The Other Political Story
No Matter What the National Political Climate, Most Incumbents Win
APRIL 01, 2001 by DOUG BANDOW
Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder.
Unfortunately, last year’s presidential election was a mess. Unfortunately, the congressional elections were not.
While it proved difficult to determine who won the presidency, it was not difficult to determine who controlled Congress. Only six House incumbents lost, yielding a re-election rate of 98.5 percent.
Despite the Democrats’ desperate push to win the six seats necessary to take control, they defeated only four GOP incumbents. Despite an equally desperate GOP push to preserve its majority, Republicans defeated only two Democratic incumbents.
In short, politics is back to normal—as it was before the big Republican gains of 1994. No matter what the national political climate, most incumbents win.
No wonder, then, that the conduct of most congressmen is so uninspiring. Why think about principle? Why develop hard solutions? Why make tough decisions? Why take any chances?
Instead, grab the free ride and don’t rock the boat. And enjoy the perks along the way.
Enjoy them legislators certainly do. A new study by Peter Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation catalogs the life of privilege lived by supposed public servants at taxpayer expense. As Sepp puts it, “members of the United States Congress enjoy a vast web of perquisites that benefit them personally as well as professionally.” There are: generous salaries, hovering near a postwar high; pensions that dwarf, by two to three times, private benefits; heavily subsidized health and life insurance; limousines, Capitol Hill parking spots, and special airport lots; travel junkets around the world; and everything from fancy offices and unique death benefits to cheap haircuts and health clubs.
The most outrageous perks, however, are political rather than financial. They help ensure members’ re-election. Free postage for example, allows members to inundate their districts with propaganda. Reports Sepp: “In past election cycles, Congressional incumbents have spent as much on franking alone as challengers have spent on their entire campaigns.”
Equally important are the many de facto ombudsmen on congressional staffs, who handle constituent services. Having created an expansive, expensive regulatory state, legislators then generously use their clout to relieve a bit of the burden from their constituents—who are expected, in turn, to gratefully contribute to their campaigns and vote for them.
Most campaign reform activists don’t care about high re-election rates, but were appalled by the November election nonetheless. It was a horror show for them because Republican George W. Bush raised and spent more money than any other candidate in history. His opponent, Democrat Al Gore of Buddhist Temple fame, participated in the Democratic Party’s extravagant rule-breaking in 1996. Gore’s supposedly reformist running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, played the game like any other politician.
Reforms Worse than the Problems
The current system does look broke. The only thing worse is every proposed reform.
Fund-raising will never be pretty. But then, neither is politics: as Germany’s Otto von Bismarck famously said, no one should watch his sausages or his laws being made. Or, it seems, the conduct of his elections.
The main business of Congress today is income distribution, direct and indirect. So long as Uncle Sam hands out nearly two trillion dollars in loot every year and uses its rule-making power to enrich or impoverish entire industries, individuals and companies will have an incentive to spend millions to influence the political process. And they have a perfect right to do so.
Alas, “campaign reform” would only exacerbate the problem. Attempts to limit contributions and spending, impose tax funding, and bar independent expenditures would further entrench incumbents.
Incumbents would retain all their unfair franking and ombudsman advantages—as well as their natural advantage in generating publicity. Challengers would not be able to raise more money in response, which they can now, even if only occasionally. Limiting donations by “special interests” would inevitably affect all citizens, since everyone belongs to one “special interest” or another. Tax financing would deny citizens the basic right of political participation and force taxpayers to underwrite the campaigns of candidates whom they may despise.
But “campaign reform” would disadvantage more than outside candidates. It would also disadvantage citizens, whose will is supposed to be served by the electoral process.
And they certainly have something important at stake: Absent constant and close oversight, politicians will loot and regulate the productive to enrich the envious.
But keeping tabs on self-serving politicians is not easy. Only a few people have the time and inclination to walk precincts. Fewer still set up shop in Washington to monitor politicians’ misbehavior.
For most people, making a campaign contribution is the most effective way to participate in politics. “Campaign reform” would circumscribe their opportunities.
Moreover, any attempt to manipulate the election rules would merely advantage other players. For example, the 1974 “reforms” limited contributions by the wealthy but led to the creation of political action committees (PACs). Cutting corporate “soft money” would benefit labor unions, which often deploy legions of volunteers.
The people and organizations with the most power today would almost certainly be further empowered by proposed reforms. For instance, journalists would gain an even greater stranglehold as gatekeepers to public attention. Celebrities, too, would benefit from further campaign controls.
Indeed, past “campaign reform” has merely rearranged rather than eliminated special-interest influence. The 1974 legislation, by barring large contributions, encouraged the creation of PACs. Similar legislation today would merely encourage another feverish search for loopholes.
Real reform is needed, but that means creating electoral competition. A first step would be to drop all contribution limits and instead require full disclosure. Then let citizens take a candidate’s fund-raising practices into account when they vote.
Killing unfair congressional perks is also necessary. Imposing real term limits is critical.
Until we do this, congressional races, unlike the contest for president, are likely to remain all too predictable. Most incumbents run for re-election; most incumbents win; most incumbents abuse the public. Then the cycle goes on again, and again.
Most important, campaign reformers should work to shrink government. Then special interests would have an incentive to spend more time producing and less time politicking.