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How changing Dodd-Frank might reveal changes in the parties

Voting on the House Journal tells it all.

Senate Democrats Mark 5th Anniversary Of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act
Congress changed Dodd-Frank — is Congress changing too?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House of Representatives typically takes several votes every day it’s in session. Some are bipartisan “hurrah” votes, some are high-stakes, closely divided votes, and some are simply “procedural” votes. A classic example of such a vote is on approving the House Journal. This is basically a vote on whether to approve the minutes from the previous day’s business.

Formally, these votes are pro forma and, importantly, optional. Practically, they tend to occur only on days on which important and/or divisive business might be considered. (I wrote an article on this several years ago.) The House has dealt with two such matters in the past few days: the farm bill on Friday and a significant rollback of Dodd-Frank on Tuesday.

Recording a vote on the journal is an opportunity for party leaders to call members to the floor and “whip” them, seeking information and the possibility of swaying their votes. What is interesting — to me, at least — is that these votes on the pro forma motion appear to possibly be informative about the matter to be considered later that day. Disapproving the journal has never occurred and would simply delay business while the journal is read and opened to amendment. Thus, a vote against approval is (at best) simply a protest or dilatory maneuver. That said, the journal was approved Tuesday by a vote of 219-179.

Furthermore, the recent journal vote, like many, was informative. Only 33 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Of those, 21 voted against approving the journal.

From the other side of the aisle, 75 Republicans voted against approving the journal but then voted for the bill. These members have nearly double the rate of unpredictability (average “misprediction,” according to their NOMINATE estimates in the 115th Congress) of their fellow Republicans who voted to approve the journal. The same is true of the 21 Democrats who voted against approving the journal but then voted for the bill. The 65 Democrats who voted in favor of approving the journal but then voted against the bill are slightly more predictable than their fellow Democrats.

(As an aside, Democrats and Republicans are currently almost equally predictable on average, though the Republicans have more “relatively highly unpredictable” members than do the Democrats, in line with Friday’s farm bill vote.)

My take? The House was voting on essentially the final, compromise version of the bill. Some GOP representatives were unhappy with it. A meaningful faction of Democrats broke with the party line and signaled their intentions through the journal vote. Why did they do this? I don’t know what was going on in real time on the House floor, but I suspect that the journal vote might be kind of like “going on the record” for the insiders regarding the business of the day.

In line with this, I include pictures of how the journal and passage votes went down. Notice that the journal vote looks a lot messier than the passage vote. In both of the pictures, light blue and red upside-down triangles indicate “nay” votes and darker blue and red right-side-up triangles denote “yea” votes. Here’s the very messy vote on approving the journal.

Non-ideological voting on approving the journal on May 22, 2018.

Now, hours later, here’s the very classical partisan/ideological split on passage of the changes to the Dodd-Frank financial regulation.

Ideological/partisan voting on passage of Dodd-Frank changes, May 22, 2018.

Congress has at least two faces: One is internal, concerned with policy, procedure, and bargaining; the other is simultaneously about policy, public image, and reelection. Today, for those looking closely, Congress showed both faces within a few hours of each other. Minutiae in the moment can sometimes be tea leaves for the future.

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