How Incumbents Take, and Lose, Advantages

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.

But, in 2010, only two years after winning the White House and extending their majorities in Congress, Democrats lost sixty-three House seats and six Senate seats through legislative excesses and overreach.

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.

Accordingly, many disaffected Americans were more surprised by how many Democrats were re-elected than by the number who were returned to live among the citizens they had betrayed. But, in fact, the deck is stacked for incumbents.

During the first century of American history, Congress consisted primarily of citizen legislators. In a typical election, a third or more voluntarily left to resume their prior lives.

But, that was before members of Congress began rewarding themselves with six-figure salaries, generous benefits and huge pensions, created large, deferential staffs, awarded themselves additional powers, perks and privileges, made “Congress for Life” an attractive and lucrative career path, and schemed to protect incumbency.

The first American Congress created franking privileges, or postage-free mail, to allow members to inform constituents about government operations and policy choices before Congress. Today, free congressional mailers have evolved into campaign documents promoting other incumbent-protection activities, including congressional earmarks that bypass normal budgetary controls such as open hearings, national priority evaluations, competitive bidding and spending oversight.

But, the current Congress suspended a decade-long moratorium on earmarks. By “securing” earmarks, members use taxes taken from their constituents’ paychecks to preserve their own.

Members continue to arrange low-interest federal loans for campaign donors, and take credit for federal grants to which they contributed nothing.

Limiting ballot access for challengers helps preserve incumbency, as well. In Pennsylvania, for example, party-affiliated Congressional candidates need only 1,000 notarized signatures on qualifying petitions. Independents must get more than three times that number, but need many more to discourage major-party challenges that are often made simply to bleed funds from non-incumbent campaigns.

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

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 ensure, in most cases, that incumbents will not be outspent by challengers.

Power attracts and intimidates. Most political-action committees (PACs) representing special interests 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 legislative vengeance.

Through years of collaboration with PACs and other special interests, Congress created a Byzantine tax code of about 75,000 pages embedded with tax breaks and shelters for, 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 done, beginning with reforming the tax code.

But America needs term limits, too. Despite incumbents’ claims, elections simply are not effective term limits. Today, in a typical election, the average turnover of congressional seats unrelated to voluntary retirement is under 10 percent. Certainly, some good people in government would be lost to term limits, but the benefits outweigh the negatives.

Term limits, putting 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.

Considering the advantages of incumbency, the 2010 election was proof of the extent to which congressional Democrats and the White House overstepped public sentiment.

It is likely to happen again this November, because policies formulated by White House, congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral Democrats bear primary responsibility for American voters’ greatest concerns: brutal inflation, high gas prices, violent crime, election integrity and illegal immigration. Only 13 percent of Americans think the nation is “on the right track.”

Incumbency protection rackets notwithstanding, 2022 is shaping up to be another 2010.


Contact columnist Jerry Shenk at [email protected]