Logrolling: Exploring Vote Trading in Politics

Table of Contents

what is logrolling

What is Logrolling? 

Logrolling refers to when two (or more) legislative coalitions agree to trade or exchange votes in order to get their respective ‘pet’ bill passed.

A long-standing and common practice in the U.S. Congress, logrolling comes into play between legislators who have little vested interest in each other’s bill. Each will vote how the other wants them to in order to get both (or multiple) bills passed or potentially blocked.

For example, let’s say one legislator (X) strongly backs a bill that increases the budget for developing renewable energy while a different legislator (Y) wants to cut tax rates for the food industry. X approaches Y, offering to support Y’s bill if Y votes for their renewable energy bill. Y agrees. Both parties have gained support (imagine the amount of support if a policymaker successfully logrolls multiple constituents) and increased their chances of getting their legislation eventually passed in Congress.

It’s as the expression goes: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Or as they supposedly said on the American frontier, you roll my log and I’ll roll yours. Logrolling comes down to quid pro quo, or according to some, compromises that allow democracies to run.

For the most part though, people reserve the term ‘logrolling’ for the creation of a majority-sized ‘coalition of minorities.’ ‘Vote trading,’ on the other hand, refers to the two-person trading portrayed in the example of X and Y.


Logrolling’ apparently emerged from the logging regions in Maine. Settlers cut trees to expand farming land and used the logs to construct houses. Moving these heavy logs from clearings to building sites, however, proved impossible for families. That’s why neighbors helped one another roll logs, eventually leading to the creation of the term ‘logrolling.

Types of Logrolling in Politics

“My people don’t like me to log-roll in their business, and vote away pre-emption rights to fellows in other states that never kindle a fire on their own land,” said Congressman Davy Crockett in 1835. Crockett was the first representative to mention logrolling in politics. Straying from the term’s roots in reciprocity and community, Crockett gave logrolling its negative connotation that remains to this day.

Three types of logrolling in politics exist:

  • Logrolling in direct democracies: a handful of voters participate openly, making their votes easy to trade, rearrange, and trace
  • Implicit logrolling: large voting bodies decide complex issues without formally trading support
  • Distributive logrolling is the most known type, where legislators ensure their projects receive support. Policymakers logroll to secure their district policies, pork barrel, and/or earmarks regardless of whether they are efficient or beneficial to the public at large

Beyond the other types of logrolling, distributive logrolling tends to concern the watchdogs and the general public alike. Some consider it a corrupt part of politics, where legislators will try to get some personal benefits (e.g. road renovation near their residence) that might only help a small population even though tax money from citizens around the country are funding it. Critics of logrolling classify it as inefficient or wasteful spending.

Deeper into Logrolling Legislation

But back to the example of legislators X and Y.

Essentially, X and Y are trying to achieve a simple majority for their respective legislation. In other words, they want to have more votes for rather than against enacting their Bills.

But the X and Y do not operate in a vacuum, where they serve as the only two lawmakers. At least, that wouldn’t be the case in most governments, including the U.S. For this reason, the votes of the other legislators obviously matter, diluting the power of a single vote in reality.

You can probably see how politics can easily become a complicated dance. X and Y might agree to come together on X’s renewable energy bill, but a trio of legislators could band together to vote against the legislation. This is known as ‘counter-logrolling.’ On a Congressional-wide scale, members can end up creating sizable coalitions through logrolling, racing against opposition to gain a majority following.

Also, to mention one other concern, X will have to keep in mind that they have already agreed to vote in support of passing Y’s bill. X, unless they wish to ruin their relationships, cannot logroll legislators who have a vested interest in blocking the enactment of Y’s bill.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

Government contracting could be riddled with inefficiencies and waste, resulting in billions of wasted taxpayer money. 

Don’t believe us? See what your fellow citizens are saying on Zero Theft..

Logrolling in Omnibus Bills 

Major budget bills or omnibus bills make up much of the logrolling market. In exchange for their vote of approval, some legislators will take the opportunity to add various clauses to a bill. Their pet projects get lost in 1,000+ pages of legislative lingo, often passing with little objection. That is until a watchdog like Citizens Against Government Waste exposes the legislator for their potentially questionable use of taxpayer money.

The Controversial Farm Bill 

The Farm Bill is one omnibus bill that critics have accused as logrolling. The Congressional Research Service calls it a“multiyear law that governs an array of agricultural and food programs.” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated the 2018 Farm Bill would cost $428 billion between 2019-2023.

According to nonpartisan budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Farm Bill is not really as the name suggests.

“Touted as a farm bill, 75-80 percent of the cost is actually for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps. The program was added to the bill more than 30 years ago expressly to buy votes from members not in agricultural districts and avoid scrutiny of the agricultural side of the farm bill.”

New York University professor Marion Nestle published an article via The Atlantic, examining the 2008 version of the Farm Bill, which appears to not have changed much over the decade. Nestle echoes much of what Taxpayers for Common Sense claimed, but discusses more about why Congress members would participate in this case of potential logrolling.

“Members of Congress who represent farm states need urban votes to pass subsidies. Urban members need farm votes to protect SNAP. This deal works, and both sides like the unsavory system just as it is…Overall, the farm bill must be seen as an inequitable means to protect the income of the largest and richest industrial producers of food commodities. It has little to do with serious efforts to protect conservation of natural resources, support rural communities, or promote sustainable farming practices that maintain soil quality and mitigate climate change. Nor does it address the real needs of low-income communities.”

COVID-19 Relief Bill v2.

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit countless Americans hard, causing irreparable physical, emotional, and monetary damage. The continual strain caused by the virus compelled the U.S. government to provide some (probably far from enough) relief in a second relief package.

The COVID-19 relief bill amounts to $2.3 trillion—$900 billion for relief measures and $1.4 trillion for federal government operations. The 5,593 page bill(!) was eventually released for public consumption.

The Independent Institute, a nonprofit, non-partisan public policy research organization, picked out some clauses that appear to have nothing to do with either of the expressed purposes (economic relief and funding government operations) of the bill.

  • $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt.
  • $1 billion to establish an American Women’s History Museum and a National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C.
  • $505 million in foreign aid to reduce income inequality in Central American nations.
  • $40 million for the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C., which has been closed since March 2020.
  • $10 million for “gender programs” in Pakistan.
  • $5 million to help build a National Coast Guard Museum in New London, Connecticut.

It’s important to understand that the Independent Institute is not so much making a value judgment about any of these efforts. On its own, establishing those museums will sound important and necessary to many. Earmarks, pork barrel politics, and logrolling cannot detach itself from one simple question, which might strongly color your perspective: does the spending benefit me in any way?

When thinking specifically about those two purposes of the bill, none of the items listed above feel particularly appropriate. Especially when countless Americans are struggling, and received only $600 (excluding unemployment benefits) in aid for this second relief bill. 

Why Logrolling might be harming you

Forming a majority in Congress does not necessarily mean that it will represent the public’s interest. Logrolling can often lead to special interests, perhaps extremely limited in scope or benefit, taking priority over what’s best for most citizens.

Policymakers who participate in logrolling for their personal benefit are known as maximizers. It’s all about how they can benefit from a bill, whether it result

s in quality of life improvements, financial opportunities, and/or bettering chances of reelection. This all comes at the cost of taxpayers around the nation who won’t have access to any of the benefits.

In The Calculus of Consent, economists James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock argue that maximizers promote their self-serving behavior to their constituents in order to boost gains. While a system of maximizes might result in significant benefits for the maximizers in the short run, over time all individuals involved end up worse off than if they had all acted more selflessly/in the interest of the public.

Those limited benefits are one of the major criticisms of logrolling. In a vote where the public only has a ‘say’ in so far as their Congressional and Senatorial representatives’ choices, taxpayers have to shoulder the costs for projects that will never benefit them. Again, the relative value, importance, and necessity of most projects can be debated, and we probably shouldn’t act like siblings at Christmas enviously eyeing each other’s presents. But in those bills discussed above, for example, there at least seems to be some questionable items that we should challenge.

In a political system where logrolling is permitted, the taxpayer is the third party that assumes the cost of the project. Even though many of them will not benefit from the spending whatsoever. This is always inefficient.

Learn about the Big Dig, one of the most costly cases of wasteful spending

Log Rolling, is it a part of the Rigged Economy?

So, what do you think about logrolling? Is it a necessary or unavoidable part of a democracy? Does it need better regulation?

Ultimately, does logrolling lead to millions or even billions of inefficient, wasteful spending of taxpayer money? If it has, do you think that’s theft? 

ZTM seeks to eradicate crony capitalism from the U.S. economy. We need to work together to identify, debate, and decide exactly where the economic foul play is occurring through investigations and voting. Citizens author theft proposals, and the community decides whether that investigation has convincingly proven (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically.

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you.

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Commitment to nonpartisanship

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Beyond Logrolling…

An educated public is an empowered public. 

We regularly publish educational articles on ZeroTheft.net, just like this one on logrolling. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.