Break Incumbents’ Protection Rackets

Member Group : 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 re-election than challengers have of unseating them.

In the two years prior to the 2010 general election, Democratic policies deepened and prolonged a recession, increased America’s deficits and debt to record levels, and rewarded donors and special interests at the expense of taxpayers and investors. Only two years after winning the White House and extending their majorities in Congress, Democrats paid a steep electoral price for their excesses and overreach.

Many Americans were more surprised by how many Democrats were re-elected than by the number of those who were returned to live among the citizens they betrayed. To others, that outcome was predictable. A mid-May survey by Rasmussen Reports revealed that 53 percent of Americans believe elections to be rigged in favor of congressional incumbents.

Those Americans are correct. The deck is stacked for incumbents.

Because of the incumbency-preservation protections built into the system, had congressional Democrats been even slightly moderate in their 2009-10 policy pursuits, they would likely still hold the majority in both houses.

By tradition only, during the first century of America’s history, Congress was served primarily by citizen legislators. In a typical election, a third or more of them left Congress voluntarily to resume their prior lives. That was before members of Congress began rewarding themselves with six-figure salaries, generous benefits and huge pensions; before Congress created large, deferential staffs and awarded themselves additional 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 10 percent. Turnover in 2000 was only 3 percent. Despite incumbents’ claims, in most cycles, elections simply are not effective term limits.

The election of 2010 is confirmation of the extent to which congressional Democrats and the White House overstepped public sentiment.

Once having created a "Congress for Life" career path, Congress schemed to protect incumbency.

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 earmarks.

Congressional earmarks bypass normal budgetary controls: open hearings, national priority evaluations, competitive bidding and spending oversight. By "securing" earmarks, members of Congress use the taxes taken from citizens to preserve their own paychecks.

The current Congress declared a temporary moratorium on earmarks, but members continue to arrange low-interest federal loans for campaign donors and take credit for federal grants on which they did nothing. Self-serving media appearances featuring members bearing oversized checks with their own names on the "Payer" line have become unwitting congressional caricatures.

Limiting ballot access for challengers helps preserve incumbency. In Pennsylvania, party-affiliated candidates for House seats need only 1,000 notarized signatures on qualifying petitions. Independents are required to get more than three times that number but need many more to discourage major-party challenges and avoid the cost of a defense. Petition challenges are often made simply to bleed funds from non-incumbent campaigns.

Major parties’ state and local committee structures almost always favor incumbents in endorsements, and party campaign committees in the House and Senate promote the re-election of incumbents to the exclusion of qualified challengers from an incumbent’s own party.

These policies led to the 2004 nomination and re-election of Sen. Arlen Specter and contributed to the 2006 loss of Sen. Rick Santorum, both poor outcomes for Pennsylvania Republicans.

Campaign-finance laws written by incumbents not only make incumbents less vulnerable to losing, the laws actually make it easier for incumbents to raise money and assure that, in most cases, incumbents will not be outspent by challengers.

Power attracts and intimidates. Political-action committees represent many special interests. Most PACs donate only to incumbents. Expecting members of Congress to be in office for years, PACs are wary of angering even those they don’t support to avoid giving re-elected incumbents incentive to take vengeance in legislation.

Through years of collaboration with PACs and other special interests, Congress created a Byzantine tax code embedded with tax breaks and shelters exceeding 70,000 pages, and passed legislation favoring special interests, either financially or through regulation. These tools give incumbents a powerful collection of campaign-cash magnets.

Though not easy, breaking incumbent protection rackets could be simply done.
Meaningful tax reform and an end to corporate welfare would stop the flow of special-interest money into incumbents’ re-election campaigns and 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 decoupling self-interest from service.