states have evolved other checks and balances; Utah and Wyoming require that the candidate be selected from among a list prepared by the state party apparatus, while Alaska, Hawaii and Arizona require appointees to be from the same party as the departing senator. Arkansas provides for gubernatorial appointments, but does not allow the appointee to run for re-election.

Clearly, the process of gubernatorial appointment* needs reform. But it is clear to me that the answer is not what one commenter suggests: that every elected official should have a “vice” (meaning a stand-by replacement, not the other meaning it might more accurately imply!). Many Latin American countries have such a suplente system, and it is much abused–a cure worse than the disease.

* Something that is not clear to me is whether Illinois or any other state allows for outright appointment by the Governor, or if the actual process is nomination by the Governor, followed by appointment upon conformation by the state legislature. It is my recollection that California, at least, has an “advise and consent” provision. The media coverage on Illinois leaves the impression that the Governor chooses unilaterally. I do not know if that is so. Maybe politically it does not matter in the current Illinois case: anyone with appointment–even if confirmed by elected representatives of the state’s electorate–would be branded, rightly or wrongly, as Blagojevich’s man or woman. But it certainly means that a wounded governor would have to defer to a representative body’s preference.

Electoral rules and filibuster-proofing

Far more tense for election-night return-watchers than the presidential race is likely to be the Democratic Party’s quest for 60 seats in the Senate. Sixty seats would allow the caucus, when cohesive, to override a filibuster–that is, to prevent the minority’s veto of the majority’s mandate on policy changes and court appointments. ((And unlike past Republican Senate majorities, this Democratic majority actually is based on an electoral majority.)) There are two races where the electoral rules may be almost as decisive as the voting itself, given multicandidate contests. ((If the caucus has exactly 60, it will remain dependent on two independents who caucus with the big-D Democrats. One of those is Bernie Sanders, a reliable vote. The other is Joe Lieberman, less reliable, but more so than activist Democrats give him credit for. Even at 58 or 59, some filibusters could not be sustained, as one or more of the moderate Maine Republicans (among others) would be likely to work with the Democrats on an issue-specific basis.))

In Minnesota, as in most states, a Senate race is decided by plurality (first past the post). In addition to incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, there is a strong third candidate in the race, Dean Barkley of the Independence Party. ((This was Jesse the Body’s party, at least some of the time. In fact, Barkley previously served as an interim Senator, appointed by then-Governor Ventura.)) Barkley stands at just under 15% in the latest polling aggregate. His support has been slipping after flirting with the 20% mark in mid-October.

Franken leads in the polling aggregate, but precariously, 39.5–37.6. If Coleman pulls out a narrow 40% win, it will be literally legitimate (as in within the law), given the use of plurality rule. However, it would be a subpotimal outcome if an incumbent were reelected so narrowly. ((It would also be suboptimal if a challenger were so elected, but less so, inasmuch as an incumbent is the more known quantity, and if he can’t either obtain close to 50%+1 or win by a wide margin, he arguably did not “earn” a renewed mandate.)) But plurality rule may allow it to happen. We do not know which candidate would win a runoff if there were one, because pollsters do not ask about second choices.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Democratic challenger Jim Martin has closed a once formidable gap on incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss. The aggregate shows the race at 46.7–43.9 Chambliss. However, Georgia requires a Senator to be elected by a majority of votes cast. Thus if neither Chambliss nor Martin clears 50% in tonight’s count, there will be a runoff between the two on December 2. The main third-party candidate is Libertarian Allen Buckley, who is at 7% in the most recent poll shown at (Rasmussen). Other polls in recent weeks have shown him as low as 2% or, oddly enough, have not asked.

Even if Martin takes the lead and holds a plurality on election night, he has not been elected.

The last time Georgia had a US Senate runoff was in 1992, when Republican Paul Coverdell defeated Democrat Wyche Fowler. ((Subsequently, Democrats in the state legislature changed the rule to plurality, but in 2005 Republicans changed it back to majority runoff.)) In that election, Fowler won 49.23% in the first round to Coverdell’s 47.67%. In the runoff, on November 24, Coverdell won, 50.65% to 49.35%.

If Georgia and Minnesota used the Double Complement Rule that I often recommend, there would have been no need for a runoff in Georgia in 1992, but there would almost certainly need to be one this year in Minnesota. The Double Complement Rule allows a sub-majority win if, and only if, the second-place candidate’s shortfall from 50% is more than double that of the leading candidate. Fowler’s 0.77 percentage point shortfall in 1992 would have been “good enough”; the only way Coverdell could have defeated him would have been to convince Libertarians in the same, larger electorate–as we’ll see below, the inter-round turnout differential was substantial–to desert their party’s candidate and give him the plurality.

The approximate 40–38 result that we may see in Minnesota, on the other hand, would necessitate a runoff under the Double Complement Rule. In fact, the only way we would see a one-round result, if the leading candidate failed to break 40%, would be if the trailer fell below 30%–something that obviously would not happen without a doubling of Barkley’s support creating a close race for second place, rather than for the plurality.

As for this year’s Georgia race, we would have a squeaker on our hands: the current polling aggregate is just over the runoff-triggering margin by about half a percentage point.

In 1992 in Georgia it was likewise a Libertarian candidate whose support in the first round resulted in the need for a runoff. Did most of the Libertarian voters in 1992 vote Republican in the runoff, given that it was the Republican who won? More likely, they simply stayed home.

In fact, the turnout in the runoff in 1992 was very low–barely half what it had been in the first round. ((1,253,991 vs. 2,251,576.)) One might imagine it will be a bit higher this year–especially if the Democrats have won 59 seats after Tuesday night.

House and Senate

So, the two chambers of the US Congress are different. How about that?

In contrast to the vote in the House of Representatives on the ‘rescue’ package earlier in the week, in the Senate those Republicans in the more competitive races were somewhat more likely to vote for the package.

Of course, any focus on the institutional differences between the chambers ((And such a focus is instinctive for me.)) has to acknowledge that these were not actually the same bills. And that there was more information from the stock market about just how some folks felt about the defeat in the House.

Nonetheless, what is striking about the inter-cameral comparison is that in the House, the most vulnerable members regardless of party ((And how can there be so many vulnerable Dems this year? Swing State Project, cited at the House link above (which goes to FiveThirtyEight), shows 18 “vulnerable” members in each party.)) were much more likely to vote against the bill.

Overall, in the House, of course, Democrats were much more likely to vote for the bill than were Republicans (though neither party put on an impressive display of unity).

The upshot is that the House “vulnerables” tended to vote less with the party that has the greatest wind at its back as we head into the election. ((That would be the Democrats for those scoring at home.)) In the Senate it was the reverse, albeit less significantly so.

Essentially, Senators in both parties and regardless of vulnerability were more likely to vote for the bill (which passed 74–25). The institutional explanation would point to Senators’ more diverse constituencies making them more insulated from apparent public opposition (even a month before an election!). Yet the tendency of vulnerable Representatives to vote against the majority position of the party riding higher in the polls remains puzzling (to me; maybe readers have a hypothesis, “institutional” or otherwise).