Analysis of the Vote on HR 1606

November 3, 2005. The roll call vote defeating HR 1606, the "Online Freedom of Speech Act", on November 2, 2005, revealed several patterns.

First, it was a party line vote. Republicans voted 179-38 in favor, and Democrats voted 46-143. Second, there was a regional trend. Most of the opposition came from Democrats and Republicans in New England, the northern industrial states, and the midwest. Third, there was a urban rural split. Representatives from rural and sparsely populated areas were more likely to support the bill than urban representatives.

This bill provides a rare opportunity to study the support of members of the House for promoting the development and use of information technologies. Almost all members state that they want to promote technology. Roll call votes sometimes force members to disclose the extent of their commitment.

While the House considers many technology related legislative proposals in each Congress, only a small portion of these make it to the House floor. Many of these are included in large legislative packages. Hence, one cannot always make inferences about why any member voted for or against the bill. Moreover, the votes on some bills are mere formalities, with lopsided votes of about 415-5. On such votes, the debate and compromise took place at earlier stages of the legislative process, and a member's vote tells little about his support for the tech related components of the bill.

However, HR 1606 is different. It is a very short and simple bill, with only one provision, that expressly pertains to use of the internet. It contains one significant tech related provision, and nothing else. Moreover, it came to the floor directly, under a clean and simple procedure. No amendments were permitted. And finally, it was considered under a roll call vote, rather than by voice vote or unanimous consent. Every members' vote was recorded.

For the new members of the House who arrived in January, there have not been many opportunities to demonstrate their support for (or lack of support for) information technology. The freshman Democrats who voted against their party, and for freedom to use technology, made a more definitive statement than the freshmen Republicans who voted in favor, who may have been following their party. The first term Democrats who broke ranks and voted for the bill included John Barrow (D-GA), Dan Boren (D-OK), Jim Costa (D-CA), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Charlie Melacon (D-LA), and John Salazar (D-CO).

Some of the votes of veteran members of the House were predictable, based on past voting on technology related issues. For example, it was not unexpected that Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Rick Boucher (D-VA), the technology twins from western Virginia, both voted yes.

Similarly, the Silicon Valley delegation voted yes -- Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Mike Honda (D-CA), and Anna Eshoo (D-CA). Also, other frequent supporters of technology related initiatives, such as Adam Smith (D-WA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Mark Udall (D-CO), supported the bill, despite their party affiliation.

Party Differences. The Republican vote broke down 179 in favor and 38 against. (13 did not vote.) Of those who voted, 82.5% voted yes.

The Democratic vote broke down 46 in favor and 143 against. (13 did not vote.) Of those who voted, 23% voted yes.

Of all who voted, 55% voted yes. (A two thirds vote was necessary for approval.)

Regional Variations in the Vote. Most of the opposition came from the northern states. Consider, for example, the six states of New England -- Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. There are a total of 22 Representatives, with 17 Democrats and 5 Republicans.

Only two New England Representatives voted yes, Michael Capuano (D-MA) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). The Republicans broke down 0-5. That is, none voted for the bill. This is much less than the 82.5% Republican support nationwide. The Democrats broke down 2-15. This is about 12% support for the bill, much less than the 23% Democratic support nationwide.

In contrast, consider the five states of the deep South, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. There are a total of 37 representatives, with 23 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

The deep South voted 29-6 in favor of the bill. (Two did not vote.) This is 83% support, which is far more than the 55% support of all Representatives nationwide. The Republican vote was a unanimous 22-0, with one not voting. The Democratic vote was 7-6, with one not voting. 54% of deep south Democrats voted for the bill, as compared to 23% of Democrats nationwide.

The opposition came from the Union states in the Civil War. The supporters came from the Confederacy and the west.

Urban Rural Variation. Members' votes also corresponded with whether or not they represent urban or rural districts. Representatives from the urbanized area of the Boston to Washington corridor vote overwhelmingly against the bill. Even James Moran (D-VA) from the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, who is usually a reliable pro-tech vote, voted against this bill.

As a counter example, the sparsely populated states of the west voted overwhelmingly for the bill. For example, in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota there are a total of 30 Representatives, with 20 Republicans and 10 Democrats. These states supported the bill 20-8, with two not voting. This is over 71% support.

Moreover, most of the no votes were cast by Republicans and Democrats who represent urban districts in the few cities of the west, such as Heather Wilson (R-NM) from Albuquerque, Dianne DeGette (D-CO) from Denver, Ed Pastor (D-AZ) from Phoenix, and Shelley Berkley (D-NV) from Las Vegas.

Indeed, if one compares a map of Congressional districts to a list of the yes votes on HR 1606, most of the big districts are represented by members who voted yes.

Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the bill. Big district Republicans did so also. Two notable anomalies are Greg Walden (R-OR), who represents about two thirds of the territory of Oregon, and Charles Bass (R-NH), who represents most of New Hampshire.

Many of the Democrats who broke ranks represent big or rural districts. Stephanie Herseth (D-SD) represents the entire state of South Dakota. John Salazar (D-CO) represents most of Colorado west of the rockies. Dan Boren (D-OK) represents a huge chunk of rural southeast of Oklahoma. There is also Jim Matheson (D-UT), Nick Rahal (D-WV), Rick Boucher (D-VA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA)

If this observation that rural representatives were more likely to vote for HR 1606 is valid, it then raises the question of why representatives from rural areas should be more supportive than representatives from urban areas. Similarly, one might ask why the Congressional Internet Caucus has long been co-chaired by four rural Representatives and Senators, rather than members from urban districts in Silicon Valley or other tech centers.

One explanation would be that it is the residents of rural and dispersed districts that have the most to gain from the development and adoption of new, ubiquitous and cheap information and communications technologies. They lack large hospitals, but could benefit from more telemedicine. They lack large universities, but could benefit from expanded distance learning. They lack the entertainment activities, libraries, and news media of urban areas, but could benefit from digitization and IP based distribution. Large corporations tend to locate in urban areas, but rural workers could find more job opportunities in their home towns if they could more easily telework.

Hence, under this theory, it is the rural legislators who have the greatest hopes for new technologies, and the greatest aversion to government regulations that stand in the way of individuals who would use these new technologies. The FECA/FEC presented one such obstacle. So, they voted for HR 1606.

Committee Based Voting. There is another evident pattern in the voting on HR 1606. The members of the two House subcommittees that are most actively involved in considering tech related bills voted with much different percentages of support for the bill. These two subcommittees are the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet (TI), and the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property (CIIP). The members of both subcommittees are well versed in tech related issues. However, the members of the two subcommittees voted differently on this one bill.

The TI voted 14-15, with two not voting. This is only 48% support, which is less that the 55% support in the House as a whole.

The CIIP voted 15-6, with one not voting. This is over 71% support, which is much higher than the 48% support from the TI. Five out of the ten Democratic members on the CIIP broke with their party and voted for the bill. They were Howard Berman (D-CA), John Conyers (D-MI), Rick Boucher (D-VA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Maxine Waters (D-CA).

One explanation for this difference could be the small sample sizes involved. They may be too small to draw conclusions.

Another possible explanation for the wide difference between the two subcommittees is that the members of the CIIP genuinely care more about the future development and use of information technologies than do the members of the TI subcommittee. Of course, this is mere speculation.

Yet another explanation, that is both speculative and cynical, is that the difference derives, not from different levels of support for information technology generally, but from different levels of support for the particular use of the internet addressed by HR 1606.

That is, blogs and other free or inexpensive internet technologies, offer individuals and others with limited financial resources an opportunity to participate significantly in political debates and federal election campaigns. The FECA and the FEC's regulations threaten to limit these individuals' ability to participate online in the political process. The beneficiaries of this FECA/FEC regulation are those who have the financial resources to make large contributions to candidates, parties and other entities; to purchase political advertising; and to retain lobbyists. Unregulated political speech on the internet competes in the marketplace of ideas and politics with the efforts of the financed interests. This competition may diminish the influence of the moneyed interests.

The House Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the energy industry, the telecommunications industry, and other well financed and politically active industry sectors. The TI subcommittee has as its main constituent group the telecom industry. The HCC, and its IT Subcommittee, are known as a "money committee", because its constituent groups have a lot of money, and spend a lot on trying to influence the legislative output of the Committee. In contrast, the House Judiciary Committee is not a money committee. It deals with many social issues, which are divisive and emotional, but for which there are few moneyed interests involved. The CIIP has among its constituent groups the movie and record industries. But, it also deals with educational interests. Moreover, it also oversees the administration of the courts. Judges are not a source of political spending.

The cynical argument would be that since the House Commerce Committee, and its TI Subcommittee, represent well funded constituent groups, and these groups also contribute much to the members, the members of the TI subcommittee have less reason for promoting the bloggers who compete in the political process with the monied interests than do CIIP subcommittee members.