Posted: March 24, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

How polarized is it on Capitol Hill? So polarized that Tom Carper broke with his fellow Democrats in the Senate a mere 2 percent of the time and landed in the Top 10 of party defectors.

It sounds like it ought to be a punch line, but it is no joke.

A voting study released last week by CQ Weekly, a publication that covers the Congress, shows extreme politics is the rule.

If Ronald Reagan came back and made his famous pronouncement -- "The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor" -- he would be laughed out of Washington.

The voting study, performed every year since the 1950s by Congressional Quarterly, a publishing company now called CQ Roll Call, analyzes the votes of the senators and representatives by looking at how often they support or oppose their party and how often they support or oppose the president. It checks their attendance records, too.

The study of the votes in the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2014 was an exercise in crunching the numbers for what was already intuitive. The Congress is divided and deadlocked.

"Obama had little to sign and nothing to veto. Gridlock on Capitol Hill is the dominant theme," CQ Weekly wrote.

Member Carper Coons Carney
Party unity/opposition % 98 - 2 99 - 1 96 - 4
Presidential support/opposition % 99 - 1 99 - 1 93 - 7
Voting attendance % 99 97 89

There was no escape, not even for the Delaware delegation with Tom Carper and Chris Coons in the Senate and John Carney in the House.

Although they are all Democrats, they represent a small state where the voters tend to like their politics moderate, civil and pragmatic.

It did not matter. Even a delegation that tries to be well-rounded in bipartisanship found itself forced into the square holes of partisanship.

"I describe myself as a flaming centrist," Carper said. "Folks on both sides call me 'the bridge' to how we can get something done."

In 244 Senate votes in which a majority of the Democrats voted against a majority of the Republicans, Carper stuck with the party line 98 percent of the time and Coons did it 99 percent of the time.

Their scores practically made Carney look like a renegade, when all he did was balk 4 percent of the time in 408 House votes in which the two parties lined up against each other.

None of it was really the delegation's fault. As CQ Weekly noted, the leadership in the last session for the Senate Democratic majority and the House Republican majority steered away from votes that would divide their own side in favor of votes that would make the other side look bad.

It meant that Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, wound up with the low score on party unity by splitting from his colleagues on only 13 percent of the votes.

Carney thoroughly rejected the voting scores. "Most of what was served up in the House didn't meet the smell test. I try to do what is best for my constituents and best for the country 100 percent of the time," he said.

It was more of the same on the presidential support/opposition scores when CQ Weekly looked at 366 Senate votes and 562 House votes for which the Obama administration took a position.

Carper and Coons both made the Top 10 for the Senate Democrats by voting with Obama 99 percent of the time, and Carney stood with the president 93 percent of the time.

The uniformity was so prevalent that on an occasion when Coons went his own way, it turned into a cause for consternation.

Coons, along with six other Democratic senators, joined with the Republicans in a filibuster to sink the nomination of Debo Adegbile to run the Justice Department's civil rights division.

The appointment ran into trouble because Adegbile was linked with Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. As a lawyer with the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, Adegbile worked on an appeal that kept Abu-Jamal from getting a death sentence.

Coons, as a lawyer himself, was not expected to break ranks. He did, anyway, even as Carper was arguing the nomination deserved consideration and Joe Biden -- a k a "Our Joe" -- was in the chamber in case he was needed to deliver a tie-breaking vote as the Democratic vice president to get Adegbile through.

In a statement at the time, Coons said he was concerned Adegbile would be hamstrung in the office by "visceral opposition from law enforcement." Coons took friendly fire, but he was nevertheless re-elected with 56 percent of the vote in 2014 in a big Republican year.

Attendance also counts in the Congress. Delaware's senators beat the Senate average of voting 96 percent of the time on 366 roll calls with participation scores of 99 percent for Carper and 97 percent for Coons. Carney came in at 89 percent, falling below the House average of 96 percent on 562 roll calls because, he said, he missed a week due to the death of his father.

Member Biden Carper Castle Roth Biden Castle Roth Biden Carper
Chamber Senate Senate House Senate Senate House Senate Senate House
Party D D R R D R R D D
Year 2004 2004 2004 1994 1994 1994 1984 1984 1984
Party unity 95% 86% 79% 76% 86% 81% 85% 79% 76%

The skewed partisanship of today was not always the case. In 10-year snapshots from Congressional Quarterly of the Delaware delegation's voting record going back 30 years, it was not unusual for anyone to depart from the party line close to a quarter of the time.

It happened regardless of party -- for Biden as a Democratic senator, Carper as a Democratic senator and representative, Bill Roth as a Republican senator and Mike Castle as a Republican representative.

Back then, even a 75 percent friend was not a 25 percent traitor. Nowadays, the members from Delaware cannot even get that choice.