Steven Hill, San Francisco

By Steven Hill
Center for Voting and Democracy, 3-17-2003
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 September 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
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 political 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 September 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
( and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of
America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press,

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