March 4, 2012

Analysis shows Congress shifting toward extremes

Tracking 30 years of voting records in the U.S. House and Senate reveals a growing partisan divide, suggesting that centrists such as Maine's Olympia Snowe are rare indeed.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's surprise decision to retire has focused national attention on the partisan divide that she says is crippling America's political system.

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An examination of congressional voting records over a 30-year span indicates the shift that has taken place over time. Representatives with ratings closest to zero are more likely to vote across party lines, while those farthest from zero rarely do. The data were obtained from, a nonpartisan website developed by professors at the University of Georgia, UCLA and New York University that tracks congressional polarization throughout U.S. history.

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A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of congressional voting records going back 30 years shows just what she is talking about.

It also shows that Snowe may be among the last of a vanishing breed.

Data obtained from, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional voting records, show a 63 percent decline in the number of U.S. senators willing to vote across party lines during the last three decades. The erosion of the political center is even more dramatic in the House of Representatives, where the number of centrist members dropped 84 percent during the same period.

The divide has been growing for decades as Democrats and Republicans have become less willing to compromise, and moderates from both parties have either dropped out or grown very lonely.

The two remaining centrists in the Senate – Snowe and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska – both have decided to retire this year.

The trend is now pushing Congress to a breaking point, some political scientists say.

Polarization also has shown its effects in Maine. Snowe – one of the state's most popular politicians ever and considered a shoo-in for another term – was facing a conservative primary challenger and getting booed at recent Republican caucuses for being too willing to compromise.

"She's tough," said former Maine Sen. Peter Mills, a moderate Republican who is now director of the Maine Turnpike Authority. "My guess is she's thinking I can handle this (opposition) at home and get down there again, but what am I going to do when I get down there?"

Snowe said Friday that the Senate is no longer a place for consensus and compromise.

"We are becoming more like a parliamentary system, where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side," Snowe said Friday. "At some point you have to develop solutions for the country. You have to talk to people with whom you disagree."

Snowe's retirement has highlighted a trend that University of Georgia political science Professor Keith Poole has been tracking for 30 years. He helped create a computer program that shows Congress is more polarized now than at any time since Reconstruction, the result of issues such as race, morality and economics that have pulled the parties apart in recent decades.

"The country is basically becoming fundamentally dysfunctional due to this polarization, and people are finally starting to notice," Poole said. "It has to stop at some point. It has to break. I think we're getting close."

Snowe has voted with her party most of the time, including on contentious issues such as the national health care reform law of 2010.

But she negotiated with Democrats on health care reform when other Republicans would not and she frequently crosses the aisle, just last week becoming the only Republican to vote to uphold a requirement that non-church employers provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Snowe had a lot of company as a moderate in Congress when she was first elected 34 years ago to the House of Representatives. Eleven of the 100 members of the Senate were classified as centrists in 1980, compared with three in 2010, according to Poole's data. During that same time frame in the House, that number has gone from 49 centrist members to just 8.

The retirement this year of Snowe and Nelson, as it turns out, is likely to leave Maine's junior senator, Republican Susan Collins, as the Senate's most moderate member, the data show. The third centrist in 2010, Arlen Specter, D-Pa., is no longer in office.

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