Recently, I wrote on the consistent partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy over the last decade. Observant readers would have noted that in 2006, the House Republican’s average grade in the report card was far better than the average they received in any other year.
The dramatic rise in House Republicans’ average score in 2006 is a clear outlier: it’s a 26-point jump from the previous report card. The partisan divide in 2006 was 45 points, which is better than the 62 point gap in 2014, but still not so great. What caused this surprising bump in the House Republicans’ average grade?
It clearly wasn’t a change in their fundamental views – the House Republican average dropped right back into the trend the next grading cycle. Extra credit was also a definite non-factor – the Party scores are averaged together without extra credit to maintain an even playing field. My first guess was that international initiatives led by the Bush administration had gained party support. I soon learned, however, that the explanation was not that easy.
None of the bills included in the 2006 report card were strongly supported or opposed by the Bush administration. Instead, the powerful messages of the votes, non-appropriation bills, and effective bi-partisan sponsorship seem to steer House Republicans to align more closely with the Democrats. Ultimately, these three reasons represent an influx in Congressional voting on global issues and thereby reducing the number of partisan appropriation votes.
The powerful messages of these votes include declaring the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan as genocide and withdrawing from the U.N. By 2006, the mass atrocities in Darfur were well-known and rejecting the Darfur situation as genocide would likely have been political suicide. Voting to completely withhold U.N. funds would send a strong message to the world by effectively withdrawing from the U.N. If the U.S. did that, the international order would be thrown into frenzy. Compared to most other U.N. funding votes, which adjust funding by a few percentage points, this vote carried heavier implications.
A majority of House Republicans also voted in favor of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act. The bill did not commit any dollars to the initiative it created. The bill would only make the provision of sanitary water to developing countries an objective of U.S. foreign assistance programs. In this case, the Republicans got to shout their support while keeping their pockets closed.
The House of Representatives did witness one key vote on international leadership that exemplified bipartisanship. The U.S. International Leadership Act, sponsored by David Dreier (R-CA) and Tom Lantos (D-CA), called upon the U.S. to establish a U.N. Democracy Caucus, which would press for reforms to the criteria for leadership and membership of UN committees so as to exclude nations that violate the organization’s principles. The advocacy of Dreier and Lantos brought the majority of both parties together in support of this bill.
The 2006 House Congress exemplified much of what we would like to see Congress saying about U.S. engagement. These heavy-weighted votes showed that Congress can come together in support of significant and important international statements, even if there is little action behind them.
The fact of the matter is that there may have been more substantive votes used in the 2006 report card. The House members didn’t necessarily cooperate better in one year than in another; they simply voted on more global issues. Recognizing that Darfur was experiencing genocide, the U.S. should remain engaged, and democracy should be rewarded simply gave a false impression that the partisan squabbles had declined.