Everywhere you turn, anti-incumbent sentiment is on the rise.
You can see it in opinion polls, where six in 10 Americans, the highest ever, say most members of Congress don’t deserve to be re-elected, according to a June 11-13 Gallup survey.
You can see it in primary ballots, where long-serving lawmakers are being booted in favor of Tea Party candidates and other outsiders.
And you can see it at town meetings, at social gatherings and on talk radio, where ordinary Americans are eager to voice their discontent with the culture in Washington.
In fact, the only place you probably won’t see it is at the bi-annual congressional elections. Incumbency, it turns out, is the best credential for winning an election.
Maybe this time is different (I didn’t really write that, did I?), and come November, voters will throw the bums out once and for all. Anti-incumbent sentiment seems to be a staple of American politics, even as voters return almost anyone who asks to office.
In the House of Representatives, the incumbency rate has averaged 93.3 percent since 1964, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan independent research group tracking money in politics. It dipped below 90 percent only five times in the last 23 elections. The low was 85 percent in 1970.
Devil I Know
Even revolutions don’t produce a dramatic shake-up in the composition of the House of Representatives. The Reagan Revolution of 1980 returned 91 percent of House incumbents to their seats. The Republican Revolution of 1994 saw the GOP pick up 54 seats and take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Even then 90 percent of House incumbents were re-elected.
What happens to all that angst when Americans walk into the voting booth on alternate Novembers and pull the lever for 16-term Congressman Peter Porkbarrel instead of Ida Unknown? In some cases, people never make it to the polls. Voter turnout in the U.S. since 1960 has averaged 55 percent at presidential elections and 40 percent in off-year elections, well below the 75 percent to 80 percent typical of most democracies.
Those who make it to their polling place often have limited options. Many incumbents run unopposed. And if there is somebody challenging the incumbent, “that somebody is invisible, lacks credentials and isn’t an appealing alternative,” says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. “It’s not really a choice.”
Differentiation Among Bums
Finally, polls suggest that voters differentiate between members of Congress and their own member, according to Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief. “It’s a common sociological phenomenon,” he says. “People rate things on a global or national basis worse than on a local one.”
For example, when Gallup asks people about the quality of education or health care, respondents tend to say that, (fill-in-the-issue) “is in a crisis, but mine is good,” Newport says.
In an April Gallup poll, 28 percent of registered voters, the lowest on record, said members of Congress deserved to be re-elected. Forty-nine percent said their own member was worthy. (Translation: Throw the bums out, but spare my bum, at least until he brings home the funds for that civic center.) By a 2-to-1 margin, those surveyed said they would rather vote for someone who’s never been in Congress.
Seat Separation Device
It’s no surprise to see public trust in government fall during hard economic times. Right now, following a long and deep recession and a jobless recovery, that trust is near its lowest level in half a century, according to the Pew Research Center in Washington. Consumer and small business surveys suggest confidence is still depressed.
Bad economic times translate to a loss of seats for the president’s party. Since the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, it should be a shoo-in for the GOP.
“The Democrats are going to lose because they are Democrats, not because they are incumbents,” Rothenberg says. “It’s the only way for voters to make a statement.”
He expects the Republicans to pick up 25-30 House seats, with a “chance of considerably larger gains, even in excess of 40 seats.”
Even if the GOP were to win the 40 seats they need to retake the House, it would still translate to a rate of return for incumbents in line with recent history.
Neither war (two of them) nor revolution nor a new high in anti-incumbent sentiment can separate a member from his seat. What’s the solution if Americans mean what they tell pollsters?
Term limits. It’s time to pressure lawmakers to enact a constitutional amendment providing for limited terms in office.
We can’t seem to vote them out of office. Maybe they can do it for us.
(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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