Former Real-Life Frank Underwood Says ‘Threats Don’t Generally Work’

A former Democratic majority whip weighs in on what works and what doesn’t in keeping the party in line.

Former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Feb. 19, 2014, 9:47 a.m.

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.’ “

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