Politicians Playing Games and Fooling Their Constituents

Legislators promote bills simply as window dressing

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H.L. Mencken famously coined the term “boobeoisie” to characterize the gullibility of American voters. That’s probably unfair to regular people who — at least in our Founder’s vision — shouldn’t be required to focus very much on politics and government.

But the term may capture the attitude of many politicians who are all too willing the exploit the “rational ignorance” of the average voter.

A prime example is legislation to exempt from sales tax the value of a used car that is traded in on a new car purchase. Like daisies in the spring, this measure is introduced in every new Legislature, and having gone nowhere, expires with the final adjournment of each. But that doesn't prevent the politicians from boasting about how admirable they are for just having the notion.

This year, however, they took the cynicism to new heights. Five weeks before the re-election rendezvous of all Michigan House members not being involuntarily retired by term limits, the body passed the latest iteration of a false promise that has been introduced around 25 times over the past decade. By an amazing coincidence, last May the Senate had passed their own version of the same proposal. The bills offered the prospect of a substantial tax cut — around $220 million annually according to the House Fiscal Agency.

And yet, despite all the political speeches and legislator newsletters describing how great this would be — and what a fine fellow the particular politician was for supporting it — somehow the two bodies never quite got around to passing the other's bill.

In fact, final passage was extremely unlikely for the same reason this proposal has gone nowhere in previous Legislatures: It would require a correspondingly large budget cut, which would anger the particular special interests whose spending-ox would have been gored.

Most politicians of both parties hate inciting special interests almost as much as they fear angering voters with tax hikes, so all these bills have been essentially stillborn from the day they were hatched.

In most years, the "sales tax on the difference" measure never even gets a committee hearing, but when it does the same scene is replayed: Agents of the Department of Treasury testify that lawmakers better start looking for $220 million in spending cuts to offset the foregone revenue. That shuts up the pols right quick, and puts the kibosh on the bill's further advancement.

Indeed, just once before during the past 12 years has one of these bills received a floor vote (it passed 30-7), and that time it was the Republican Senate cooking up the candy, relying on a Democratic governor and House majority to play goalkeeper. They did, saving the Senators from having to identify which special interests to anger.

Of course I can’t prove that the politicians are acting in such a cynical, manipulative fashion — a bipartisan rule of omerta (silence) prohibits members of the political class from revealing their tricks. Ask almost any of the 106 bipartisan House "yes" voters (out of 110), or the 37 in the Senate (out of 38), and he or she will swear on a stack of State Constitutions that this vote was perfectly sincere. Perhaps some even were sincere.

So CapCon asked some experienced Senate staffers. Our "it's just a game" thesis was regarded as essentially correct, but Senate staffers can't prove it either. Who knows what cynicism lurks in the hearts of politicians?

To his credit, one former Democratic Senator, Mickey Swiatalski, did commit something close to candor the last time this proposal got a vote, in 2009. You can read his "no vote explanation" on MichiganVotes.org, here.

All this isn’t (just) a snark, it’s also a warning: Watch what they do  (in CapCon and MichiganVotes.org), not what they say. In almost every case, when a politician boasts about a bill he has introduced, he’s just serving-up “candy,” knowing full well the measure isn’t going anywhere.