Logrolling: An Efficient Institution

Along with the colorful phrase “pork barrel” spending, logrolling is a term used to describe the process of vote trading in elected legislative bodies. The process has long been maligned by political scientists, pundits, and the general public. It’s also come up in the debate about the proposed Budget/COVID Relief Bill.

President Grant tried to stop logrolling. He failed.

What’s bad about logrolling? I think there are two general lines of argument. First, it just seems immoral. Citizens can’t legally trade their votes, and many see any attempt to do so as wrong. You get one vote, and one vote only. For someone to have more votes than others rubs our intuitions the wrong way, similar to the ability for wealthy individuals or corporations to essentially have more votes by influencing politicians through campaign contributions.

More pragmatically, logrolling gets a bad name because it could lead to wasteful spending, particularly the “pork barrel” type that Americans really hate (unless it is coming to their district, of course). If you vote for my bill, I will vote for yours, even though I might not care about your bill. Maybe even I think your bill is kinda bad, but I think my bill is really good, so I am willing to hold my nose and vote for your bill, if it gets me what I want.

Buchanan and Tullock (1962) turned this logic on its head. Logrolling is efficient because it allows members to express their preferences, specifically the intensity of their preferences. Moreover, it allows legislative bodies to get things done that are beneficial for society, even if none of those things would pass in a simple referendum.

They illustrate this with a simple example of a township of 100 farmers, and the maintenance of local roads in the township. Each local road from the main highways is only used by 4 or 5 farmers, but the costs are spread over the entire township in the form of property taxes (we’re assuming that tolling these local roads is cost prohibitive). If a vote were proposed to raise everyone’s taxes to pay for repairs of one local roads, probably 95% of farmers would vote against it. They get nothing out of the deal!

Instead, if farmers enter into bilateral agreements with other farmers (i.e., logrolling) to vote in favor of road repairs which don’t benefit them, it is possible to build a coalition that will make all the farmers better off. We are assuming here that the repairs on the roads are welfare-enhancing in the aggregate, that is, that they pass a cost-benefit test. It’s certainly possible that this will not be true of all logrolling. But it probably often is.

So logrolling can be a force for good.

Can we apply this logrolling logic to the current spending bill under debate, the so-called “COVID Relief Bill”? This bill is actually called the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, because it deals not just with COVID relief measures, but also does many other things. Principally, it also includes the 12 annual appropriations bills that Congress is required to pass each year (shocker: we are now almost 3 months into the fiscal year, and Congress still hasn’t passed these 12 bills, a long-running problem).

Some have objected to the mere length of the bill (5,593 pages), and the short time which Congress had to read it before voting on the bill (though the 12 appropriations bills have been available since July — indeed, the House passed most of them back in July). Others have objected to the consolidated part of the bill: in addition to the main provisions, the 12 budget bills and COVID relief, the bill also creates two new Smithsonian museums and a National Park in West Virginia, among other things.

If we assume from the start that logrolling is bad, both morally and practically, this behemoth of a bill is also bad.

But if we are open to the possibility that logrolling can be a force for good, we should think a little harder. Congress has been debating a second COVID relief bill since… well, really since they passed the first one passed in March. Let’s assume that some federal relief is warranted, even if we disagree about the details (my hardcore libertarian friends will say Congress has no responsibility to help anyone impacted by the pandemic — let’s have that conversation separately). Let’s also assume that it’s probably bad to operate a government budget on continuing resolutions every few months with the threat of government shutdowns, which is the alternative (currently being used) to passing these budget bills. We can also assume that the two new Smithsonian museums, the National Park in West Virginia, and the various and sundry other parts of the Big Bill may not be benefit everyone in the country, but they’ll probably get passed eventually. And maybe they were necessary to secure a few votes.

Given all those assumptions, the Consolidate Appropriations Act may not be such a bad thing. Without all the bills merged together, none of these would pass in a heads up vote. Some might see that as evidence that they are necessarily bad. But remember Buchanan and Tullock’s 100 farmers and road maintenance. Without logrolling, or an Omnibus Township Road Funding Bill, it’s unlikely any of the roads would be repaired. Farmers would be left to fend for themselves. They are all better off if they agree to trade votes.

Are we all better off with the Budget/COVID Relief/Other Stuff Bill? Probably not every single American. But my guess is that, in the aggregate, well more than 50% of Americans will be better off with this bill passing, than with the alternative of no bill passing. Perhaps there is some other consolidated bill which is marginally better than this one, and also stands a chance of being passed before January 3rd (when the current Congress adjourns). If so, let’s see that bill proposed! Roll those logs!

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