Is This the Year of the Disgruntled Voter?

October 6, 2008

For release Oct. 8 and thereafter (710 words)

by Andrea Neal

If voters needed any more reason to be disgruntled when they head to the polls next month, Congress gave it to them in passing a financial services bailout loaded with unnecessary earmarks.
   
It’s quite stunning really that politicians so readily admitted to behavior that in any other context would be considered bribery.
   
The word congressmen use for these earmarks is “sweeteners.” The bailout bill didn’t have enough support on its own so leaders sweetened it with goodies: tax breaks, exemptions and extensions of tax breaks that individual members of Congress sought to curry favor with various constituencies.
   
Here are just a few of the provisions that will cost taxpayers an extra $112 billion on top of the $700 billion going to the largest corporate bailout in U.S. history.

• Extension of a tax break that allows motorsports track owners to write off the costs of their facilities over seven years. Cost: $100 million.

• Extension of a rebate against excise taxes charged on rum imported from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Cost: $192 million.

• A tax incentive, aimed at keeping film and television productions in the United States, which allows filmmakers to deduct the costs of production in determining taxable income. Cost: $478 million.
   
Are some of the earmarks sound public policy that benefit citizens? Sure. Any of the above could be debated on the merits and win passage by a majority of Congress. But that doesn’t mean that passing dozens of these en masse — without public hearings, debate or even enough time to read them — was the right thing to do.
   
Before the final House vote, Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Senate leaders were pretty clear about why they had to tie a tax package to the bailout.

“They’re hoping this will turn a few votes, that people who support some of these provisions will forget about the $700 billion and concerns they may have on that, and say, ‘If you give me a few million in tax breaks for my constituents, I’ll go along,’ “
   
Apparently the only way to get votes is to give away taxpayer money.  It’s this kind of arrogance and rationalization that makes voters so mad at Congress whose disapproval ratings are at an all-time high — in the upper 70 percent range.
   
Even so, don’t expect incumbents to be ousted in great numbers Nov. 4. “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection,” says Opensecrets.org, a non-partisan watchdog group. In 2004, voters returned 98 percent of U.S. House members seeking reelection; Two years ago the re-election rate was 94 percent.
   
VOID, short for Vote Out Incumbents Democracy, is a political action committee that advocates the defeat of U.S. House incumbents regardless of political party. VOID believes a higher turnover rate would help rid the process of corruption and special interest pandering and reduce the influence of lobbyists and big-time donors. Theirs is an alternative approach to term limits.
    
The organization is working to overcome the “Not My Rep” syndrome in which voters blame other representatives for waste, fraud and abuse of power, but not their own. VOID calls it cognitive dissonance.

“If you buy a lemon car but know you can’t afford to replace it, you are likely to rationalize it wasn’t such a bad purchase after all. The reason one rationalizes this way is so they can get in and drive that lemon without getting furious every time they open its door. In other words, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that people will shift the blame or rationalize poor decisions as good ones to reduce the tension in their mind and emotions over their action.”
   
Cognitive dissonance theory could also explain why the same congressmen who want to save the country from economic disaster don’t mind putting taxpayers even deeper in debt. On Sept. 30, the gross national debt reached a 54-year high of $10 trillion, an event that barely made headlines compared to the woes of Wall Street.
   
Will 2008 be the year that voters overcome cognitive dissonance theory and decide it’s time to throw the extravagant rascals out? It would be refreshing, but history suggests it’s not likely.
  
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.



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