Why Would Scott Brown Vote Yes in Committee, and No On Floor?

On one of this week’s episodes of the Rachel Maddow show, Ezra Klein attempted to explain what appears to be a peculiar event in voting behavior. On the show, Maddow and Klein bemoan the impending bait-and-switch by Scott Brown (R-MA) who, they believe, will imminently be voting against Wall Street reform legislation despite making waves about “negotiating” on, it in a “bipartisan” fashion – a fashion they suspect he has adopted for publicity purposes. Ruminating on this behavior, as well as Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) thumbs up in committee, thumbs down on floor on H.R. 3200 and Lindsey Graham’s retreat on energy legislation, Klein supposes:

So I mean, these people have good personal relationships. They talk to each other. They generally want to work together. I legitimately think at the beginning, a lot of these Republicans – they want to be on board.
And then, as they do it for a while, they realize they can‘t be. And then, at the end, they find a reason to bail. And it‘s always in that reason finding a way to bail that everybody – maybe even the Republican himself or herself – is a little bit shocked that this happened this way again.


They say, “I‘ll only on be there if we get a couple more with me.” And they say, “We‘ll all work with you and we‘ll try to get them. And if I can bring a couple other people over, if I can have a little group of my own, like we did on stimulus, I‘ll be there for you.”

Mitch McConnell never lets even one more go. That‘s really the key. Not one more Republican ever bails. If it happens like that, they tag team, right? They relay race. Corker gives it to Shelby who gives it to Brown.

I think there’s probably something much simpler going on, something that doesn’t require the Republican Party to be portrayed as a Gulag. Rather, it would only require Republican legislators to be individually greedy, rather than collectively greedy. And my theory doesn’t contradict the evidence of how overstated a minority leader’s power is, either.

Let’s say a Senator near the pivot point on a key piece of legislation will be re-elected based on two things: the economic welfare of his constituency and his appeal to their policy preferences. Consider how Scott Brown was able to achieve both in a simple two-stage game.

In the first stage, he had to choose between two alternatives: Negotiating and getting special clauses for his home state in the reform bill, or not negotiating at all. In either case, he would enjoy the incumbency advantage his party membership would confer, and the second alternative would inject uncertainty about his later ability to influence the amount of financial goodies he could secure in the bill’s final version. So his first choice is easy. This requires only the assumption that he could produce a bill that was better for Massachusetts by negotiating.

His second choice is a bit trickier, and depends on his ability to render one side of the vote more salient. If his constituents end up valuing the committee vote as much as the floor vote, he’s golden – he can negotiate until he has what he wants, and then defect in stage two once the bill is already written. In fact, he’ll only do otherwise if his constituents value the floor vote more than the committee vote and the potential extra goodies – because if public preferences were as such Democrats wouldn’t let him negotiate in the first place! Implicit in allowing access to this game space is the notion that Brown wouldn’t filibuster a bill that provided his state so much pork, and so a little game theory can go a long way in explaining the institutional functions of parties, committees, and negotiations in general – a much safer game than speculating on the cunning of Mitch McConnell, in my opinion.


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