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
See more stories about...
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.’ “

What We're Following See More »
PROCEDURES NOT FOLLOWED
Trump Not on Ballot in Minnesota
2 days ago
THE LATEST
MOB RULE?
Trump on Immigration: ‘I Don’t Know, You Tell Me’
2 days ago
THE LATEST

Perhaps Donald Trump can take a plebiscite to solve this whole messy immigration thing. At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last night, Trump essentially admitted he's "stumped," turning to the audience and asking: “Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”

Source:
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
4 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
4 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
‘STRATEGY AND MESSAGING’
Sean Hannity Is Also Advising Trump
5 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's Fox News brain trust keeps growing. After it was revealed that former Fox chief Roger Ailes is informally advising Trump on debate preparation, host Sean Hannity admitted over the weekend that he's also advising Trump on "strategy and messaging." He told the New York Times: “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. I never claimed to be a journalist.”

Source:
×