Want to benefit from General Motors’s bankruptcy? Just call your congressman. The federal government is slated to take a 60-percent ownership stake in the bankrupt GM to save it from financial collapse. The Obama administration, of course, claims to have the best of intentions for the company. The administration merely wants the automaker to return to profitability as quickly as possible. But the government’s ownership stake could lead to worse things than bankruptcy. With government ownership, Congress will be able to use the company for political gains, keeping GM facilities open for congressmen’s constituents at taxpayer expense. As government grows, this type of abuse certainly will become more common — and more problematic.

United States congressmen have two jobs. The first is to pass laws that are in the best interest of the country, and the second is to pass laws that are in the best interest of their district. After all, the only people voting for them are those living in their district, and their biggest donors are often local lobbyists. But this leads to congressional meddling of laws meant to help out the entire nation. In the case of GM, congressmen have every incentive not to work for the good of GM, but instead in their own political self-interest.

With over 100,000 employees in facilities throughout the country, GM spans numerous congressional districts. And now that the government has a majority ownership stake in it, Congress will almost surely get involved in deciding which facilities will close as part of GM cost-cutting. Obama has assured the public otherwise, stating on Monday that the government’s goal is to “take a hands-off approach and get out quickly.” But with government-appointed members on GM’s board of directors, it will be impossible to uphold this promise. Those members can force GM’s hand, and Congress may eventually be able to circumvent Obama’s authority and force these board members’ hands. Ultimately, Congress will have control over which GM facilities close and which stay open.

Congress has already set a precedent of getting involved in similar closures. Military bases — like large industrial plants run by GM — contribute much to local economies, adding hundreds of thousands of jobs to a congressional district. When bases in the U.S. began to close after the Korean and Vietnam wars, many members of Congress became upset. Thousands of workers within their districts were losing their jobs, and it was the government who was laying them off. But Congress couldn’t do anything about these closings because it was the job of the president to decide where to station troops.

So Congress changed that. In the Military Construction Authorization Act of 1978, Congress mandated that it be notified of all military base closings, and that 60 days needed to pass between Congress’s notification and the implementation of the decision. Congress now gave itself the power to stop the closure of military bases before their closure became official.

Congress will soon be able to do the same with GM. The Obama administration plans to get GM off the taxpayers’ line of credit soon, but this may not be possible. Members of Congress may decide that it’s necessary to keep their districts’ GM facility open — at taxpayers’ expense.

There are already signs that politicians are beginning to fight over GM. The mayor of Warren, a suburb of Detroit, petitioned GM to move its headquarters there from downtown Detroit because of Warren’s lower taxes. Naturally, the mayor of Detroit couldn’t allow this. But he didn’t take his case to GM’s executives — he went to Obama. Obama gave his personal assurance that GM’s headquarters weren’t moving.

The federal government isn’t getting involved in GM’s decisions, indeed.

As the Obama administration expands the size of government, more and more laws meant to help the nation are being used for politicians’ personal gain. The politicization of GM may mean more taxpayer money being funneled into keeping certain GM facilities open, which would drain the nation’s coffers instead of quickly returning GM to profitability.

Sadly, the current structure of our representative democracy often inhibits the government from doing what’s best for its citizens. As members of Congress try to make only decisions that benefit their districts, many government programs — no matter how well-intentioned — become used for political gains. With the stakes getting higher as government gets bigger, it may just be better for government to not get so involved.

Patrick Zabawa can be reached at pzabawa@umich.edu.

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