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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “‘Log rolling’ good & bad”

In my column for the June 29th, 2011, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I wrote about logrolling. You can read my column beneath the fold.

‘Log rolling’ good & bad

Serious students of politics know that “log rolling” is prevalent in legislatures. (As Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong made clear in their iconic 1979 book “The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court,” log rolling also is prevalent in courts — but that’s an issue for another column.)

“Log rolling” means vote trading: “I’ll vote for your tax hike if you vote for my ethanol mandate.” Such vote trading ensures the passage of legislation that otherwise would not pass.

Vote trading isn’t necessarily bad. If log rolling raises the prospects for enacting good legislation more than it raises the prospects for enacting destructive legislation, log rolling’s consequences must be judged, on balance, likely to be positive.

But regardless of how the net effects of log rolling play out over time, one unquestionable downside is that it makes legislators’ voting records more difficult to assess.

Suppose one of your U.S. senators votes “nay” on a treaty that both you and the senator believe would make trade between the United States and Chile more free. If you believe that free trade is both morally and economically superior to protectionism, you’ll criticize your senator for that vote.

And if your senator campaigned on a pro-free-market, pro-free-trade platform, you’ll even call him a hypocrite.

But be careful.

Suppose the senator knows that the final vote on a bill to cut taxes will be held next week and will be close. The senator sincerely believes that if the tax cuts are enacted, the resulting economic benefits will be enormous.

The senator also knows that a middle-of-the-road Senate colleague — one whose constituents oppose freer trade with Chile and are generally hostile to tax cuts — will likely vote against the tax-cuts bill.

So your senator proposes the following deal to his colleague: “I, the pro-free-trade senator, will vote with you against the Chile free-trade deal if you’ll vote with me in favor of the tax cuts.”

Your senator might even confess to his aides, “I hate making this deal, but if I don’t do it, the tax cuts won’t pass. And the economic freedom and economic prosperity that will result from the tax cuts will be greater than the freedom and prosperity that would result from freer trade with Chile.”

So your senator’s vote against freer trade with Chile was the price he paid for a vote to secure passage of the bill to cut taxes.

Had your senator stuck to his principles on each bill, trade with Chile would be freer, but Americans’ tax burden would be much heavier.

When evaluating your senator’s voting record, though, how will you know that he voted against freer trade with Chile only because doing so was necessary to win the more important tax cuts? You’re much more likely to accuse him of hypocrisy.

But, in fact, your senator did not act hypocritically here. He did exactly what he promised to do.

He campaigned on promises to make markets freer, and the logs that he rolled achieved just that goal. True, the final result wasn’t a full victory; it doesn’t include freer trade with Chile. But overall, the economy is freer than it would have been had your senator not traded votes.

Without log rolling, the outcome would have been worse.

Log rolling, therefore, isn’t necessarily bad. It can, though, create confusion for voters.

There’s no easy solution to this confusion. Like log rolling itself, this confusion is unavoidable. The best that we can hope for is to lessen it.

And the best way to lessen this confusion is to reduce the scope of government’s powers.

Suppose that the only task government performed were national defense — period. With such limited duties, there wouldn’t be many votes for legislators to trade.

Rep. Jones, who campaigned to increase funding for the military, couldn’t really trade her vote on that front with Rep. Smith, who campaigned to decrease funding for the military. There’d be nothing for which either elected official could trade.

As government’s scope expands, however — to take in, say, immigration — the prospects for log rolling increase. If Rep. Jones campaigned both to increase military spending and to further restrict immigration, she would have at least the possibility of trading her vote on military spending for Rep. Smith’s vote in favor of more immigration restrictions.

The larger government’s scope is — the greater the number of activities it performs — the more numerous the possibilities for log rolling are. As a practical matter, more log rolling will take place.

As more log rolling takes place, voters will have more difficulty determining whether their elected representatives are hypocrites or men and women of their word.

And as the difficulty of distinguishing hypocrites from people of honor rises, the number of hypocrites who seek and win elective office will, sadly, also rise.