At one time a core of moderate-minded House members helped to reach across the aisle to forge consensus in the body. Even during the polarized Bush years, a handful of moderate Republicans remained skeptical about large portions of the Bush/GOP agenda. While Bush’s agenda generally passed the House, in most cases several Republicans would vote no. For example in 1999 several House Republicans voted no on the A+ plan for school reform including vouchers and the inception of the FCAT. That same session seven House Republicans voted against the passage of a sweeping tort reform bill favored by right-wing pressure groups throughout the country.
Even in the mid 2000s a few moderate Republicans could be counted on to split from the orthodoxy of the party. But in the era of Rick Scott House Republicans have become extreme partisans. Herded like sheep by the leadership, they vote in uniformity on even the most polarizing issues. What is striking is the number of Republicans from moderate districts in places like Pinellas County and Central Florida that vote lock step with the leadership.
Several of these districts have been held by Democrats in the recent past. Examples include the St Petersburg based 51st and 52nd districts held by Larry Ahern and Jeff Brandes respectively. Both lawmakers scored a 0 on this scorecard despite representing districts that have flipped back and forth between the parties several times in the era of Republican legislative control. The general conservatism of Central Florida lawmakers has continued despite massive demographic shifts in the area.
Traditionally, there have been more moderate Republicans rom southwest Florida and the Treasure Coast as well but in the 2011 and 2012 sessions, House members from these areas were strongly conservative.
Most Democrats, on the other hand, have continued the process of voting a moderate line. While the period between 1982 and 2006 was characterized by a House Democratic caucus dominated by liberals who at times fought a conservative wing of the party, today neither wing really exists. The House is down to one lone conservative Democrat (Bembry) and just a handful of straight down the line liberals as the caucus, led by moderate Ron Saunders, has shifted to a clear policy of accommodation with the majority. While it is fair to say this pragmatic approach may allow individual Democratic legislators to pass more bills and bring more in the way of member projects back to the district, it has done little to improve dialogue and debate in the lower chamber.
The reality of the past several legislative sessions is that moderate Republican Senators like Paula Dockery, Mike Fasano and Dennis Jones have had a greater impact in shaping the debate against the excesses of the majority party than any of the House Democratic leaders. Dan Gelber, who left the House in 2008, was the last truly dynamic leader the Democrats had in the body. With term limits costing the Senate it’s moderate check on the excesses of the House, 2013 and beyond will require active and strong Democratic leadership.