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HOOSER: The truth about vote-trading

Recently, I wrote a column in which I suggested that President Joe Biden should “Give them (those who are blocking the Build Back Better legislation) a freeway, an airport, a rail system or maybe a football stadium. Name an aircraft carrier, battleship or destroyer after them. Just cut the deal.”

I suspect more than a few readers find this approach to legislating a bit unseemly, and view vote-trading akin to bribery, extortion and/or kidnapping and holding for ransom.

Welcome to the world of politics. Some issues gain broad-based support with minimal gamesmanship, but when a “swing vote” is involved things can often get ugly.

When proponents are one vote short of the number needed to pass something, that final vote is considered the “swing vote.” The raw translation: If you want my swing vote, then you must give me something in return.

This is what’s called “leverage.”

A single legislator, or in this case two, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), are the Democratic swing votes needed in the U.S. Senate in order to pass the Build Back Better legislation.

Legislators are there to pass into law new public policy, increase or decrease funding for government programs, and fund and approve public infrastructure known as capitol improvement projects, or CIP (roads, bridges, airports, harbors, etc.).

What is an important policy, program or CIP project for one legislator or one group of legislators, may not be important to another legislator or group of legislators. They may represent different geographical or demographical interest groups, and it’s not unusual that they have different perspectives and priorities.

Consequently, when attempting to pull the needed votes together to actually accomplish something, different legislators or groups of legislators will “trade votes.”

To have integrity, vote-trading must involve legitimate and necessary policy, programs and/or CIP.

For example: I’ll support building that new school cafeteria in your district this year if next year you support building that much-needed highway in mine. Both are legitimate public needs, but the question is one of timing and priorities.

Another example: I‘ll support increasing the minimum wage if you support increased tax credits for small businesses.

A legislator might not really think tax credits are necessary, but they might be willing to go along because of the greater good achieved by passing an increase in the minimum wage.

Similarly, a legislator might detest increasing the minimum wage but can live with it if there were tax credits for small businesses.

A third example is the cross-trading of policy, programs or CIP and totally unrelated items such as office staffing or committee assignments.

A certain policy or program might be on the table for a vote, and a legislator who might represent the critical swing vote will say something to the effect that “I will hold my nose and support this policy change if I get this specific CIP project funded for my district, and if I get XYZ, etc.”

This is how the sausage of lawmaking is accomplished at all levels of elective office. It’s not pretty, but barring the election of a strong majority with common values and vision, it’s how contrary positions ultimately come together to move the ball forward.


Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.
Source: The Garden Island

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