Commentary

What’s Wrong With Buying Votes?

Washington is once again buzzing with charges of bribery. Rep. Nick Smith, (R-Mich.), asserted recently that unnamed individuals offered $100,000 for his son’s congressional campaign if the elderly Smith would vote for the Medicare bill backed by President Bush. Smith is retiring, and his son is seeking his seat. Smith now says he was offered “substantial and aggressive campaign support” for his son and not money per se. Nonetheless, some congressional Democrats have called for an investigation of Smith’s charges by the House ethics committee. If that investigation starts, where will it end? Big government itself is based on bribery.

If Smith is telling the truth, someone was trying to persuade him to vote to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. In exchange for his vote, they offered money or “substantial and aggressive campaign support.” That putative attempt to buy Smith’s vote was part of a larger, much more expensive vote-buying scheme.

The prescription drug benefit at issue will cost at least $400 billion over ten years and may in the end cost much more than that. The money will help subsidize medicine for Americans who receive Medicare. When he signed the law authorizing the benefit, President Bush pointed out that it would be worth over $2,000 annually to an average Medicare recipient.

Currently, Medicare has 40 million beneficiaries who are exceptionally active politically. For example, about 75 percent of the elderly vote in a typical election. In the 1998 congressional elections, Medicare beneficiaries composed about 40 percent of all voters; in the 2000 elections (which had higher turnout because of the presidential race) Medicare recipients made up almost 30 percent of the entire electorate. Their votes are crucial to victory for either party. They are especially crucial to the Republicans, who have less than whopping majorities in both houses of Congress.

Not surprisingly, Republicans were willing to offer each Medicare recipient thousands of dollars in benefits in exchange for a vote. The “bribe” for Rep. Smith, if it was that, pales in comparison to the multi-billion dollar voter purchase arranged by congressional Republicans. In their defense, we might say that a Democratic majority would have paid more for the same votes. Once again, the hard-nosed business instincts of the Republicans saved the nation some money!

Of course, the bidding for votes did not begin or end with Medicare. As always, the appropriations bills being slapped together by Congress contain great slabs of pork for specific constituencies. Citizens Against Government Waste found $22 billion in pork in the current omnibus appropriations bill. Democratic aides working for the House Appropriations Committee identified 1,857 projects costing $896 million in that budget that are specifically earmarked for specific states. Over nine hundred economic development projects worth $278 million are directed to members’ districts. The transportation part of the bill has $3.7 billion in earmarked projects. Labor, health and education has 2,027 projects worth $862 million, while the energy bill, which has not yet passed, includes $20 billion for a 3,500-mile pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48, $2.9 billion in corporate welfare for oil companies, $2 billion for ethanol production in the Midwest, $800 million for loan guarantees backing a coal gasification plant in Minnesota and $220 million for an environmental learning center in Iowa.

Members of Congress direct all of these projects to their states or congressional districts. You can be sure that each member of Congress lets his or her constituents know who brought home the bacon. We might like to think this is “politics as usual,” but it looks a lot like Congress is buying votes with public money. In fact, they are.

For some time now, the Supreme Court has refused to enforce explicit constitutional limits on Congressional spending. As a result we have come to live in a society dominated by a government that gives to Peter by taking from Paul. Of course, the politicians that give to Peter expect his vote in return, a fact we like to ignore. Big Government is based on legalized bribery.

The House ethics committee should not limit its bribery inquiry to Rep. Smith’s allegations. Every member of Congress buys votes every year, and many voters sell to the highest bidder. It will remain so until we restore the limits on congressional spending in our Constitution. Until then, the buying and selling of votes will remain the engine of American politics.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Democracy at the Cato Institute.