Paul Pillar

Bullying Works

Any thought that the recent national embarrassment over the debt ceiling and deficit was a single, exceptional spasm of thuggish importunity has been dispelled by a smaller-scale repeat performance that put most of the Federal Aviation Administration out of business for almost two weeks. Once again Democrats caved to tactics that Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) appropriately labeled as “bullying.” The chief bully this time was John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A major Republican objective throughout the stalemate was to overturn a decision of the National Mediation Board regarding voting rules for airline employees seeking to organize a union. An overturning of the decision would make it harder for employees to unionize and in this case would have served principally as a favor to Delta Air Lines. A more immediate issue in the negotiations, and the one on which Democrats ultimately caved, was a demand by Mica—in the name of saving $16 million a year—to end subsidies for service to certain regional airports. While saving that $16 million, the impasse cost the federal government about $300 million in uncollected taxes on air tickets. The treasury has lost that money forever—it has been pocketed by the airlines.

The hypocrisy in this is underscored when one notes that Mica has shown no hesitation in going to the public trough in a big way, notwithstanding the inefficiencies, when his own parochial interests are involved. He has pushed hard for a commuter rail project in his district in central Florida that will cost $1.2 billion when completed—much of this coming from both the federal government and the state of Florida—but serve only 2,150 commuters a day and is judged by the federal government to be one of the least cost-effective mass transit endeavors in the nation. A principal beneficiary of this project will be the railroad company CSX, which would receive $432 million for tracks that its freight trains could continue to use at night and for improvements to other tracks that it owns elsewhere in the state. CSX has been a major donor to Mica's campaigns.

We really shouldn't be surprised to see a prompt reprise of belligerent tactics from the Republican side on Capitol Hill, given how well such tactics worked for them in the deficit spectacle. It's a time-tested principle in facing bullies and hostage-takers; if you give in to them you can expect to get still more belligerent treatment from them. Nor should we be surprised by the perverse economics involved in such things as losing $300 million to save $16 million. The big extortion caper we witnessed regarding the debt ceiling was much less about debt and the deficit than about ramming through an ideological agenda, protecting certain narrow economic interests, and damaging the political opposition.

One might look at future elections as a vehicle for voters to administer the punishment that such behavior so richly deserves. A new New York Times/CBS News poll would seem to offer hope in that regard. Congress receives historically high disapproval ratings, with Republicans in Congress rated even worse than Democrats. Eighty-five percent said members should compromise to get things done rather than stick to their positions, 63 percent favored increasing taxes for the wealthiest bracket and 82 percent correctly perceived that the disagreements over raising the debt ceiling were mostly about gaining political advantage rather than doing what is best for the country.

I am not optimistic, however, that such numbers predict that the appropriate electoral punishment will be administered. The procedures and mores of government, including sound policy-making methods in the executive branch and responsible legislative habits in Congress, have never—despite their importance—been the stuff of winning electoral campaigns. They have never had as much resonance with the electorate as have simple themes such as not raising taxes. Ultimately the effective working of government depends not just on the electoral sanction of voters throwing out lousy leaders but also on leaders themselves accepting the need to observe certain habits such as a willingness to engage in give-and-take, a respect for broad as well as narrow interests, an acknowledgment that no one point of view has all the answers and simple civility. Those habits used to be readily in evidence in Congress; it is hard to find them in some parts of Capitol Hill today. Some possible reforms such as an end to gerrymandering would encourage their return. Until that happens, the bullies and hostage-takers will be motivated by how their tactics have succeeded and will be little deterred by fear of being held to account at the next election.