Whipping votes isn’t a boring task, but it’s nothing like House of Cards suggests.
That’s at least according to David Bonior, a former Michigan congressman who served as Democratic whip in the House from 1991 to 2002. On Monday, when hundreds of Americans were holed up in their homes behind the soft glow of their laptop screens, binge-watching the series’ newly released second season, Bonior weighed in on how his old job really worked.
“If you’re a whip in either party, you’ve got to corral your caucus and conference members, and you’ve got to provide the votes to get things done to move the legislation, to make Congress relevant to people’s lives, and so you use different techniques to get that done,” Bonior told told WNYC’s The Takeaway. “I think this show is overly dramatic and pessimistic and dark in the portrayal of how that’s done.”
Actor Kevin Spacey, who stars as Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, isn’t sure of that. “We can get done shooting on a day and I’ll come home and turn on the news, and I’ll think our story lines are not that crazy,” he told ABC recently.
For Underwood, a philosophy of ruthless pragmatism, along with a great deal of backdoor manipulation, always works in whipping votes. Not so in real life, Bonior said.
“Threats don’t generally work,” the congressman, who was first elected in 1976, explained. “Rewarding people for being good soldiers in the fight to get things that you care about … works much better. For instance, committee slots, making sure that their offices are accessible and convenient, things of that nature help. Helping them politically in their races back home, helping them raise money — those kinds of things obviously go on. They go on in legislatures, they go on in the U.S. Congress.”
But persuading House members to back certain legislation has been tricky in the past few years. Underwood has something at his disposal that current whips do not: pork-barrel earmarks. In this long-standing practice, House speakers and whips alike promised to direct federal dollars to local projects in congressional districts to sway the votes of on-the-fence Congress members. Congressional earmarks, which Speaker John Boehner dubbed “business as usual in Washington,” were banned in 2010 as a Republican wave entered the House.
The ban on earmarks may have contributed to House leadership’s weakened ability to control the party since 2010, Bonior said. “I think helping someone get a project for his or her district that means something to them in terms of jobs, in terms of economic development, is often a very helpful way to integrate yourself and get them on the team and get their support for things. I was never really a person who felt that negatively towards earmarks.”
There are some pretty significant differences between Underwood and his real-life counterparts, a spot currently occupied by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “I don’t know of any whips, for instance, who have committed murder,” said Bonior.
Underwood may be a diabolical, corrupt politician, but there’s no doubt that, for the purposes of good television, he’s effective. His fans in Washington, including the president, agree.
“I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient. That’s true,” President Obama joked to technology-company CEOs in December. “I was looking at Kevin Spacey. I was thinking, ‘This guy is getting a lot of stuff done.’ “