New Book Looks at Political Favoritism in the U.S.

Posted: November 15, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: November 15, 2010 at 8:50 am

By James Greif

Susan Tolchin. Creative Services photo

A new book written by School of Public Policy professor Susan Tolchin and her husband, Martin Tolchin, examines the issue of political patronage — the use of resources to reward individuals for their financial support. The title of the book, “Pinstripe Patronage,” refers to the fact that those benefiting most from this system are those more comfortable in the board room than on the assembly line.

The Tolchins look at the current political patronage climate, including the privatization of services previously conducted by government; government grants known as earmarks, which are specified for the use of an individual, corporation or community; and the expansion of hybrid government-private agencies (such as Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae), with well-paid, politically appointed boards of directors and leaders.

However, the authors explain that not all patronage is bad and, in fact, can be an important tool for our elected officials.

“Patronage can morph very quickly into corruption, but it can also be seen in a positive light,” Susan Tolchin says.

“In the book, we take a pretty even-handed view of patronage. Members of Congress will not get re-elected unless there is evidence that they are bringing home the bacon in the form of earmarks or other funding. But earmarks can also bring wasteful spending and scandals such as the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and the Johnstown, Penn., airport. Members of Congress would argue that they are the only ones that know what their district needs.”

Tolchin compares the fury around earmarks to the debate around free trade.

“Everyone is for free trade until it has a negative effect on jobs in your district. People are really fooled by this. They think what is happening in their district or state is fine in terms of earmarks, but if you multiply this by 535, then it really amounts to something.”

The Tea Party movement has made excessive congressional spending a rallying point, Tolchin believes. She feels that some changes will come as a result of this movement but is doubtful that any major new laws will be put into place.

“You may have something called earmark reform, but this is the way the government has worked for the last 200 years, and I don’t see it changing now,” Tolchin says.

“We saw similar electoral and campaign finance reform under McCain-Feingold, but almost every presidential candidate in recent years has turned down public financing. Also, reforms can be struck down by the Supreme Court as undemocratic, as we have seen with the recent decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.

In terms of reform, Tolchin advocates for a system where elected officials spend less time fund raising and more time governing.

“I’d like to see a little less financial pressure on members of Congress when it comes to campaigns — perhaps some mandatory public campaign financing to curb outside influence. Congress is much more of a cash register than it has ever been. I’m not optimistic because most reform efforts have been struck down by the Supreme Court.” The system has become so corrupt that it isn’t likely to change, she adds.

In the book, the Tolchins mention that several Supreme Court cases have also declared that patronage in jobs and contracts is a violation of the first amendment, and therefore, unconstitutional,  but that hasn’t stopped these practices. Indeed, political corruption stemming from patronage has landed more than a few members of both parties in deep legal trouble at the local, state and federal levels.

“Marty and I joked that with so many politicians in jail, we were surprised there wasn’t a movement for prison reform.”

The authors hope that the book will enlighten the general public about the way the political patronage system operates and help people understand that there is often more than meets the eye with contracted government services. For example, many contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were awarded without competitive bidding, with some contractors overcharging the taxpayer by millions of dollars.

“All these candidates like to say they have reduced the size of government, but really they have contracted out a lot of it,” Susan Tolchin says.

“The payroll budgets look good, but the reality is that contracts are often more costly than in-house government workers. If people understand where the money is really going, then maybe they will demand something different from their elected officials.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu