The Blurred Lines Between Conservatism and Liberalism

As you might know, not all issues of controversy can easily or accurately be placed on the conservative/liberal divide. This can be a matter of opinion of course, but there are instances I am aware of in which a liberal and a conservative interest group agreed on a certain issue. I have found a total of seven times in which Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and its conservative counterpart agreed on a vote, which I shall outline here.

In 1971, Congress voted to bail out Lockheed Martin, an important defense contractor, but what was going on at the same time was the Vietnam War. One could thus view bailing out Lockheed Martin as a move for sustaining the war effort or voting against as limiting the Vietnam War. ADA included this vote in their 1971 ratings and regarded a vote against as the “liberal” position. However, Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA), which was supposed to act as their counterpart, regarded a vote against as the “conservative” position. What you have here are multiple considerations: whether the government should bail out a business and the context of the Vietnam War. The next instance of such a crossover occurred during the Carter Administration. Namely, with the Energy Mobilization Board.

Although Jimmy Carter is in retrospect thought of as positive by environmentalists especially  compared to his successor, his record on the environment was a subject of contention in his time. He pushed multiple policies that environmentalists regarded poorly, and one of these was the Energy Mobilization Board. This body would have the power to override state and local environmental laws in the name of fast-tracking projects to increase energy output. In 1979, the American Conservative Union (ACU) included a vote against the board as the “conservative” position. In 1980, both ADA and ACA counted the proposal of ultraconservative Rep. Samuel Devine (R-Ohio) to kill the bill favorably. This proposal received the vote of all but nine Republicans yet got many votes of top liberals, making this a strange inclusion for both organization’s rating systems. From the liberal perspective it makes sense as the 1980 election wasn’t looking good for Carter and they were not keen on having Ronald Reagan potentially decide what state and local environmental laws can be overridden. Conservatives had come around to the idea that this proposal violated proper federalism, exerting too much federal power over states, even if such a power were used against strong environmental laws.

In 1981, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was once again up for a vote. This proposal had the support of President Ronald Reagan, but there were again multiple issues surrounding this one. The idea had originally been proposed during the Roosevelt Administration, but the political dynamics surrounding it at that time were conservatives opposed to the New Deal vs. pro-New Deal liberals. However, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s had its impact on the Democratic Party, and many liberals found cause to oppose this project on those grounds. Conservatives, especially from the South, found they could make exceptions on this issue. However, some conservatives maintained a traditional anti-New Deal opposition, such as Orange County’s William Dannemeyer. Ultimately, the proposal did pass despite the disapproval of both the ADA and ACA. ACA had also included this vote in their 1980 ratings. The ACU rendered no opinion on the matter.

During both Bush Administrations, ACU and ADA shared opinions on three issues. The first budget resolution during the budget impasse of the first Bush Administration was voted on in the House on October 5th, 1990, being opposed by both organizations as insufficient and indeed their opinions held sway, with the measure losing 179-254. The conservatives ultimately lost with the final product that was signed into law by George Bush, which included the infamous repudiation of his “read my lips: no new taxes” line.  

For the second Bush Administration, both the ADA and ACU opposed the Bush Administration’s Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. ADA opposed the “health savings account” provision and the ACU held that despite the health savings account provision, that because of cost it “on balance it could not be justified on conservative principles” (ACU). They went as far as to double-count the vote! Ultimately, only twenty-five Republicans went against and only sixteen Democrats went for. In 2006, the ADA and ACU again agreed, this time on a campaign finance bill. This was the “Shays-Meehan” proposal, which would have closed the “soft money” loophole in the 2002 McCain-Feingold bill, applying the same rules to so-called “527 groups”, tax-exempt organizations that don’t explicitly advocate for the election of parties or candidates, as political parties and political action committees. Both organizations considered a vote against to be the correct action.

Americans for Democratic Action interestingly made the consideration on ideological crossover when they didn’t include the Wall Street bailout in their 2008 ratings, but the American Conservative Union did include the Wall Street bailout, regarding a vote against as the conservative position, and I happen to agree with that assessment. The practice of including the same position didn’t die with the second Bush Administration: in 2014 they struck again in both agreeing that the 2014 Farm Bill should be opposed. ACU opposed because while it ended direct subsidies to farmers, it increased crop insurance subsidies and ADA opposed because it cut $8 billion from SNAP (Food Stamp Nutrition Program).

As a guy who is trying to make a ratings system as true to ideological reality as possible, this potential crossover is something I must bear in mind, and the best way I can do this is with my “Committee of Twenty” method (should probably be called “Committee of Forty” now), in which the sixteen most extreme legislators on each polar end in the House and the four most extreme legislators on each polar end in the Senate have their votes examined. Who is most extreme under this standard is determined by DW-Nominate scores. If a majority on one side agrees on a position and the majority on the other side agrees on the opposite on a vote, it is eligible for inclusion. If both extremes agree on an issue, it is excluded. Likewise, if a seemingly conservative or liberal vote lacks the majority of either extreme to vote in that way, it is also excluded. The twenty part kicks in if both the House and the Senate vote on the same issue. Thus, it is entirely possible that an issue that lost the extremist vote in the House could win all the votes of the Senate extremists and thus carry a bare majority for inclusion. I found this the case with the vote on disapproving President Reagan’s sale of AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) to Saudi Arabia in 1981, in which the sixteen most conservative representatives split but the four most conservative senators sided with the Reagan Administration, thus making the issue barely eligible for inclusion.


1971 ADA Voting Record. Americans for Democratic Action.

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2014 Congressional Voting Record. Americans for Democratic Action.

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ADA’s 1980 Voting Record. Americans for Democratic Action.

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ADA’s 1981 Voting Record. Americans for Democratic Action.

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ADA Congressional Voting Record 2003. Americans for Democratic Action.

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ADA Congressional Voting Records 2006. Americans for Democratic Action.

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ADA Today – 1990 ADA Voting Record. Americans for Democratic Action.

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H. Con Res. 310 – Budget Resolution. The American Conservative Union.

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HR 1 – Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. The American Conservative Union.

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HR 513 – Campaign Finance Restrictions. The American Conservative Union.

HR 2642 – Farm Bill. The American Conservative Union.

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