Planning to Stay in Power: Part 2
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 3.4
Elections foster corruption as well as distorted agenda-setting and poor policy decisions. Elected officials seek to amass power – as both a means to accomplish particular goals, but also as an end in itself. The election process is what legitimates the power of elected officials, and it is repeated re-election that increases that power, through the mechanism of the seniority system, which heaps more power on members the longer they serve. But this very process that confers legitimacy to an elite group who exercise power in society, is also a process that taints public policy making.
Congressional offices place a high priority on constituent service as one tool in the system for maintaining power. Since incumbents can garner fealty from constituents through helping them weave their way through a complex bureaucracy, there is relatively little incentive to fix the bureaucracy, or provide non-partisan ombudsmen to assist citizens. It is a better re-election strategy to have one’s staff perform personal favors for many individual voters, rather than fix the system. Non-incumbent challengers can’t duplicate this service.
One Congressional use of power to protect and build more power is the ability to deliver “pork-barrel” benefits to constituents and thus win favor and assure re-election. Many observers have concluded that one of the driving forces behind the Federal deficit (even in years when there is no Keynesian stimulus rationale) is the desire of members of Congress to “bring home the bacon” to their districts. This indirectly buys campaign contributions from interests seeking this bacon, and votes from in-district employees of enterprises that benefit. It has been widely reported that major defense contractors spread their sub-contracts around so that as many members of Congress as possible will have some business within their district that is dependent on defense spending. Many observers suggest this explains why members of Congress regularly push for funding military procurement contracts for systems the Pentagon doesn’t even want.
As one example, in 2011 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee seeking a shift of funds within the Pentagon budget, which he said was essential to protect the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan. According to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, Chairman Bill Young (R - Florida) declined to take action,
“because Young objects to the money being taken away from the Army’s Humvee program. Never mind that the Army has more Humvees than it wants. They were manufactured by AM General – which happens to be Young’s third-largest campaign contributor. Its executives had funneled him more than $80,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”
Bringing home the bacon also brings honors, with the constituents who are beneficiaries having no concern as to how corrupt the procurement process may have been. Indeed, such corruption is regularly celebrated. The retiring Senator Patrick Leahy (D – Vermont) of my home state had a variety of institutions re-named after him. For example, his earmarking $145 million for a small city airport prompted the city to rename the airport the “Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport.” The University of Vermont (UVM) renamed the Honors College after him – “The Patrick Leahy Honors College.” Utilizing his leadership position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy helped direct millions of dollars in federal earmarks to Vermont and UVM in particular. In an interview, UVM President Suresh Garimella praised the “largesse” Leahy directed toward the university, saying Leahy is
“perhaps the single greatest benefactor to the University of Vermont.” Trying to calculate the vast amount of money the Senator had steered to the university, he concluded “At this point, the answer is literally incalculable.”
The fact that this all reflects corruption is revealed by the simple fact that if these money flows were readily justifiable based on merit, through an impartial cost/benefit analysis compared to alternative expenditures, then Leahy’s involvement would not be noteworthy, and no constituent gratitude would be appropriate.
Pork is not delivered just through ear-marked appropriations, but also through other legislative fine points, such as favorably structured tax loop-holes. Within the legislative world, these are known as “tax expenditures,” and often fly below the radar of the media and the public. The tax-writing committees have vast power. In the 2008 update of his book, Citizen Power: A Mandate for Change, former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel states:
“I hold the view that Congress will never correct our inequitable tax structure because at its core, the existing tax system is about getting and keeping power…”
There is a well-accepted economic theory that seeks to explain how Congress steadily ratchets up government commitments to various special interests. A favor sought by a special interest, whether a new program, contract, tax loophole, or change of regulations can have a huge impact on the special interest. It makes sense for the special interest to make the necessary lobbying efforts, and campaign contributions to get its way. But because the cost of each individual favor is diffused over a huge population – and the politicians face no costs at all, since they are spending public monies – there is no interest group with sufficient harm, or resources to counter the new federal commitment. Thus, the ratchet effect produces policies that the majority does not favor, but which individually simply aren’t worth actively fighting. As an example, in their book Democracy, Accountability and Representation, Adam Przeworski and his co-authors described why Congress would adopt a subsidy for the sugar industry.
“By subsidizing the sugar industry, the government inflicts on each individual an annual cost of $5.75 and benefits the sugar industry to the tune of $1.5 billion. Voters will not want to spend their resources to learn about sugar policy and its effects: this information costs more than $5.75. Then the government will subsidize, get a campaign contribution from the industry, and maximize its probability of reelection.”
The concentration of power and its continuation through re-election is an open door for corruption of all sorts. The predictable stability of power being held in certain hands is a fundamental enabler of corruption. Bribery (whether in the form of legal campaign contributions or illegal gifts) is much more practical when the corrupt relationship will continue. In some cases an initial bribe is an investment for future favors as well. In other situations, an ongoing position of some authority allows a “gatekeeper” to extract bribes from all comers. The constant rotation of power inherent in a sortition model makes bribery and corruption a much poorer investment, and more difficult to maintain or hide from view.
Along with power comes a set of rationalizations and techniques for maintaining that power. While serving in the statehouse, I repeatedly heard legislators justify actions they would normally have abhorred, as necessary to assure re-election. The rationalizations continued with the notion that “bad” actions were actually “good” because they preserved the ability of the legislator to remain in office to do good another day. While there are ethics rules in Congress, which are certainly violated from time to time, much of the existing corruption does not violate any rule or statute. As long as there isn’t formal quid pro quo selling of a vote, the corrupt, but legal, possibilities are endless. A lot of Congressional corruption is tied to the legalized bribery that we know as the campaign finance system. The importance, but insufficiency of campaign finance reform will be discussed in a subsequent chapter.
In the field of medicine, iatrogenesis refers to the dynamic in which some medical treatment harms rather than helps, inadvertently causing illness or death rather than preventing it. Our electoral system is iatrogenic, in that elections are thought to fight corruption by allowing voters to throw out the bad apples, but instead elections actively promote corruption in multiple ways, resulting in most of the barrel going bad. Rather than enabling healthy democracy, elections are preventing genuine democracy, and harming society as a whole.