Recent votes in the United States Senate demonstrate that bipartisanship is not dead. Given the votes in question, we might well wish that it were. And who would have guessed that the Senate’s filibuster rule, which now allows 41 senators to block almost any piece of legislation, would save us from bipartisan action?
On Tuesday, the Senate failed to pass a bill sponsored by Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina that would have provided subsidies for natural gas transportation and distribution, but five Republicans joined most Democrats to form a majority in support of the proposed government handout.
This was followed by the Senate’s failure to pass an amendment introduced by Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina to eliminate all subsidies and tax credits to all forms of energy. The vote was 26-72, with 19 Republicans joining every Democrat in opposition.
The message is clear and simple. Bipartisanship comes easily when legislators anticipate electoral gains from greasing the palms of past and prospective supporters. This is true whether a yes vote will afford new subsidies or a no vote is required to prevent the loss of existing subsidies. It is why many voters see very little hope of serious tax or spending reform from Congress.
Of course when members of Congress vote for a subsidy or tax credit, and most do, they never admit to buying political support. They never acknowledge that those soliciting their vote are rent seekers, pure and simple. To the contrary, they insist that the beneficiaries of their vote just need a little boost to get their feet on the ground — whether the intended recipients of government largess are the poor and downtrodden or wealthy investors in green energy or some other fledging sector of the economy.
There is a case to be made for helping the poor and downtrodden, though we too often do so in ways that turn them into dependants rather than productive members of society. And there is a case to be made for government support of basic research that may someday translate into valuable goods and services.
But there is really no case to be made for corporate welfare. It distorts markets, lines the pockets of the already well off, burdens the taxpayer, contributes to the national debt and corrupts our politics. There is nothing in it for the public, but there can be for members of Congress. We should know this to be true when our otherwise stalemated Congress manages a few bipartisan votes.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.