More heat than light: New Conservative amending activity in the U.S. House

For almost a decade, House Republicans from the Tea Party, Liberty, and Freedom Caucuses—to whom we give the collective label “New Conservatives”—have repeatedly and publicly clashed with House Republican leadership. Many observers not only characterize New Conservatives as being qualitatively different from other GOP factions in their willingness to defy the rest of the party caucus, but also attribute to New Conservatives outsized influence on the House’s legislative decisions; they are sometimes credited with moving policy outcomes sharply to the right.

There is no question that New Conservatives have sometimes blocked House Republican leaders’ efforts to pass bills that New Conservatives deemed insufficiently conservative. On the other hand, however, their efforts have sometimes backfired and led party leaders—especially during the Boehner Speakership—to make additional concessions to Democrats, especially on must-pass legislation such as government funding and debt limit bills. Additionally, in some other cases, they have threatened to oppose special rules that would move leader-supported bills to the floor unless the rules allowed New Conservatives to offer amendments to the bill.

This last type of case serves as the point of departure for a recent working paper in which we study the extent to which New Conservatives have successfully added conservative amendments to bills that later passed the House, and whether bills that passed with New Conservative amendments really were more conservative than bills that passed with other House Republicans’ amendments.

To measure the degree of conservativism of amendments and bills, we use DW-NOMINATE, which is a standard political science method, best known for producing estimates of how liberal or conservative each member of Congress is, based on the recorded votes that they cast. The mathematical algorithm that DW-NOMINATE uses to produce those estimates also produces an estimated “cut point” for each recorded vote—that is, a point on the liberal-conservative continuum that divides those who vote yes from those who vote no. These cut points are more conservative on votes that propose more conservative measures than they are on votes that propose less conservative or liberal measures.

Using data from 2011 to 2018, we find that New Conservatives offered many amendments, the House agreed to many of them, and a number of the bills to which they were added passed the House. However, when we examine the cut points for all recorded votes on adoption of amendments offered by Republicans, we find no statistically significant evidence that New Conservatives’ amendments were more conservative than other Republicans’ amendments. Similarly, when we look at final passage votes on bills to which Republican amendments were offered, we find no statistically significant evidence that bills to which New Conservatives’ amendments were added were more conservative than bills to which other Republicans’ amendments were added. In fact, we find weak evidence that New Conservatives’ amendments were less conservative than other Republicans’ amendments—though we would want stronger evidence before we were convinced that this is actually the case.

Our paper focuses attention on questions about what might explain these surprising results. We are collecting additional data that we hope will help answer such questions, but in the current version of the paper we merely speculate about possible explanations. One of the most plausible explanations is that party leaders often manage to prevent New Conservatives from offering their most conservative and divisive amendments. Another is that leaders and other Republicans strategically offer more conservative proposals than they otherwise would, in order to try to gain New Conservatives’ support. It is also possible that, even New Conservatives’ divisive amendments are systematically less likely than their less divisive amendments to get to the point of a recorded vote on adoption. And, of course, it is possible that New Conservatives are less ideologically different from other Republicans, or are more pragmatic, than is often believed to be the case. But, for now, we can only speculate about whether these reasons, or any number of other possible explanations, account for our somewhat surprising findings.

Chris Den Hartog is professor of political science at Cal Poly and Timothy Nokken is associate professor of political science at Texas Tech.