Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reciprocity’s Influence on American Politics

“America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them,
has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.”
This post-Congress of 1776 quote by John Quincy Adams is an exceptionally accurate foreshadow of the underlining concept of reciprocity that lingers in our Congressional proceedings to this day. With a history rich in external bouts and negotiations with other nations in the early years of our United States, it is not surprising that this reciprocal affect would trickle down into our internal workings as well. It can be agreed upon that it is the duty of our elected officials to accurately and actively represent the views and opinions of the people, however a simple majority is not so simple to achieve without the backing and support of other elected officials. Reciprocity in Congress, namely the Senate, is one of the most static norms that political figures can encounter. The idea of reciprocity and Congress cannot be separated, and I would like to focus on not only this concept as it relates to Members of Congress amongst each other, but also what other factors come along with this concept, what processes set out to threaten it, and the problems faced when reciprocity disrupts our system of checks and balances.

The concept of reciprocity is many times referred to as logrolling. This is the exchange of favors, most often in the form of votes, in hopes of the passage of particular legislative actions of interest. Logrolling deals with the exchange of political favors, as well as a mutual exchange of privileges, and the supporting of various projects and undertakings of colleagues. Professor Donald E. Matthews, who labeled what he found were the folkways of the Senate even labeled reciprocity as a high priority item. He even stated that, “it is not an exaggeration to say that reciprocity is a way of life in the Senate.” Reciprocity can be a mutually beneficial situation. Many times, this practice takes place in order to gain positions on some very powerful committees. Having one’s state, and party affiliation represented on committees is key to the outcome of the legislative processes. Many times, this attractive incentive is what can sway a Senator who is indifferent about a particular Bill to vote in such a way to assist a colleague who guarantees this privilege. Most of the time, however, those who partake in this “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” norm in Congress have similar interests. An example would be if a Senator representing a state where dairy farming is the leading means of income was pushing to increase the price of dairy prices set. At the same time, another Senator, who happens to represent a state where grain production is the leading mean of income, would like to raise the price of grain. These two Senators may then decide to support each other’s agenda, in hopes of getting both Bills passed.

One large proponent of reciprocity/logrolling is the allotment of earmarks. These are provisions that direct previously approved funds to specific projects, or in some occasions direct what exemptions from tax or mandate fees should be made. Many times, these earmarks open the door to what has been deemed ‘pork barrel politics’. This form of politics is said to take place when representatives lobby for government spending that will bring more money to his or her own district, or merely benefit localized projects. While pork barrel spending does assist one’s district; which is ultimately what they were elected to do; it is counterproductive on a national scale. Also, too many times, this type of spending is merely used as a means to perpetuate re-election for incumbents. Another problem with many earmarks is that they are deemed by many as ambiguously worded irresponsible ways of spending OUR money. Some examples of strange, yet very pricey earmarks include a two million dollar road sign replacement in Minnesota, fifty five million dollars to increase the amount of sand on the private beaches of Miami hotels, and over three million dollars to create a crab restaurant in Baltimore. The list goes on and on, and many times where there’s logrolling- there are earmarks!

One Senator who was well known for his controversial use of logrolling as well as earmarks was the Late Representative John Murtha. He was very publicly berated for aiding lobbyists headed by previous committee staffers by directing monies from earmarks their way. In the onset of the 80’s, there was even an Abscam investigation in which FBI agents posed as lobbyists and attempted to bribe Murtha as well as other members of Congress. Though he was never indicted, he had no reservations when it came to his role in logrolling, and was even quoted as saying, “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district.” Representative Murtha was also scolded in 2007 for logrolling other congressman to strike down earmarks for Representative Mark Rogers, all because he unsuccessfully attempted to strike down funding in Rep. Murtha’s district. Representative Murtha continued to rally other Congressmen to support his initiatives; which overwhelmingly concerned military fund allocation, and/or earmarks. (See video provided by C-Span Video Library)



One reason that reciprocity is used so often in the House is that a Bill requires sixty-percent of the vote to pass, which differs from the fifty-percent requirement in the House. The biggest threat to the Congressional traditions of reciprocity and logrolling are filibusters. This occurs when a legislator who is opposed to a bill speaks tirelessly against a bill in order to obstruct or delay its inception. Filibusters, coupled with the sixty-percent margin by which bills must be passed in the Senate, make legislation passage extremely difficult. Filibuster use is also a key difference in Congressional proceedings, as they are not allowed in the House. Recently, the actions of Minority Leader Representative John Boehner were both frowned upon and praised as he transformed his two and a half minute wrap up of the HR 2454 Climate Change and Energy Bill into a tirade of over an hour, as seen in this clip taken from the C-Span Video Library.




Although the bill still passed, this attempt to halt the passage of the bill is a rare, yet entertaining, House filibuster.

Filibusters are the secret weapons of the minority. While they serve their purpose of combating much of the bills and amendments that would otherwise pass as a result of logrolling, they also give the minority power. So is this a good thing or bad thing? Well, it really depends on which side you’re on. After all, it is the aim of the Constitution, which is the framework of American government, to protect the rights of minorities. Unfortunately in Congress, there are many times when the minority of congressmen represents the majority of constituents. Senator Mark Warner has publicly discussed his disdain for filibusters, and points out how it can - at times- delay or defeat processes and bills in Congress which are both wanted and needed. (See video provided by C-Span Video Library)



In conclusion, I feel that although logrolling is a timeless norm of Congress, some norms must be changed, or tweaked in order to keep pace with our ever-changing world. One important fact about logrolling is that it is not necessarily always bad. Even the alternative, which would be filibusters, can be both good and bad. These are merely two more examples of the muggy gray area in which our political system lies. I also feel that the discussion of these congressional concepts further illustrates that politics gets in the way of politics an overwhelming amount of the time. With the many norms, concepts, processes, and everything else that must take place before change can be enacted, actual work will never get done. In my opinion, politics gets way too wrapped up in political position and rhetoric to actually do what they were elected to do; which is to represent the people and put policies into place when necessary. I also am not naïve, and am able to acknowledge that although hours can be spent pointing out the flaws of reciprocity in our Congress, its use is inevitable. One elected official, even with the best intentions, will surely falter without the support of his or her colleagues. In its most simplistic form, the voting of our representatives could be looked at as reciprocity. Our elected officials state numerous promises as part of their campaign; however these promises can only be realized in exchange for a vote. Even though the intent as well as the usefulness of reciprocity can be debated perpetually, its seemingly permanent place within our Congress cannot.

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