Congress, Divided


Climate scientists recently announced their concern that Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf is approaching collapse. But while Earth’s poles melt, America’s political poles are only solidifying. Through the first three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, virtually all Republicans in Congress have voted in line with Donald Trump’s positions. Democrats meanwhile have marched in lockstep against Trump’s measures. Historically, House caucuses are more polarized than they have been in the last 60 years.

While Congress has only voted on 21 issues under President Trump’s tenure, the average House Republican has voted in line with Trump over 98 percent of the time. The sample size is small, but if Republicans continue to back Trump at this rate through 2017, it will be the highest rate of support from House members of the president’s party since 1953. Several explanations may indicate why congressional Republicans have so strongly backed Trump. For one, many of them may simply agree with him – several issues so far have received wide support, such as the nomination of James Mattis to be Secretary of Defense and of Nikki Haley to be ambassador to the United Nations.

More divisive issues, however, have been determined strictly on party lines and may signal more than just ideological similarity between Trump and congressional Republicans. The success of Jeff Sessions’ nomination was determined almost entirely along party lines (the sole defector being Joe Manchin (D-WV), who represents a state where Trump won 69 percent of the popular vote). This trend in the Senate is reflected in the House; on a recent environmental bill that would allow federally protected land to be privatized, over 98 percent of the House voted by political block. On these issues and others, Republicans may (legitimately) fear a backlash from Trump for defecting from his stance.

Senator John McCain, for example, experienced this retaliation after having described the January 29 Yemen raid as a “failure.” Donald Trump chastised McCain on Twitter, proclaiming McCain “doesn’t know how to win anymore.” Other Republican leaders have been less willing than McCain to step out of line and buck parts of Trump’s rhetoric or agenda. House Speaker Paul Ryan said in 2015 that a Muslim ban “is not what this country stands for,” yet he now backs Trump’s executive order barring foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. Though 50 percent of Americans view Trump unfavorably, over eight out of ten Republicans see him favorably. His high favorability among Republicans means few congressional Republicans are likely to oppose him.

Of 240 Republicans in the House of Representatives, only 23 come from districts Hillary Clinton won in the general election. Because they generally come from Republican strongholds, House Republicans’ chief concern is not general election defeat, but rather a defeat in their GOP primary;. Resultantly, they have stood by Trump, as small defections can have lasting electoral consequences. For example, Charlie Crist, Florida’s then-Republican governor, was considered a shoo-in for a senate seat in 2010 before he hugged President Obama at a stimulus event. In the ensuing Republican unrest, upstart conservative Marco Rubio challenged Crist in the primary and won, forcing Crist to run as an independent. Trump’s support among the Republican base means few members of Congress will defect from him, as it could lose them their jobs.

As Republicans vote in step with Trump’s campaign promises, congressional Democrats are voting against him at unprecedented rates. Historically, many Cabinet members are confirmed simply by unanimous consent or voice vote. Trump’s picks have experienced no such smooth path, however. Ronald Reagan had claimed the record for the most Cabinet nominees garnering a “no” vote at eight, but Trump has already surpassed that total after his first nine nominees have come before the Senate. More “no” votes are expected in upcoming nominations. House Democrats too almost unilaterally oppose Trump; they have voted with him a mere three percent of the time. From 1953 to 2016, the average House member from the major party that did not control the White House voted with the president 34 percent of the time.

Democrats face enormous pressure from their base to oppose Trump, and many find themselves in positions similar to their Republican counterparts. Only 12 House Democrats come from districts won by Trump, so the remaining 181 House Democrats face could face strong primary challenges if they side with Trump. If they hope to stay in office, many have no option but to oppose Trump every step of the way.

Polarization is digging into America. From 2004 to 2014, the number of ideologically consistent (uniformly liberal or conservative across most values) Americans doubled. These people align themselves increasingly with the Democratic and Republican parties, and their ideological overlap is shrinking. Three weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, polarization has only continued to grow. Trump’s initially unclear policy stances and position as a political outsider have not blurred partisan lines in Washington. Instead, Republicans and Democrats agree with each other on fewer issues than ever before.

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