Election 2004

There Is a Difference

A look at the voting record of the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill shows that, in fact, the majority of the party has stood up for progressive values.
Elected Democrats in Congress have overwhelmingly voted along their party's long-held platforms of social justice and equal rights for all during the past decade. It's a fiction that the Democrats have caved into the Republican agenda in Capitol Hill. But the sad fact is that millions of Democrats who pull the lever for their party's House or Senate candidate in their state no longer believe that their party stands for anything traditionally associated with Democratic values.

The lack of faith in the party is not surprising. After all, hasn't Ralph Nader made that his campaign theme in the last two elections? It's the one message that Nader really has managed to get into public debate, much to the chagrin of the Democratic Party.

The truth is, that with a little research into the voting records on Capitol Hill, the differences between the two parties are stark. Television and newspapers rarely break down votes on legislation by party. A Senate vote, say, of 70-30 is often described as "bipartisan" support. Yet if we look more closely we might discover that one party voted 100 percent in favor while the other voted 75 percent against.

Those willing to make this effort can track the party breakdown of voting by going to the House of Representatives Roll Call section. To get the breakdown in the Senate requires slightly more effort. For some unfathomable reason, the Senate's Roll Call section doesn't show you the total votes by party. You have to do that yourself by counting the votes of individual senators.

What does a little detective work reveal? There is a stark difference in the legislative records of the two political parties. Here's a sampling of some of the votes on key issues.

In June, Congress voted on whether to amend the USA Patriot Act to restrict authorities from acquiring information from libraries, bookstores and other businesses. A yes vote was a vote to approve the restriction. Some 93 percent of Democrats voted "yes"; 90 percent of Republicans voted "no". The amendment lost by one vote.

In July, Congress voted on a bill to transfer class action lawsuits from state courts to federal courts, a move that would significantly diminish the effectiveness of such suits. In the Senate, over 80 percent of Republicans voted for the bill; over 80 percent of Democrats voted against it.

In July, Congress voted on whether to approve a Constitutional amendment that prohibits same sex marriage. A cloture vote was involved. Almost 90 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted to approve the bill; over 90 percent of Democrats voted against it.

Earlier this summer, Congress voted on a bill to uncouple tax policy from spending policy. It would alter the "pay-as-you-go" procedures adopted by Congress in the early 1990s by imposing spending controls on government without taking into account either tax decreases or tax increases. As the White House described the bill, "This proposal recognizes that spending is the problem. Tax increases could not be used to offset mandatory spending under this proposal. And it would not subject tax relief legislation to pay-as-you-go procedures." In the House, almost 65 percent of Republicans voted for the bill; 95 percent of Democrats voted against it.

This year Congress also voted on a bill to require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Almost 85 percent of Republicans voted against; 75 percent of Democrats voted in favor.

On a bill to eliminate the estate tax, 98 percent of House Republicans voted in favor; nearly 70 percent of Democrats voted against.

A bill to ease access to inexpensive imported prescription drugs died in the House. Some 60 percent of Republicans voted against; 75 percent of Democrats voted in favor.

These votes all occurred in this year's legislative session. Reviewing key votes in previous years leads us to the same conclusion: there is a stark difference between the two parties. In 1998, Congress voted to raise the minimum wage from $3.35 to $4.25 an hour. Some 60 percent of House Republicans voted against; 96 percent of Democrats voted for. In the Senate. One hundred percent of Democrats voted in favor; 60 percent of Republicans were opposed.

Many of us recall the bitter fights in the 1990s over the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare reform. In both cases Democratic President Bill Clinton was aggressively in favor. In both cases the bills became law. But an examination of the votes themselves reveals that the President didn't convince the majority of his own party. In the case of NAFTA, 66 percent of House Republicans voted in favor while 60 percent of House Democrats voted against. In the Senate, 80 percent of Republicans voted in favor while a slim majority of Democrats voted against.

In the case of welfare reform, the 1996 bill ended the 60 year old entitlement of the poor to cash assistance. The bill passed the House by 256-190 and the Senate by a whopping 74-24. Nevertheless, the vote couldn't accurately be described as "bipartisan." In the House, 98 percent of Republicans voted in favor; 85 percent of Democrats voted against. In the Senate 98 percent of Republicans voted in favor. The Democratic Party vote split 50-50.

The conclusion? There is a striking difference between our major political parties on substantive issues. Their voting records prove that beyond a doubt. It's up to the elected members of the Democratic party and the citizens who support them to get their message out that the party has stood up independently of the Republicans in the past decade – it's all on the record.
David Morris is Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and answers policy and election questions at Ask Dr. Dave.
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