One would hope that politicians always act in ways which they think will directly benefit the country. But, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do things that actually go against their better judgment. Sometimes they do this in a specific situation, and sometimes they just adopt long-term positions which they might not completely agree with.
In 2012, famed statistician Nate Silver wrote:
Why is compromise so hard in the House? Some commentators, especially liberals, attribute it to what they say is the irrationality of Republican members of Congress. But the answer could be this instead: Individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives
Politicians, like anyway, respond to incentives. They do things to get things. And the biggest thing they want? Re-election.
If a politician could get into office and stay there with no threat of ever getting kicked out, then they would be free to act in ways completely true to their beliefs (one would hope). Sadly, the actions of a politician are always somewhat covered up by artifice, because they have to be re-elected and this will influence their behavior.
There are three things you usually must have to get re-elected:
- The support of your party
- A lot of money
- The support of your constituents
Obtaining and retaining these three things will influence the actions a politician takes while in office.
First, you need the support of your political party. If you’re a Conservative, then this is likely The Republican Party, and if you’re a liberal, then it’s The Democratic Party.
The parties hold considerable power during a political campaign – they have a lot of money they can choose to spend or not spend on your race, and they often hold the key to getting endorsed by more powerful members of your party. If you’re a Democrat running for office and you get an endorsement and a couple of campaign commercials with the sitting Democratic president, well that’s huge for you. With any luck, he’ll even stop by your state and make an appearance with you.
This means that you have to have your party behind you before you run for re-election. To do this, you have support “the party line” over the years – you have to mostly vote the way party wants you to vote. Your party helped get you elected, and you are expected to support the party’s policies, projects, and philosophies in return. In most cases, you were going to vote the party line anyway (or else, why would you be a member of that party?), but in some specific case, you might have wanted to vote differently but were coerced into following the party line.
If a party – Republicans or Democrats – want to pass something, for example, they each have a position called The Whip. The Whip is a special congressman whose has the unenviable job of “whipping” his colleagues into shape when the party needs to come together on a vote. Whips enforce the party line. This is the person who visits the offices, arranges for vote trading (you vote for my bill and I’ll vote for yours), and I’m sure even threatens people with the withdrawal of political support.
(Future president Lyndon Johnson was famous for this when he was in Congress – look at this picture, for example. Johnson was a physically imposing man, and sometimes his “persuasion” bordered on physical threats. And remember Frank Underwood from House of Cards? He was the Democratic Whip in the House, and you can see how he treated people that didn’t support him. The Whip’s job is to enforce party discipline by whatever means necessary.)
If you don’t vote with your party most of the time, you can expect to pay for it come election season. Your party might withhold funds, they might support your challenger in the primary election, or they might offer only lukewarm endorsements from prominent party figures.
This sounds vindictive, but it’s just common sense. They obviously want to spend money and influence on someone who will be an asset to the party, and if this isn’t you, then they’ll find someone else.
Whatever the consequence, it won’t be pretty, and you likely won’t survive.
Second, you often need a lot of money to run for re-election, especially if your challenger is popular (or if you’re unpopular). Political campaigns are insanely expensive, and it’s a sad fact that you can largely buy elections in this country. I don’t mean that you can get anyone elected, but if most everything else is equal, the candidate spending the most money will usually win. You know that political advertising that drives us nuts every other fall? Well, sadly, it works.
A lot of this money comes from your party (see above), and certainly some of it comes from everyday people who believe in you and donate to your campaign. If you’re rich, you can even pay for some of it yourself – in 2008, Mitt Romney spent $35 million of his own money trying to get elected president.
Unfortunately, there’s another option – so-called “special interests." These are often individual companies, but also groups of organizations that band together into what are called “political action committees.” These groups are seeking out some kind of political goal, and they donate money to political campaigns to achieve it.
This takes two forms:
- A general donation in the hopes of getting a politician elected that will further the goals of the organization.
- A specific donation in return for an implicit favor, in the form of a vote on something the organization wants.
The former is relatively innocent – we’re all allowed to support politicians that we agree with. The latter, however, gets pretty sleazy pretty fast. You can’t actually trade money for a vote, but it’s fairly clear that if a certain company donates a ton of money to particular candidate, that candidate is going to vote their way if they get elected. Additionally, when facing down an important vote, a lot of politicians will likely take stock of who donated to their last campaign, and how this vote will affect them.
Here’s a quote from a news article about Comcast (the cable company):
Comcast even in normal years is a major political donor. The company spent more than $3.5 million during 2011 and 2012 on a slew of Democratic and Republican candidates, and it has shelled out just under $2 million already in the 2014 cycle, according to federal records.
Why do you think Comcast is spending that money? Because they want something in return.
You have to consider cause and effect here – which came first, the political position, or the money? For example, consider these three things:
- Comcast does not want the Internet classified as a public utility, because it would affect the way they set prices
- Comcast has donated a lot of money to the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz
- Ted Cruz has opposed classifying the Internet as a public utility
So, which came first? Did Ted Cruz always oppose this (point #3), and Comcast thought, “This is guy we want to keep in office, so let’s help him stay there” (then #2)? Or did Ted Cruz not have an opinion, and Comcast donates a bunch of money (#2), and suddenly Ted Cruz forms an opinion which miraculously coincides with what Comcast wants (then #3)?
For the record, I don’t know, and Comcast has donated to a lot people, not just Ted Cruz. Cruz is a conservative in favor of smaller government, so he very well might oppose the public utility option purely on principle, and Comcast donation had nothing to do with it.
Furthermore, understand that this happens all the time. Every politician takes money from special interests (here’s a website that documents special interest donations; here’s the donations to our own Tim Johnson, for example), so it’s tough to single anyone out.
This sounds a lot like bribery, but the politicians’ defense is that their positions came first, and the money came second. However, I’m quite sure the reverse is often true – some politicians will form (or reverse) a position in exchange for donations, and I’m also sure that some blatant vote-selling happens (“Donate $X to my campaign, and I will change my vote for you.”).
Finally,to get elected, you have to have the support of your constituents. This is clearly a no-brainer – you have to get people to vote for you. And remember that even if you’re serving the entire nation as a U.S. Congressman, the only people that vote for you are the people in your district back home, so you will do things to make them happy.
What’s one of the best ways to make them happy? Bring them money in the form of federal projects. The federal government has money to spend on stuff, and your goal is to get the government to spend as much money has it can in your home district, so you can show your constituents all the money your brought home and consequently get them to vote you back into office.
This is called “pork,” or “pork barrel politics." Pork is stuff you managed to get the federal government to spend in your district. Some of it might be necessary and justified. Some of it, however, is clearly unnecessary and is done simply because a Congressman worked hard to make it happen.
(This brings up the question of who a Congressman is supposed to serve – their country, or their district? Should they always act in the best interests of the country as a whole, or should they freely screw the country and other states if it will benefit their own district? People have different opinions here.)
This spending can be in the form of all sorts of stuff – you can get the government to bring disaster relief funds after a hurricane, you can get the Army to open a new base in your hometown, you can get the Department of Transportation to spent $100 million on a new interstate, etc.
The late Senator Robert Byrd was famous for this. He was from West Virginia and was a master at steering federal money back to his state. They called him the “King of Pork” and he got so many federal projects back to his state that there’s a Wikipedia page listing all the things named after him because of this. He was quite proud, saying:
I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home.
This was a good strategy. Byrd served in Congress for well over 50 years, he was re-elected over a dozen times (by overwhelming majorities), and technically never left office – he died while actively serving in Congress.
Pork politics might get you to do things that go against your philosophy and label, which always seems to get overlooked. For instance, conservatives who campaign against “big government” will usually ease off this language when there’s a chance for millions of dollars in federal spending in their home district. The general adage is, “We need to cut government spending!…except if the government is spending it in my district, then it’s cool.” And it goes both ways – a liberal who wants to cut the military budget might shockingly support a proposed Army base in their district...
And consider George W. Bush, who campaigned as a conservative in favor of small government, yet pushed for Medicare Part D, which was a historic and expensive expansion of a social program. He did this during his first term, leading to cynical speculation that he was just trying to lock in the senior citizen vote for his upcoming re-election campaign.
Military base closures in particular are a great example of pork politics in action. Many politicians admit that the U.S. military needs to close several bases around the country because they not necessary. But a military base is usually a huge impact to the regional economy – the average base has thousands of people working there, and contributes millions and millions of dollars to a local economy. Ellsworth Air Force Base out in Rapid City is a great example – if it ever closed, it would devastate that part of the state.
So, politicians want to close military bases in general, but not in their home districts. Indeed, when Ellsworth was threatened with closure some years ago, all three of South Dakota’s Congresspeople (a Republican and two Democrats, at the time) united in a massive (and successful) effort to save it. I don’t know if that was justified or not, but no matter how badly a politician wants to cut military spending, you can bet they don’t want to cut it in their own backyard.
Now, this all seems very cynical, I know. I don’t mean it to – I’m sure many politicians are very principled people who genuinely want to do good things. But the fact that remains that to do anything in office, you have to stay there first. If you’re not in office, then all your raving about your political philosophy isn’t going to do anyone any good.
Senators have it easy – they get six years, so they can forget about getting re-elected for a while and concentrate on governing. The president and most state governors (48 of them) are a little worse off, as they only get four years.
It’s the Representatives (and two state governors) that have a hard time, because they only get two years in office, which means they’re essentially always campaigning for re-election. The minute they get put back in office, they have to start thinking about the next election and how they can get re-elected again.
As sad as all this is, it’s the reality of it. The need to get re-elected will influence what a politician does in office, because they need the support of the party, money from special interests, and votes from their constituents in order to keep doing what they’re doing.