Incumbency repels change in Congress

    The day after the election, don’t forget how you felt the day before. "Nothing is so admirable in politics," wrote economist John Kenneth Galbraith, "as a short memory."

    If historical patterns hold true, Americans will put behind us the negativity and bitterness of yet another election season, forget many of the winning campaign’s promises, and ignore the very faults in our process many of us want to see changed. 

    We shouldn’t.

    On its surface, this was the "change" election. Fed up with Bush-era partisanship, economic crisis, conflict abroad, and political gridlock at home, Americans chose the ultimate outsider – a young Illinois senator with relatively little Washington experience.

    But was this truly an election for change?  

    You wouldn’t know it by looking at Congress. On Nov. 4, incumbency still ruled the day.  While Democrats picked up several important seats in the Senate, incumbents in the House remained relatively safe.

    In Wisconsin, our sitting congressmen were eight for eight, with only one somewhat strongly-contested race. Two of the state’s congressmen ran unopposed.

    In fact, incumbents nationwide were par for the course. While Democrats may pick picked up 30 seats in the House, the incumbency rate should still hold firm at nearly 95 percent – this with a Congress that has a 9 percent approval rating.

    In fact, voters sent back to Congress several members currently under federal investigation, including Louisiana’s William Jefferson, indicted by the federal government on racketeering and bribery charges, and Alaska’s Ted Stevens, recently convicted by a jury on corruption charges.

    So much for change.

    We forget that for most of our nation’s history, the House of Representatives experienced much larger and more frequent turnover. Following the Panic of 1893, Republicans gained 130 seats in the House, and in 1932, they lost 101. Democrats picked up nearly 50 seats after Watergate; Republicans grabbed 54 in 1994. During Harry Truman’s administration, Democrats lost 55 seats before picking up 75 the next cycle. 
    In recent years, however, waves of special interest money, gerrymandering, Congressional franking and other institutional advantages constructed by incumbents for incumbents have left our system very uncompetitive. Billions of dollars and another election cycle later, that hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s even worse.

    So how much is likely to change in 2009?

    Rarely has there been an election where campaign themes bear so little resemblance to the reality our next president will confront. President-elect Barack Obama will likely face the largest single-year budget deficit in American history, with a national debt that has already soared over $10 trillion.

    Every hour of Obama’s administration, 365 baby boomers will become eligible for Social Security – and in 2011, millions will qualify for Medicare coverage. Yet neither campaign talked realistically about confronting these, the most critical fiscal challenges our nation has faced since the Great Depression.

    Instead, both promised tax cuts and spending programs unlikely to fully materialize given the fiscal realities Obama will now face. By 2012, it is much more likely that most Americans’ taxes will go up than down.

    In foreign affairs, much was made of the war in Iraq. Yet Obama’s administration is much more likely to be consumed in Afghanistan, where the situation is deteriorating, than Iraq.

    On energy, declining prices at the pump may undermine Obama’s ability to promote investment and promotion of alternative energy, which is probably just the way the Saudis, Russians, and Iranians want it. 

    And at the end of the day, Washington will still be largely run by the same people who got us into this mess – with one exception (a big one), Obama.

    So how do we guarantee change next time around? For one, don’t forget how you felt this time around. Don’t forget about the negative ads, the massive amounts of special interest money, the empty campaign promises, and the absence of competition in Congressional races. Promise to vote for someone new next time around.

    We must also advocate for changes to a system that keeps sending the same people back year after year. This election cycle saw record levels of money raised -over $5 billion, a 25-pecent increase over the 2004 election cycle. Candidates continue to spend most of their time dialing for dollars from wealthy donors, rather than talking to and working for their constituents.

    One change we should strongly consider is voluntary public financing of Congressional and Senatorial campaigns. Congressional leaders will be more responsive to the people they represent when we are the ones paying their bills, instead of Washington’s army of lobbyists.

    Finally, we must demand statesmanship from our leaders. The Bush era demonstrates that big problems cannot be addressed with 50 percent, plus 1. The crises of tomorrow – massive indebtedness, the need for energy independence, entitlement reform, immigration, and more – can only be solved with large, bipartisan majorities. 

    But none of this will happen if we forget how we felt on Monday. 

    So remember that feeling, and use it to advocate for real, structural change in the coming year. With any luck, our system will be a little better next time, giving us greater turnover, more responsive government, honest leadership – and real change.


    Jim Burkee is an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin. He unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in the Republican primary this year.

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