Were Democrats able to pass their bills this year?

The numbers tell a different story: Democratic bills received less favorable treatment than last year.

Before the 2013 Utah Legislative session started up, I wrote a post noting that Democrats have seen remarkable success in recent years at passing their bills, despite their small numbers. That was then. Things changed in the 2013 session.

Utah’s Democratic lawmakers have offered sanguine assessments of the 2013 session. Utah House Democratic leader Jennifer Seelig was quoted in today’s news saying “We were given equal access under our rules of engagement.” Her Utah Senate counterpart, Gene Davis, concurred: “We were treated fairly.” A week ago, Utah Democratic Party chair and freshman Utah Senator Jim Dabakis put it memorably: “The lion really doesn’t need to negotiate with the lamb but the lion has been more than fair.”

The numbers tell a different story: Democratic bills received less favorable treatment than last year. Let’s take a look.

Partisan batting averages

I measure each party’s success by looking at their overall “batting averages.” The Democrats’ batting average is simply the percentage of bills introduced by Democratic legislators that passed.1

In 2013, only 43% of Democratic bills passed, as compared to 73% of Republican bills. That’s a gap of 30 percentage points. Last year, the gap was only 9 percentage points. In many ways, the gap is more interesting than the raw batting averages, since it gives a measure of whether Democrats are treated differently than Republicans.

Take a look at the figure below. The red and blue lines show each party’s batting average for each General Session since 2007, and the green line shows the gap. In 2013, the gap jumped to its highest level since 2009, when it was at 40 percentage points.

The percentage of Republican- and Democratic-sponsored bills that passed

The percentage of Republican- and Democratic-sponsored bills that passed

Now, the preceding figure shows how many of each party’s bills actually passed. But we can get more insight by looking at how many bills came to a floor vote. If a bill doesn’t come to a vote, it suggests that the majority party is flexing some muscle to keep Democratic bills off the floor, either by holding them in Rules, declining to prioritize them in the final days of the session, sending them to unfriendly committees, and so on. (An important caveat: It’s also a possibility that Democrats simply sponsored far more liberal legislation than last year, causing their proposals to die in committee–more on that below.)

This next figure shifts from looking at how many bills passed to how many came to at least one floor vote. If you look at the green line, you’ll see a substantial rise in 2013. In 2012, there was only a 5 point gap; Democratic bills were as likely to get a vote as Republican bills. In 2013, that gap rose dramatically to 24 points.

Percentage of Republican- and Democratic-sponsored bills that came to at least one floor vote

Percentage of Republican- and Democratic-sponsored bills that came to at least one floor vote

Which chamber drove this change?

Now let’s look at the House and the Senate separately to see whether one experienced a greater shift than the other. Let’s stick with looking at the percentage of bills that came to at least one floor vote. First the House:

Utah House only

Utah House only

And now the Senate:

Utah Senate only

Utah Senate only

The cross-chamber difference almost leaps off the page. The Senate saw very little change–Democrats have received steady treatment for the past 4 sessions, since 2010. In the House, there was an abrupt shift. During her first 2 years as Speaker, 2011 and 2012, Becky Lockhart ushered in a period of surprising fairness for Democrats. In 2012, the partisan gap in the House was a mere 2 percentage points. For whatever reason, however, things reversed course in 2013. The gap rose to 30 percentage points in the House, the largest gap seen in either chamber since 2009.

What caused the changed in 2013?

There are two main reasons that a minority party’s success with passing bills (or even getting them to the floor) might fluctuate from year to year.

  • First, if the Democrats introduce more moderate bills, they will find more success than if they run more liberal bills. This is, after all, a Republican-majority chamber, and nobody expects Democrats to be able to pass whatever they want. Whether Democrats run moderate or liberal bills is up to them.
  • Second, the majority party leadership in each chamber has various ways of impeding a bill’s progress before it ever comes to a floor vote, and if they choose to use those tools more heavily against minority party bills in one particular year, then the batting averages will shift accordingly.

Those are the two major movers and shakers. There are other possibilities, too. Among them:

  • Democrats lost seats in both the House and the Senate following the 2012 elections, leaving them with only 17-19% of the seats in each chamber. As a result, the 2012 Legislature was the most Republican body since the 1960s, and the second-most Republican in 80 years. The simple loss in voting power may have played a role in changing the batting averages. This explanation isn’t satisfying, though, since most Legislative votes pass with overwhelming support from both parties, not with party-line support.
  • The Utah House experienced major turnover this year, welcoming 20 freshmen, the most in 20 years. Research has found that when states introduce term limits, the resulting increase in turnover tends to diminish crossparty collegiality, as legislators have less time to form friendships across the aisle.2 Perhaps something similar happened this year. With so many freshmen Republicans, maybe there was just less crossparty collegiality.

There is no definitive way to assess which of these possible mechanisms drove this year’s change. One thing we can see, though, is that Democratic bills were far less likely to receive a floor vote this year than last year.

Additional data

The charts here are lifted from my other website. You can find more detailed statistics on party batting averages there, as well as a variety of other statistics about the recent legislative session.

Possibly related posts:

About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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