If a group of planners sat down and tried to design a pair of American national assemblies with the goal of serving members' reelection needs year in and year out, they would be hard pressed to improve on what exists
- David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection1
Incumbency in the American congress has become endemic. Across both Republican and Democrat parties, and the House and Senate, incumbents are almost certainly reelected. Against a backdrop of declining voter participation, reelection rates for House members since the Watergate scandal have barely dropped below 90 percent, with similar rates in the Senate since the 1980s2. What accounts for this inability for voters to change the status quo despite their increasing disillusionment with politics and the political system stems closely from the post-Watergate campaign reforms and by the incumbents building institutional and financial ramparts from which to defend themselves. This node focuses on two aspects of incumbency, namely the institutional arrangements that give incumbents advantage, and the "rational choice" theorists view that argues that the only motivation behind the actions of Congress is reelection.
Merriner and Senter suggest a number of measures account for the almost assured re-election of incumbents, namely, federal limits on campaign funding; staffing, franking and travel allowances; constituent casework; Automatic claim to media attention; and Gerrymandered House districts via state election laws and officials. Using this framework, I will discuss each of these measures to account for high rates of incumbency, and how they fit within the "rational choice" paradigm.
Whilst the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1974 aimed to reduce the dependence of candidates on money, especially the "big money" endorsements of large corporations or labour unions3, substantively it has achieved the opposite. FECA restricted individual contributions to $1000 per candidate in each campaign, and $5000 per Political Action Committee (PAC) or political party committee, as well as a spending cap of $70,000. Whilst the spending cap was later overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, contribution limits remained unchanged, with the exception that candidates could spend their own personal funds freely. In 1979, as a reaction to falling voter participation Congress passed laws to allow political parties to collect unrestricted amounts of money for voter registration drives. This provision, as Merriner notes, has led to unlimited "issues advocacy" spending by PACs and interest groups4.
PAC contributions tend to be weighted heavily in favour of the incumbent. For example, in Newt Gingrich's defence of his Georgia seat in 1996, campaign contributions by PACs outnumbered challengers ten to one5. Obviously PACs contributions flow most freely to those already in Congress because they are already in a position to influence legislation of the day. The high rates of incumbency exacerbate this situation. As the odds are already severely weighted against any challenger from the outset, it is fairly " safe bet" for the PACs to back the incumbent to win.
Essentially the rulings in regards to the FECA apply to both incumbents and challengers. However incumbents already have a marked resource advantage due to the allowances that they receive whilst in office. " Franking privilege", the free mailing benefits that congressional incumbents accept allow each congressman on average to mail one million items of mail to their constituents per month6. This constant contact with their constituency allows not only for the incumbent to build some awareness of themselves outside of election periods, but also permits for campaign publicity that is not freely available for the challenger. Mail-outs are of critical importance in that they represent a tool by which incumbents can form a one-to-one relationship with their constituents. Given that the incumbent need not make a public statement to all constituents in their mailings, messages can be tailored to the issues that are most pressing to a particular target group. Combined with increasingly accurate polling and demographic and psychographic information, the incumbent involved can send out contradictory information to different members of the public - satisfying most - without being seen publicly to take a strong or contradictory stand on an issue7.
Given that the US Congress is not dominated by party politics and incumbents have no need to toe the "party line", the way that a member of the Senate or House represents themselves is open to change. Whilst this does not negate the ability of constituents to publicly label members of Congress as "'liberal', 'conservative', pro- or antienvironmental protection, labour, affirmative action, or whatever"8 via their legislative voting record, it may convince the public that Congress members private sympathies lie elsewhere. This type of private contact with constituents gives the incumbent huge leverage against challengers. Whilst these channels are not closed to challengers, challengers must spend campaign contributions and personal funds in order to afford them - an expense carried by taxpayers for the incumbents. Similarly, members of congress have a massive staff at their disposal as McKay notes, each House member on average has 17 staff at their disposal, each Senator averaging 38 aides9. The larger staffs that are employed by Congress allow members to conduct more casework for their constituents. Whilst the rising numbers of Congressional staff have come at a time when the workload and pressure on politicians to perform is increasing, they also correspond to the increasing rates of incumbency. The permanent Congress is also accompanied and supported by a permanent and growing bureaucracy.
Both House and Senate members lay claim to automatic media attention, increasing their exposure to their constituents. Given that most electoral politics is now played through the media this factor is of immense importance. In order to hold a modern campaign, most campaign spending is directed at media outlets. House members have the ability to appear, virtually at will, on the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN), which televises House sessions each day to viewers in some 17 million homes. Members may speak briefly before a session convenes and make longer speeches after it adjourns allowing space for campaign related comments. C-SPAN dutifully broadcasts such appearances even when the speaker is facing an empty chamber10. Despite C-SPAN being accessed directly by a small percentage of the US voting population, sound bites from such speeches are often picked up by larger networks, furthering exposure. Whilst C-SPAN plays an important role in informing the public of legislation, its ability to be used as a part of an electoral campaign gives a huge advantage to incumbents.
Incumbents also tend to garner much support within their home districts by local media. Probably the most graphic example of this is Senator Strom Thurmond's defence of his South Carolina seat for the ninth time in 1996, against challenger Elliot Spring Close. Despite Thurmond being the butt of many national media jokes due to his age (93 years at the time), local media coverage bordered on veneration. His challenger's media advisor Kevin Geddings probably best summarises the situation;
...the South Carolina press corps is hardly known for its aggressiveness...(They) regularly allowed Thurmond's handlers to engage Elliot Close in verbal exchanges rather than insisting the exchanges be between candidates. Thurmond was obviously unable to meet the rigours of the job for which he was campaigning, but unfortunately one good article in Newsweek is not enough to educate every South Carolina voter11.
Thurmond had in fact not directly debated a challenger since 1950, and largely had no need to due to the constantly sympathetic local media. A debate could only act to legitimate any competition that Thurmond would face. Attempts to right the balance of media to give challengers an equal footing, often fail due to their "legality" under the FECA. In 1996, CompuServe offered free internet hosting for both challenger and incumbents web sites12. The Federal Electoral Commission (essentially controlled by Congress) ruled this an "in-kind contribution" and thereby unallowable under the Act. Whilst the Internet is only accessible by a small proportion of the public, its use as both a legitimate source of information and a campaign tool is undoubtedly increasing, and to have a single and easily accessible direct link to all candidates would have been invaluable in balancing some inequities.
The issue of Gerrymandered House districts rarely captures media attention, but the use of gerrymandering has been known to cause fist fights between members13. Redistricting is often seen as a racial issue in terms of the ability to redistrict as to protect (or harm) minorities from the the tyranny of the majority. However, the process of redistricting is often used to gather voter support by including favourable voters within the incumbents district, especially when a party has control of both the relevant state legislature (which controls redistricting) and Congress. Redistricting where there is different control of state and national legislatures is often a bipartisan process, with both parties essentially "trading voters" in order to maintain the status quo, or at the very least gain marginal advantages14.
Possibly the largest effect of the increasingly entrenched Congress is that it acts to discourage all credible challengers15. The most effective way to stave off opponents is to make the election seem impossible for them to win. Challengers must expend substantial economic and psychological resources on a campaign to simply match those of an incumbent. If a challenger cannot meet the resources of an incumbent, then it is unlikely that challengers will run in the first place. Credible challengers will instead wait for either a show of weakness from the member or their retirement or in some cases, death.
The "rational choice" view popularised by David Mayhew's seminal text Congress: The Electoral Connection largely focuses on the idea that once elected, the role of those in Congress becomes solely focussed on reelection. Thus members of Congress will use all the means at their disposal, legislative or otherwise, to defend their personal position irrespective of political persuasion. The aforementioned incumbency advantages created by Congress fit neatly within this scheme. Rather than being accountable for the collective performance of Congress, members are only accountable to their ability to serve their constituency, as Jacobson wryly notes to "bring home the bacon, and make generally pleasing statements"16. Instead of taking personal responsibility for the failings of government, incumbents could shift the responsibility to the "general failures and inadequacies of the institution"17 of which they are personally small part.
The rational choice view does however have its limitations. Largely, incumbents cannot know the needs of the majority of their constituents all of the time, leading to behaviour that is not rational in a perfect sense. Whilst much "non-rational" decision making is due to deferral of decisions to other members requests in return for their guaranteed future deference, the members of Congress are only human, driven by human needs, desires and passions, - as Bill Clinton embodies.
In a media saturated political arena, it is hard enough to interest citizens in voting itself, let alone voting for a particular candidate. This has lead some theorists positing that voters have replaced party bias with "incumbency bias", simply voting for a familiar name to avoid a more complex decision making process18. Despite the institutional and financial ramparts that incumbents have built, challengers keep upping the ante. Marginal returns on spending for incumbents, in terms of votes won, is decreasing - put simply the effect of increased spending is not proportionally winning votes for the incumbent. Whilst the incumbents are still winning in record numbers, the campaigning is becoming tougher, lengthier, and much more expensive. Electoral politics by its very nature is characterised by uncertainty. As much as Congress can attempt to eliminate this uncertainty through legislation or " pork and favors", incumbents can still be defeated by canny challengers exploiting the weaknesses of Congress members. First time campaigners have beaten the most veteran incumbents. Yet whether these occasional defeats in the face of an overwhelming incumbent advantage can be used to defend the healthiness of the worlds proudest democracy remains to be seen.
1. David Mayhew (1974) Congress: The Electoral Connection, New Haven: Yale U Press, p.81
2. James L. Merriner and Senter, Thomas P. (1999) Against Long Odds: Citizens Who Challenge Congressional Incumbents, Westport: Praeger, p.xxi
3. David McKay (1997) American Politics and Society, Oxford: Blackwell, p.148
4. Merriner and Senter, p.xxv
5. Merriner and Senter, p. 67
6. Merriner and Senter, p.48, cf. Mckay, p.154
7. Traditional demographics by postcode is now split into smaller partitions - down to the individual street or
block. This results in increasingly accurate mailouts, nearing the concept of "one-to-one marketing" where every communication is tailored to the preferences of the individual. See John Burnett and Sandra Moriarty (1999), Marketing Communications, New York: Prentice Hall, p.150-159. Austin Ranney discusses this situation as "Politics in the Era of Narrowcasting" in Anthony King(ed) (1990) The New American Political System, Washington: AEI Press
8. Mckay, p.154
9.This includes secretarial staff. Mckay, p.159
10. Kenneth T. Walsh, "Why 'ins' in Congress are so hard to beat." U.S. News & World Report, Oct 29, 1984 v97, p.31. President Clinton's home video shown at his final Correspondents Dinner made a pun on this very point, with him conscientiously giving a press conference to a room empty but for a lone, sleeping journalist.
11. Kevin Geddings in Merriner and Senter, p.63
12. Merriner and Senter, p.xxv
13. cf. Epstein, David; O'Halloran, Sharyn, "A social science approach to race, redistricting, and representation" American Political Science Review, March 1999 v93 i1
14. Charles O Jones in King, p. 39
15. Gary C Jacobson (1997) The Politics of Congressional Elections, 4th Ed, New York: Langman, p.43
16. Jacobson, p.28
17. Jacobson, p.29
18. Ranney in King, p.201
Alford, John, and David Brady (1989) "Partisan and Incumbent Advantage in U.S. House Elections, 1846-1986." In Lawrence Do
Alford, John, and David Brady (1989) "Partisan and Incumbent Advantage in U.S. House Elections, 1846-1986." In Lawrence Dodd and Bruce Oppenheimer (eds.) Congress Reconsidered, Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Burnett, John and Moriarty, Sandra (1999) Marketing Communications, New York: Prentice Hall
King, Anthony (ed) (1990) The New American Political System, Washington: AEI Press
Epstein, David; O'Halloran, Sharyn, "A social science approach to race, redistricting, and representation" American Political Science Review, March 1999 v93 i1 p187(5)
Fiorina, Morris P. (1977) Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, New Haven: Yale U. Press
Maisel, Louis Sandy (1986) From Obscurity to Oblivion: Running in the Congressional Primary, Knoxville: U. of Tennessee Press
McKay, David (1997) American Politics and Society, Oxford: Blackwell
Mayhew, David (1974) Congress: The Electoral Connection, New Haven: Yale U Press
Merriner, James L. and Senter, Thomas P. (1999) Against Long Odds, Westport: Praeger
Walsh, Kenneth T. "Why "ins" in Congress are so hard to beat." U.S. News & World Report, Oct 29, 1984 v97 p31(1)
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