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Washington — When Congress was debating a bill last summer that would allow the federal government to sell billions of cubic feet of underground helium, Connecticut’s 5th District representative, Elizabeth Esty, took to the House floor to promote an item opposed by most other Democrats.
A Pennsylvania Republican had sponsored an amendment to postpone the auction of helium contracts for a year, a delay that Praxair, a company in Esty’s district, had sought.
“[H]elium is a linchpin in Connecticut’s economy,” Esty said, in promoting the delay. “From refiners like Praxair to users like hospitals and manufacturers, the health of the helium market supports thousands of jobs in my state.”
The amendment failed, despite Esty’s vote and that of every other member of the delegation.
That wasn’t the only time members of the delegation crossed party lines last year. But an analysis of every vote taken by the state’s five representatives shows that local interests many times trumped party loyalty.
“Party and ideological issues dominate congressional voting, exceptions are constituency-driven and parochial,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
An analysis of the 641roll call votes taken last year in the House shows that:
- Reps. John Larson and Rosa DeLauro, from the 1st and 3rd districts, respectively, voted with the majority of their party 96 percent of the time.
- Reps. Joe Courtney and Jim Himes, from the 2nd and 4th districts, voted with their party 92 percent of the time.
- And Rep. Elizabeth Esty, from the 5th, voted with the majority in 93 percent of the votes.
The average party loyalty score for all Democrats in the U.S. House was 92 percent.
Defense industry votes
The most frequent split between Connecticut Democrats and their party was over defense issues. Every member of the delegation, except DeLauro, joined Republicans last year in voting for a defense spending bill. DeLauro said she voted against the bill because it wouldn’t have addressed across-the-board spending cuts for social programs like Head Start.
“This bill does support vital procurements for our national security and defense manufacturing base, and it provides funding for important Department of Defense research,” DeLauro said. “But that does not make up for all the damage caused.”
DeLauro’s opposition to the defense spending bill didn’t mean she wasn’t looking out for the best interests of defense contractors in the state, especially Stratford-based Sikorsky in her district.
DeLauro also bucked the majority of her party in voting against an amendment to an energy bill that would have prohibited the extraction of natural gas from public lands, and with the rest of the delegation against another Democratic-sponsored amendment to that bill that would have reduced fossil fuel research by $30 million.
DeLauro did not respond to requests for the reasons for these rebellious votes. But, in an email, she said she always voted to help constituents.
“The top factor influencing my votes is what I believe is in the best interest of my constituents,” DeLauro said. “Many times that correlates with how other members of the Democratic Party vote. But when it does not, Connecticut’s Third District comes first.”
Sometimes, however, DeLauro split from her party to defend larger interests. Her opposition to a budget bill supported by a majority of both Democrats and Republicans — including the rest of the Connecticut congressional delegation — is an example.
While the bill averted a second government shutdown last year and blunted the effects of across-the-board cuts to the federal budget known as sequester, DeLauro joined a handful of rebellious liberals who said it restored too little money to social programs.
Former Reps. Shays, Simmons
Ronald Schurin, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, said voting for your conscience and principles — even if it goes against your party’s stance on an issue — has become rare in the modern political world.
“Up until the 1990s, there were always a significant number of lawmakers that would vote with the opposing party,” Schurin said. “But with today’s philosophical divide, you just don’t see that any more. What you see is divergence from the party position for parochial interests.”
Former Connecticut Reps. Chris Shays and Rob Simmons, considered Republican moderates, are good examples of lawmakers who broke from the Republican Party for ideological reasons on social issues and the environment. Their party loyalty percentages never went higher than 85 percent and sometimes sunk into the low 70s.
There’s less of that independence in today’s all-Democratic Connecticut delegation.
But Esty took an ideological turn in voting with the GOP majority on a couple of measures that would have amended the Affordable Care Act. One would have delayed for a year the mandate that almost all Americans have health insurance. Another would have allowed all Americans to keep their current health plans, even if they did not meet the ACA’s requirements.
“Those votes are a reflection of a fear of facing angry constituents in closely contested districts,” Schurin said.
Mostly, Schurin said, “local interests can trump philosophy and play havoc with party loyalty.”
Courtney voted against two amendments to the energy bill, supported by a majority of Democrats, that would have cut $223 million and $500 million respectively from a nuclear weapons account.
“The congressman voted against both because they would have reduced funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration Weapons Activities account, which supports the nuclear triad — including the submarine-based part,” said Courtney press secretary Elizabeth Donovan.
Courtney’s district is home to a nuclear submarine base — U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London –- and to a major defense contractor that builds nuclear subs, Electric Boat.
Courtney also voted against most of his party when he opposed an amendment to a water resources bill that would have required sand transfers — or the replenishment of beaches after a bad storm — to be included in the Army Corps of Engineers budget.
“Congressman Courtney has led the way in promoting investment in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and this amendment would have shifted resources away from the (trust fund), “ Donovan said.
The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund helps pay for Army Corps maintenance dredging of harbors like the one in New London that’s in Courtney’s district. The Connecticut Maritime Coalition is among dozens of groups that support the fund.
Courtney and Larson were also among a handful of House Democrats to vote against an amendment that aimed to derail a GOP bill that would have sped approval of the Keystone pipeline. That amendment would have prevented the bill from going into effect unless TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, fully offset the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the project.
Larson was among only 32 Democrats to vote against an amendment that exempts Alaska and Hawaii from the per passenger subsidy cap of $500 for the essential air service program. This program helps subsidize the fares of passengers at small airports. Alaska and Hawaii have some of the highest fares in the nation and removing their cap leaves less essential air money for other small airports, including New Haven’s Tweed Regional Airport, where Larson’s brother is executive director.
Larson’s office did not respond to several requests for explanations of the congressman’s votes, preferring instead to send an email without attribution.
“In a year where partisanship trumped the needs of the American people far too often, Congressman Larson has made working across the aisle a top priority,” the email said. “Whether meeting with constituents in the district or voting on legislation in Washington, Larson has put the people of Connecticut first.”
Geoffrey Skelley of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said defying party leaders is sometimes necessary for a lawmaker to be able to stay in Congress.
“While the average Connecticut voter may be a little left of center in the American political spectrum and thus more likely to vote Democratic, that doesn’t mean he or she won’t consider voting the other way if the incumbent doesn’t seem interested in protecting the lifeblood of the district,” Skelley said.
“In Connecticut’s case, that means voting to protect the defense industry and Wall Street, with many constituents tied to those interests,” Skelley said.
When Himes, who represents Fairfield County, crossed party lines, he usually did so on issues important to Wall Street or other sectors of the nation’s financial community.
He voted, for instance, with the Republican majority for a measure that would amend the Investment Adviser’s Act of 1940 to exempt private equity investment advisers from certain federal registration and reporting requirements.
Himes also took some votes that were more ideological in nature. Along with Esty, he voted with the GOP for legislation that would have barred people with “seriously delinquent” tax debts from federal employment and for another bill that would eliminate a pay raise for federal employees.
Himes’s office did not respond to several requests for explanations on these and other votes that deviated from his party.
But his press secretary Elizabeth Kerr said in an email that Himes voted against the federal pay raise because the bill would have also raised congressional salaries, a move he opposed.
Himes also help burnish his credentials as a fiscal conservative in being among the few Democrats to vote for a measure that would pressure the president to balance the budget.
He was among only eight Democrats — and the only member of the Connecticut delegation — to vote against a Democratic amendment to an education bill that would have required a report containing recommendations about whether it’s advisable to authorize a state education authority to close a school district over the opposition of a locally elected school board.
Himes did not explain his votes. But Connecticut took over the schools in Bridgeport, in Fairfield County, three years ago in a move that was overturned by the state Supreme Court and remains controversial today.