Tag Archives: pork

Democratic Heresies

My husband and I have had a long-running argument about primary elections. (Hey–you argue with your spouse about whatever is important in your house, and we nerds will argue about what preoccupies us…)

My husband insists that primaries have contributed mightily to political polarization. It’s unarguable that the people who turn out for primary elections are more partisan and ideological than other voters, and he’s nostalgic for the smoke-filled rooms where party elders chose candidates more likely to appeal to the moderate middle.

My rejoinder has been that more democracy is good, and smoke-filled rooms had their dark side. We just need more competitive primaries, and more people voting in them.

Now, a respected scholar at the Brookings Institution has weighed in…on my husband’s side.

Noting the recent resignation of the Speaker, she writes

John Boehner became Speaker at a point in time when four different reform ideas—all enacted with the best of intentions—interacted in ways that made his job impossible. These are structural and will impede the job of the next Speaker as well.

Primaries. The United States is one of the very few democracies in the world that uses primaries to nominate the members of the legislative branch. That means, for all practical purposes, anyone can become the nominee of a political party simply by declaring, running and winning. It also means that defying the party leader, in this case the Speaker, has very few consequences. While Boehner has been able to strip some of his problem members of committee assignments that has not proven to be a very powerful tool. Unlike leaders in parliamentary parties, Boehner cannot decide to keep someone off the list for bad behavior. And primaries are notoriously low turnout events in which a small group of ideologically motivated voters can control outcomes. Thus it is no wonder that Members of Congress have come to fear being “primaried” more than they fear displeasing the leadership.

She identifies three other “reforms” and their unintended consequences: parties (actually, their loss of power; they have less clout than billionaires with SuperPaks), privacy (which has diminished, taking with it the ability to negotiate in relative confidence), and pork (eliminating the goodies that everyone criticized also eliminated the ability to wheel and deal and actually get stuff done.)

I hate it when my husband turns out to be right….

Why It’s Harder Than It Looks

I was listening to NPR as I was driving to work this morning, and heard a (pretty typical) news item that seems to me a perfect example of the perils of public policy–or why, as I continually tell my students, “it’s more complicated than it seems.”

The U.S. Defense Department has cut funding for an engine  being developed by Rolls Royce and G.E. Robert Gates, Defense Secretary, has called the project a waste of taxpayer money. But some 400+ Indiana jobs are directly tied to the continued development of that engine, and–predictably–scrapping it has generated opposition from both Andre Carson and Mike Pence.

I have no information that would allow me to comment on the merits of this project, but it is a textbook example of the problem we face cutting public budgets. Even apparent “no brainers”–attempts to cut programs that are self-evidently unnecessary or wasteful–run headlong into the reality that the cuts will cost some people jobs or money. Those people vote. They make campaign contributions. Thus the protests from Carson and Pence.

Pence’s objections are particularly illuminating: he has been a reliable opponent of government spending, even spending that most of us would consider appropriate. He talks incessantly about the need to make the “hard” decisions. But when those decisions affect his constituents or donors, his tune changes considerably.

Pence is not alone. We have legislatures filled with folks who want to make the “hard decisions”–so long as those hard decisions don’t require them to make any sacrifices or take any electoral risks.