The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Powell amendment game

It's a truism (or it should be) that, if one could have combined in one guy the then reputation of Colin Powell with the looks and charm of Adam Clayton Powell, one might have had a viable black presidential candidate back in 2000 - though for the Democrats, obviously.

The elder Powell later in his career was notorious for his loose living - a Negro Bao Dai in some ways. But in 1956 he was a maverick with some clout [1] and unafraid to cause 'trouble' in a legislature where his own party was hardly universally supportive of his aims!

Thus, for instance, he endorsed Eisenhower for president that year. And moved an amendment to a school aid bill conditioning receipt of Federal funds on compliance with court rulings.

The Powell amendment was, I divine from Voteview, made to HR 7535 (School Construction Aid Bill), and voted on as RC 122 on July 5 1956 (which was passed 225-192). Together with subsequent votes on the bill, it is, I learn, a polisci classic, for which many a tree has gone to an early pulping. And for good reason: it's great craic.

There is no in-depth online treatment - none that I have come across, at least. I first took notice of it in the Analyzing Congress book I mentioned recently (Ch 1 p33ff). The closest to detail I've got to is these lecture notes [2]:
Bill was HR 7435 (sic) (the Kelly Bill) to provide $1.6 billion in federal aid for local school construction over four years. The bill was backed by Eisenhower but opposed by Republicans in the House who opposed federal involvement in local issues.

Adam Clayton Powell (D NY) introduced an amendment barring funds from states that failed to comply with Supreme Court decisions (Brown v. Board, 1954, comes to mind).

The interest for polisci types is ascertaining whether the votes on the amendment, and the amended bill, provide evidence of sophisticated voting - that is voting to achieve a desired end-point, even when that vote is ostensibly against the legislator's (or his constituents') principles.

Thus, Northern Dems (favouring both school aid and desegregation) would have voted sophisticatedly if they had voted against the Powell amendment, and thereby defeated it - because the bill, shorn of the amendment, would have passed with Southern Dem votes: they would have been 1-2, which is better than the 0-2 they ended up with [3].

Apparently (Analyzing p42),
The House Democratic leadership enlisted the aid of former-president Harry Truman, whose credentials in opposition to southern segregation were secure, to appeal to Northern Democrats to oppose the Powell amendment. In the end, some liberal Northern Democrats did vote against the Powell amendment, in all likelihood because the appeals to sophisticated voting worked. (There also is evidence that some very conservative Republicans, who were in fact prosegregation, voted for the Powell amendment, to kill the overall bill.) That more did not vote in a sophisticated manner represents practical problems with sophisticated voting. In particular, for a liberal Northern Democrat, who had taken a strong stance against segregation, to oppose the Powell amendment would have required that Northern Democrat to explain his actions to his constituents.

From the pieces I've dredged up online, some fairly heavy-duty math (ie beyond my ken) has been deployed in explicating voting on the Powell amendment at a macro level.

But there seems to be a fair amount of interest in combing the roll call results without the math.

In addition to the vote on the amendment itself, we have RC 123, also on July 5, a motion to recommit [4] which was lost 158-262; and RC 124, also July 5, by which HR 7535 was rejected 194-224.

The bare analysis of voting seems to have promise: for instance, of those who voted in all three roll calls, and voted Yea just once, the numbers are these:

Nay-Nay-Yea: 45
Nay-Yea-Nay: 23
Yea-Nay-Nay: 19

And there seems no very clear pattern in party or section which demarcates the members who selected each one of these three voting strategies. There must, however, have been a reason why votes were cast the way they were: worth an exploratory examination, at least.

It's a sort of political Rubik's cube, I suspect: the fascination comes in the trying, rather than the succeeding!

(It doesn't help that I recognise almost none of these guys' names - nowhere near such a problem with the Senate during the 84th Congress.)

  1. There were, so far as I can ascertain, two other Negro members of the House in 1956: William Dawson (IL-1) and Charles Diggs (MI-13).

  2. On p15a; at least one academic (named) disputes the story as told, apparently.

  3. Of course, since desegregation stood zero chance of passage, the true opportunity cost for Northern Dems was not 1-2, but 1-1.

  4. Motion to recommit, with instructions to substitute the Administration program.

MORE (March 27)

I have a file of spreadsheets analysing the three roll calls at the snappily named Yahoo Group Lincoln Plawg Stuff.

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