Advocates of political reform often make their case for change based on the fairer representation it will provide to people of color, women, third parties, and even Democrats and Republicans living in opposition districts. But what is equally compelling is a growing awareness that our "winner-take-all" electoral system has a distinct impact on policy. One of the clearest examples is the recent rush to war, and beyond that the extraordinary rise in military spending even before Sept. 11.
With national opinion polls reflecting ambivalence on the part of Americans over war in Iraq, particularly without a United Nations endorsement, one can't help but wonder why Congress has not reflected the nation's mood. When it comes to Middle East foreign policy, Congress has been to the right of the Israeli Knesset. There have been few voices of opposition, even among Democratic Party leaders, despite polls showing that Democratic voters are opposed to war by nearly 2 to 1.
The reasons for this are linked to the most fundamental aspects of our winner-take-all elections. Under the sway of pollsters, consultants, and strategists, Democratic leaders typically bend over backwards not to appear weak on defense. They have made the calculation that the voters who always vote for them will continue to do so, no matter what their stands on Iraq or Middle East policy, because those voters are not about to vote for Republicans. So these liberal and progressive voters mostly can be ignored. Instead, Democrats target their positions in such a way as to attract more conservative swing voters and independents, those undecided voters that determine winners in close races. Polls show this group evenly split over the question of war.
This is a calculated gambit by the Democratic Party leadership. Some of the Democratic House members would like to be more outspoken against the war, but they don't dare buck their leadership. And the leadership has made the winner-take-all calculation: "Damn the torpedoes, forget the Democratic voters, focus on the SWING voters."
Without a third party in the Congress like a Green Party that is unequivocally against the war, most debate and dialogue came to a standstill long ago. In recent days, finally the Democratic Party leadership has awoken from its poll-driven slumber, but it's too little, too late. Neither Congress nor the president can say how much the Iraqi invasion will cost, but we do know that this bottomless pit will be fed by cutting other needed programs, including the chances for national healthcare, prescription drug benefits, and even adequate funding for homeland security.
But this is nothing new. Winner-take-all calculations always have produced bloated military budgets full of pork barrel waste and bipartisan brinkmanship. The story of the October 1999 military appropriations illustrates some of the worst dynamics and incentives resulting from our winner-take-all system.
In the spring of 1998, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the military budget would remain steady at about $270 billion per year through 2002, as called for in the 1997 balanced budget agreement. But then came the impeachment attack in the summer. By the fall of 1998, key Republican hawks in Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that a president facing impeachment charges was ripe to be shaken down for more military spending. They presented Clinton with their demands, and to save his hide Clinton took steps to placate this powerful military constituency.
Clinton pledged a $1.1 billion "emergency" increase for military readiness, despite the fact that it broke the spending cap of the balanced-budget accord. But in the inevitable horse trading needed to close the deal, Congress transformed Clinton's modest readiness increase into a $9 billion grab bag of pet pork projects. GOP Sen. John McCain described it as "the worst pork in recent memory." The pork included billions more for Star Wars, F-15 fighters, helicopters, and more awarded to the home areas of Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Yes, this bread was buttered on both sides of the partisan aisle to ensure its palatability. Successive rounds of one-upmanship continued into 1999, pushing the price tag higher and higher until it reached stratospheric heights beyond what the Pentagon even had requested.
Careful analysis reveals how winner-take-all dynamics drove this policy debacle. First came the impeachment attack -- driven by congressional pit bulls specifically selected by the Republican leadership because they represented heavily partisan districts where reelection was assured. Second, the attack occurred at the end of the decade with redistricting looming; at that time there is great incentive for partisan attacks in a bid to win state legislative elections, since state legislatures control the redistricting of legislative district lines in most states.
Third, the partisan attack on the president created an opening for the military and congressional hawks to shake down a weakened president. Once the pigskin was put into play, successive rounds of bipartisan brinkmanship upped the ante -- and the price tag -- creating a pork barrel feeding frenzy.
Fourth, just like now with the Iraqi war, Clinton and the Democrats believed that, as an election year approached, their military positioning helped them with the more conservative swing voters and insulated them from the charge of being "soft on defense." Thus, the nimble Clinton turned a political weakness into a victory, but at the price of paving the way for a liberal policy disaster -- a familiar refrain of his presidency.
The real losers were the American taxpayer and those desiring a peacetime economy. In an era when a conservative Congress has slashed domestic social spending, where 40 million Americans -- many of them children -- go without health care, and where we have levels of child poverty that approach that of Russia, the Pentagon still runs a bloated Cold War bureaucracy that the General Accounting Office has stated is "still vulnerable to waste, abuse, and mismanagement." Yet the military budget passed in October 1999 was the largest increase since the Reagan era, even though it already was more than twice that of the combined military budgets of every conceivable adversary.
Even before Sept. 11, the incentives of our winner-take-all system made it impossible for the Democrats to muster the political will to stop ongoing militarization. With winner-take-all offering powerful incentives for pork barrel gluttony, political positioning, courting of swing voters, redistricting manipulation, and partisan pit bull attacks, the waste and budgetary fraud known as military appropriations have rolled along as bipartisan policy.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics [Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com].