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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Greasing the Wheels

I can only repeat that it is amazing how much they make you read in class here. Especially my PhD class, which apparently has even more readings than most classes on that level, is extreme in this regard. But I love it, it forces one to do a lot, to learn a lot and while legislative politics is a topic I never would have thought to ever read so much about, I find it challenging and rewarding.

The newest entry in my list of books then is Diana Evans' Greasing the Wheels - Using Pork Barrel Projects To Build Majority Coalitions in Congress. People in class yesterday ripped it apart for its empirical data (or lack thereof). Quite honestly, I do not know enough about quantitative political science to properly judge the analytical methods that Americans rely on so much - I find German political scientists to be a lot more theoretical and accordingly less empirical - but having said that I have to agree that the data Evans provides is not really convincing. Not only are her results only partially supportive of her theory though, some of the statistics seem pointless in light of her argument, and furthermore her main example is questionable - as it could be argued that the Transportation Acts themselves are pork barrel projects and not general interest legislation.

What Evans is arguing, is that pork barrel projects are used to buy together winning conditions for general interest policy. Thus if a leader (whether it be a committee or subcommittee chairman or the speaker or the president) has a pet project which he wants to pass, he buys off those representatives who 'sit on the fence' - meaning they are undecided whether to oppose or support a given piece of legislation. This works a lot better in the House than in Senate, mainly because Senators represent far bigger areas and thus are a lot more expensive to buy, as for any given project to have an impact in their states it needs to be a lot bigger and more expensive.

Her argument works best when she is analyzing NAFTA and the way Clinton greased its passage in the House. Buying two military planes for 1.4 billion in this district, protecting sugar and citrus in Florida in order to ensure some more ayes, according to various estimates between 30 and 77 votes on this bill were bought.

Evans claims that pork barrel projects undeservedly have such a bad image. They help pass general interest legislation at a relatively low price - while high in absolute numbers, as a percentage of the federal budget pork barrel projects represent no more than 1% of all government spending. In my opinion she is partly right about this too, the problem is that greasing the wheels easily gets out of hand. When representatives realize that votes are bought, they will wait to receive something for their vote even if they support the project and would have voted for it in any case. Thus, in a first vote, vote-buying can be accomplished relatively efficient in order to ensure a needed majority. Every vote after that though will make projects spiral out of control. Evans does a good job of showing this on the 1991 Tranportation Act as opposed to the earlier 1987 one.

One last restriction, it seems questionable how widely applicable this model is. The NAFTA example shows that votes can be bought and that it is successfully practiced at times, yet restraints on representatives including their beliefs and earlier policy-demands make it doubtful how regularly vote-buying actually occurs and whether votes really come as a cheap as a new highway bridge somewhere in Wyoming.


Thomas Oatley said...

Nice post--and thanks for including me in the list of blogs you read.

I just posted an answer to your question in the comments section.

Thomas Oatley said...

Thanks for including me in your blog list. I just posted an answer to your question in the comments section.