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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Fascinating little result from the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll: Half of Americans surveyed said they would throw out the entire Congress right now–including their own member–if they could. “The voters who supported the clean-slate approach largely didn’t care much about whether the Democrats or Republicans ended up in the majority,” writes WSJ’s Mary Lu Carnevale in a preview of the poll to be released later this afternoon.

The anger out there is understandable. But what’s irrational is the idea that there is some sort of “permanent” Congress that needs to be replaced immediately and all at once. It’s just not true.

Yes, re-election rates are higher than during earlier moments in American history. And congressional incumbents certainly have wired the system–through the use of franking privileges, earmarks, organizing the congressional calendar to allow them time to get back to their states or districts to campaign, and so on–to provide themselves many valuable electoral advantages. Campaign money flows disproportionately to them, and a self-feeding loop emerges in which invulnerable incumbents raise most of the cash, thereby deterring potential challengers, making them more untouchable, and so on. And then, every 10 years they use their political clout to carve up favorable districts that make them demographically unbeatable.

So these corpulent, corrupt and complacent reps are in office forever, growing more out of touch with real Americans every day, right? Not really.

Keep in mind that even if, say, 95 percent of House incumbents run and 95 percent of them win, that implies a net return rate every two years of about 90 percent. That’s very high by historical standards, of course, but it also means that over the course of a decade only a little more than half of House members still there at the end were there at the beginning of that 10-year stretch. After all, a 90 percent return rate raised to the fifth power–i.e., after five election cycles–is about 59 percent.

And sure enough, if you look down the list of 431 current House members (there are four vacancies) sorted by seniority, only 198 of them, or 46 percent, have served in House consecutively going back to before January 2001, when the class elected in 2000 five cycles ago was inducted. Since then, 227 entered Congress by election or special election, and there are six other current incumbents who have greater total seniority but only because of interrupted service that began again at some point after January 2001. (Reps. Cooper, Harman, Lungren, Inglis, Bilbray and Rodriquez.)

But here’s why the instinct to just throw all the bums out seems rational but is potentially counter-productive if not irrational: Even with significant turnover, the notion that members of Congress will be independent of the influence of special interests is a fantasy. In fact, just the reverse is likely to happen: In a Congress full of rookies, the interest group community will have greater influence because it has longer institutional memory and control over information. That’s not just speculation: Studies of state interest group communities tend to show that they are more influential in so-called “citizen legislatures” where members serve part-time (see , and that states with term limits only tend to further strengthen interest groups.

There are no term limits on the interest group community, and no way to throw all those “bums” out at once. Sure, there are problems with having too much seniority in the legislature. It’s also problematic when members become so insulated from electoral threat they lose touch. But the impulse to throw them all out of office should be tempered by consideration of the alternative.

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