Breaking the Incumbent Protection RacketsBy Jerry Shenk
No matter how witless or mediocre, no matter how thin their legislative records, once elected, members of Congress have a far better chance of reelection than challengers have of unseating them.
In the two years prior to the 2010 general election, the majority party in Washington acted unilaterally and irresponsibly without public review or buy-in on too many fiscally unsound and ideologically unpopular programs. Their policies deepened and prolonged a recession, and increased deficits and the national debt to record levels. Washington Democrats acted to reward generous campaign donors and special interests at the expense of taxpayers and legitimate investors. Only two years after a stunning electoral outcome, having won the White House and extending majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats paid a steep price at the polls for their excesses and overreach.
Even so, for many voters, the biggest surprise in the 2010 election results was not that so many Democratic legislators were made to return home to live among the citizens they had betrayed. The most astonishing result was that so many Democrats were reelected. To others, that outcome was predictable, no matter how damaging the 2010 results were to Democrats.
A mid-May survey by Rasmussen Reports revealed that fifty-three percent of Americans believe elections to be rigged in favor of congressional incumbents.
Fifty-three percent of Americans are absolutely correct. The deck is stacked for incumbents.
Because of the incumbency-preservation protections built into the system, had Democrats been even a little moderate in their 2009-2010 policy pursuits, they would likely still hold the majority in both houses.
The wave election of 2010 is confirmation of the extent to which congressional Democrats and the White House overstepped public sentiment.
By tradition, not by legislation, during the first century of America's history, Congress was served primarily by citizen legislators. In a typical election, more than a third of them, often many more, left Congress voluntarily to resume the lives they led prior to serving.
That was before members of Congress began to reward themselves with six-figure salaries, generous benefits, and huge pensions; before Congress created large, deferential staffs; and before Congress assembled members' large inventory of powers, perks, and privileges.
Members of Congress made remaining in Congress an attractive and lucrative career choice.
In a typical election today, the average turnover of congressional seats unrelated to voluntary retirement is under ten percent, sometimes far less. Turnover in 2000 was only three percent. Despite what incumbents claim, in most cycles, elections simply are not effective term limits.
Once having created professional legislators, or a "Congress for Life" career path, Congress found it necessary to protect incumbency.
(Before reviewing the rackets that protect incumbents, let's dismiss redistricting. Redistricting is a different kind of racket. Because some states lose and others gain seats, redistricting assures that seats will turn over. Majority parties in affected states will try to improve their chances by gerrymandering districts, but in 2012, twelve incumbents will be at risk.)
Only one racket, franking, or sending mail postage-free, was enacted early in America's history. The first Congress created franking privileges to allow members to communicate information to constituents about government operations and policy choices before Congress. Today, free congressional mailers have evolved into campaign documents promoting other incumbent-protection activities, often congressional pork.
Pork-barrel spending (earmarks) bypasses normal budgetary controls: open hearings, national priority evaluations, competitive bidding, and spending oversight. By "bringing home the bacon," members of Congress seek to extend their political lives, using the taxes taken from citizens to preserve their own paychecks.
Limiting ballot access for challengers is another device used to preserve incumbency. In Pennsylvania, for example, party-affiliated candidates for House seats need only one thousand notarized signatures on qualifying petitions. Independents are required to get more than three times that number, though many more than the inflated requirements are needed to discourage a major party challenge and avoid the cost of a defense. Petition challenges are often made simply to bleed funds from non-incumbent campaigns. An independent candidate can get around the additional requirement by affiliating with a fringe party, thereby committing electoral suicide.
State and local committee structures of both major parties almost always favor incumbents in endorsements, and party campaign committees in the House and Senate promote the reelection of incumbents to the exclusion of qualified challengers from an incumbent's own party. This policy led to the 2004 nomination and reelection of Senator Arlen Specter and contributed to the 2006 loss of Senator Rick Santorum. How did that work out for Pennsylvania Republicans?
Campaign finance laws written by incumbents not only make them less vulnerable to losing, but the laws actually make it easier for incumbents to raise money and assure that, in most cases, incumbents will not be outspent by challengers.
Political action committees represent many special interests. Most PACs will donate only to incumbents. Expecting members of Congress to be in or around the process for years, PACs are wary of angering even those they don't support. Giving campaign cash to challengers gives reelected incumbents incentive to take vengeance in legislation. Power intimidates and attracts.
Congress has worked with PACs and other special interests for many years. Congress created a Byzantine tax code exceeding 70,000 pages, embedded with tax breaks and shelters, and passed legislation favoring special interests, either financially or through regulation. These tools allowed incumbents to amass a powerful collection of campaign cash magnets.
Incumbent protection rackets could be simply broken, but it won't be easy.
Meaningful tax reform and an end to corporate welfare would stop the flow of special interest money into incumbents' reelection campaigns. By making these reforms Congress would level the electoral playing field. But "Members of Congress for Life" don't want a more competitive electoral environment.
That's why America needs term limits. Certainly, some good people in government would be lost, but the benefits outweigh the negatives.
Term limits, an end to congressional pensions, and improvements in ballot access would attract a broader selection of capable candidates having a true sense of service and discourage or prohibit incumbents from overstaying.
America would benefit by disconnecting self-interest from service.
Jerry Shenk is co-editor of the Rebuilding America, Federalist Papers 2 website©: www.federalistpapers2.org.
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