Commentary

Democracy Demands Ousting the Incumbent Class

By Patrick Basham
This article originally appeared on FoxNews.com on August 4, 1005.
These days, there are fewer and fewer competitive congressional elections. That is a very worrisome trend, because political competition matters a great deal.

More candidates for office and the increased turnover of representatives produce better choices for voters. Political competition also heightens voter interest, stimulates the adoption of distinctive policies by candidates and parties, and produces higher voter turnout.

The House of Representatives was designed to be the legislative body most responsive to public opinion. But the decline in competitiveness makes the House less representative. This is not the outcome our constitutional framers intended.

The word election derives from the Latin electus, meaning, “to select,” thereby implying choice, competition, and the possibility of both success and failure. But America’s House of Representatives has Soviet-style reelection rates. An unindicted member of congress in good health stands a better than 99 percent chance of winning reelection.

Incumbents enjoy tremendous advantages over challengers, and the importance of holding public office has risen over time. Since the 1950s, the percentage of the vote that a candidate receives simply for incumbency has risen to 11 percent from just 2 percent.

There are now close to 400 safe congressional seats. Not only do incumbents win more often than they used to, but they win by increasingly wide margins. Today, 80 percent of House races produce landslide victories. One in five incumbents is returned to Washington following an uncontested race.

Incumbency is so entrenched that most voters lack any real say in who represents them. This sorry state of affairs is incompatible with a healthy political system.

Worse, congressmen have granted themselves several resources out of the public trough. These include the congressional franking privilege, large staffs, and unlimited travel between Washington and their districts. These subsidies alone are worth more than $1 million annually per House member.

Publicly financed careerism has significant negative consequences for the health of the political system. Yet, current redistricting practices and campaign finance regulations serve only to make a bad situation worse.

Redistricting has evolved into an electoral instrument to protect and strengthen the incumbency advantage. The parties cooperate with each other to minimize their respective election risks.

Because of gerrymandered districts, 90 percent of Americans live in congressional districts where the outcome is so certain that their votes are irrelevant. As long as gerrymandering is permitted, control over redistricting will have more influence on election outcomes than any other factor, including voter preference.

Politicians increasingly choose those voters they will represent, rather than the other way around. The redistricting process has degenerated into a conspiracy against competitive elections, undermining the fundamental notion of representation.

There’s also a relationship between the major instruments of campaign finance regulation, such as contribution limits, public financing, and a soft money ban, and political competition. None of these regulatory instruments have been capable of enhancing political competition. On the contrary, campaign finance restrictions and taxpayer-subsidized elections have reduced political competition.

How can we increase political competition? First, let’s make the most of federalism to encourage experimentation at the state level. A state-by-state approach to resolving the redistricting issue can involve the initiative petition process.

For example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has placed a redistricting initiative on this fall’s California ballot. It seeks popular approval for handing control of redistricting over to an independent panel of retired judges. It’s not a perfect solution, but removing politicians’ control over redistricting can help to lessen the problem.

Second, assistance on the campaign finance front may come in the form of fewer constraints on the role of money in electoral politics. Higher spending on more campaign literature, political advertising, and grassroots activity to register, identify, and mobilize voters may produce both an electorate that’s better informed about politics and a political process that’s more competitive.

These types of changes merit serious consideration. Elected officials should be disconnected from campaign regulation and election rule making. The stubborn reality is that there won’t be greater political competition until the incumbent fox ends his tenure as guardian of the democratic henhouse.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and the co-author of the recent study “Uncompetitive Elections and the American Political System.”