Debt votes depended on safety of members' districts 

Who voted for the debt limit bill in the House? Scott Bland and Peter Bell, in National Journal, say that members from marginal districts tended to support it while members from safe districts tended to oppose it.

As they concede, this effect is more pronounced among Democrats than among Republicans. Among Democrats whose districts voted 55% or less for Barack Obama (including districts that voted for John McCain), 81% voted yes; among Democrats whose districts voted 55%-60% for Obama, 55% voted yes; among Democrats whose districts voted 60% or more for Obama, 42% voted yes. Note that a solid majority of House Democrats’ districts voted 60% or more for Obama.

In contrast, among Republicans whose districts voted for Obama, 89% voted yes; among Republicans whose districts voted 55% or less for McCain, 77% voted yes; among Republicans whose districts voted 55%-60% for McCain, 60% voted yes; among Republicans whose districts voted 60% or more for McCain, 59% voted yes.

This is something of a contrast with the TARP bill which Congress voted on in September and October 2008. In both cases, members of Congress were told by the Treasury secretary and other leading finance experts that the consequences of a no vote on this potentially unpopular legislation could be catastrophic. I made the point that bills like TARP are passed by members with safe seats and tend to be opposed by those who do not hold safe seats; and I think that analysis still stands up. However, TARP votes did prove to be problematic, first in general elections (Senator Saxby Chambliss failed to get 50% of the vote in Georgia in November 2008 and was forced into a runoff) and then in the primary process (Senator Bob Bennett finished in third place in the Utah Republican State Convention in spring 2010 and thus was denied a place on the primary ballot under that state’s rules).

So the rules seem to have changed. Members in marginal districts seem to have calculated that a vote against the debt limit bill would be a political liability in the general election and therefore tended to voet yes. But members in heavily Democratic districts and, to a lesser extent, members in heavily Republican districts, evidently calculated that a vote for the debt limit bill would render them vulnerable to a primary challenge.

So here’s an assignment for political scientists. Does the TARP situation—a potentially unpopular bill passed by members of both parties with (perceived) safe seats—apply to previous similar legislation? And does the debt limit bill represent a change in that rule?

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