A Former Lawmaker On What "House Of Cards" Gets Right — And What It Doesn’t

Getting a kid into college won’t make you the VP, and legislators tend to prefer screwing lobbyists, not reporters. An insider’s fact-check to the Netflix political thriller. posted on

In one exemplary scene in Beau Willimon’s highly addictive ‘House of Cards’ series, House Majority Whip Frank Underwood visits his sometime paramour, ambitious reporter Zoe Barnes. Within 20 seconds of his climax, she demands the vote count on a pending bill. Frank resists, and a mild disagreement ensues during which he asserts that, despite being twice her age, she “always seems to leave satisfied.”

“How do you know I’m not faking it?” asks Zoe.

“Are you?” he asks.

“Doesn’t it say a lot that you can’t tell?” she replies.

Several ‘House of Cards’ reviewers have alluded to the show’s verisimilitude. And the New York Times just started a series about the realism (or not) of the show’s portrayal of journalism. But I haven’t seen any current or ex-legislator analyze its depiction of legislative life – the hits and the misses. As with sex, it’s not always easy to know what’s real and what isn’t.

As a former lawmaker and Missouri Congressional candidate, I’m somewhat acquainted with this world. Let me try to clear some of this up.

Here’s what the show gets right

There’s a thin line between transactional sex and actual prostitution.

In the culmination of a first season theme, an impassive Zoe tells post-coital Frank, “As long as we’re clear about what this is, I can play the whore. Now pay me” (with information). Although I doubt the terms of most arrangements are quite that explicit, I saw transactional sex as a legislator. However, the journalist/legislator pair strikes me as unlikely; legislator/staff and legislator/lobbyist were more frequent pairings, and you could often see the dividends it paid for both parties.

District life and legislative life occupy parallel universes – but when problems arise, district issues come first.

Often legislators face simultaneous crises in parallel spheres – one policy-oriented, one constituent-related. Successful legislators – no matter how high-ranking – address district crises first. An example came in Episode 3 when a young constituent of Frank’s dies in a car accident after being distracted by a phallic roadside sculpture whose erection Frank had supported. A local official who covets Frank’s seat pushes the girl’s parents to sue, dragging Frank into the mess. Despite being deep in Hill negotiations on a critical bill, Frank spends two days back home negotiating a settlement. The untimely death of a constituent may not seem capable of bringing the nation’s business to a halt. But savvy legislators understand that absent re-election, no other goal can be fulfilled.

Being a legislator requires extraordinary multitasking skills.

These days, everyone multitasks. But legislators are often required to multitask on a more emotionally and/or intellectually demanding level. Viewers saw a dramatic example of this during the above storyline, when Frank negotiates with the chief lobbyist for the teachers’ unions while making a tray of sandwiches he was about to share with the bereaved parents. He threads the needle, giving just enough ground to keep the negotiations alive, while maintaining focus on his distraught guests.

Constituents do not mince words.

After Rep. Peter Russo takes a dive and allows a military base in his district to close without putting up a fight, he returns to his office to find a deluge of hate email, with constituents calling him, for instance, a traitorous piece of shit. I can promise that I was called that and far worse by constituents, as were many of my close colleagues. Indeed, a bitter enemy of mine only wrote me one pleasant email in my career – the day I resigned.

Like golf, politics is a game of inches.

The shift of just two votes on Russo’s job creation bill leads to a series of events which spiral out of control, leading to tragedy. Had those two fence-sitting votes gone the other way, the bill would’ve passed and Russo would’ve been a hero back in his district, rather than an embarrassment. I can think of several presidents – or near-presidents – who could confirm this. Kennedy beat Nixon by less than one vote per precinct. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a butterfly ballot. And Clinton was impeached because of a dress that wasn’t laundered in a timely fashion.

Here’s what they get wrong

Except in very intimate settings, legislators do not tie campaign donations to pending legislation in such bald terms.

As Episode 9 opens, Frank convenes 15 to 20 legislators – along with a dozen staffers – to push Russo’s job creation bill. When asked to explain their apprehensions, one legislator says, “I’ve already been approached by Sancorp with re-election funds.” Another chimes in: “They offered me a donation package with eight different drilling companies.”

Any legislator who said something like this would appear to be for sale – and could be risking serious legal trouble if they ultimately voted with the company in question. With few exceptions, legislators publicly pride themselves on their inability to be bought, and would not – especially in a room of 30 people, including others’ staff – blurt out links between campaign donations and specific legislation, even if they know such links exist. A legislator would either say it privately to another trusted legislator or aide or, in a larger group, would couch it in acceptable terms, code language such as “Sancorp approached me as well, and made it clear that this bill is extremely important to them.”

Pork-barrel bills that reach the floor offer funds to at least 218 districts.

It’s doubtful that the aforementioned job creation bill would’ve come to the floor as a standalone bill because, as Frank himself noted, it only helped 20 districts. As the saying goes, “Pork is only pork when it’s in somebody else’s district.” That’s why projects like Russo’s watershed plan usually get tucked into omnibus bills – so that they can be merged with enough other projects to allow leadership to cobble together 218 votes.

On close votes, whips monitor the floor obsessively, as do bill sponsors.

Despite the fact that their own whip count shows a razor-thin margin on the Russo jobs bill, Frank and Russo are off the floor, drinking champagne with a group of guests in the Whip’s office. This is ridiculous. When there are 435 votes and you expect to win by two, a myriad of things can go wrong. A legislator could’ve just been called away on a family emergency, or be caught in traffic with a dead phone battery, or be constipated on the toilet. Usually, an absent legislator would try to notify the Whip’s office, but that is far from certain on short notice. Also, out of 218 necessary votes, one or two members could easily change their mind at the last moment. It’s rare but has happened enough times to make whips (and sponsors) paranoid when they anticipate close votes.

Getting someone to give up being Majority Leader isn’t easy.

The mutiny Frank spearheads is an unlikely one, and to the show’s credit, he acknowledges the unprecedented nature of a coup relying predominantly on the other party’s votes. But the final push convincing the Leader to step aside is Frank’s threat that, if he refuses, “the DCCC will pour everything they have into your primary opponent.”

Could the DCCC really primary a veteran Majority Leader who has not departed from party orthodoxy - let alone dump millions of dollars into the race – without risking a huge backlash from its donor base? Would donors approve spending scarce resources to primary a loyal party leader? I doubt it. And I doubt it would make for a credible threat.

Getting a WH Chief of Staff to surreptitiously push you for VP isn’t as easy as getting her kid into college.

After a few very tense meetings at the beginning of the new president’s term, Frank’s relations with the WH chief of staff are strained. But just a few months later, Frank pulls a string to help get her son into Stanford, and almost instantly, she sets aside every political alliance she’d built for decades to ensure that Frank is a heartbeat from the presidency. In a business where one should never do anything with expectations of a favor in return, this mitzvah brings a new meaning to reciprocity.

Some political marriages evolve into partnerships, but women in such arrangements do not bless sex with attractive women 20 years younger; they don’t want to know who or when.

You’ll just have to trust me on that one.

Jeff Smith is a professor of politics and advocacy at The New School and a former Missouri state senator and Congressional candidate.

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