Thursday, January 24, 2013

195. We don't like Congress, now what?

Recently, in frustration with the Republican-led House of Representative's decision not to vote on whether to provide disaster relief to the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, "It's why the American people hate Congress."

Hate is a strong word, but the current Congress did end with an approval rating of about 18 percent, and, in fact, Congress hasn't had an approval rating above 40 percent since 2005. There is much to be considered in these types of polls, but every once and awhile I get a chain email pleading with Americans to vote out "everyone" in Congress. The continued fighting between political parties on major economic issues and polices--like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff--are testing the patience of the American public. With such a meager approval rating, voting members out not only sounds like a good idea but a plausible one. Thus the question is, if we are so unhappy with Congress and its members, why do we continue to reelect them?

To answer this question, I think there are at least two reasons why members of Congress, even an unpopular one, are reelected time and time again. The two reasons, not mutually exclusive, are the political advantages of incumbency and the lack of choice from a viable third or fourth political party.

Incumbents enjoy many advantages over their political challengers. They have name recognition, campaign funding, full-time staffers and political--as well as community and corporate--connections. These advantages have resulted in the extraordinarily high reelection of political incumbents. In the House of Representatives, for example, reelection of incumbents is traditionally over 90 percent.

One of the biggest advantages, however, might just be gained during the primary election. Many incumbents do not face a primary challenger. In fact, their political party might actually discourage potential primary challengers from running. Without a challenger, campaign funds can be preserved and the incumbent can watch the other party fight it out. For example, President Obama was able to watch Mitt Romney fight it out with Republican candidates-which is not only costly, but also exposes political weaknesses.

In the instances in which there is a primary challenger, again, the incumbent, almost always wins. This advantage is amplified when there are multiple primary challengers. Even if a change is desired, the vote is often split--favoring the incumbent. We saw this situation in the 2012 Democratic Lorain County Commissioner primary, in which Lori Kokoski won by gaining 10,000 votes--while her challengers split 15,000 votes. Thus, although she only received 40 percent of the votes she moved on to the general election.

The problem for voters trying to oust an incumbent is that the only other choice after the primary is voting for a candidate from the other political party. Thus if a community is unhappy with a Democratic congressman or congresswoman, the only other choice is to vote for a Republican--and vice versa. The problem for many is that no matter how unhappy they are with their incumbent, voting for the other party, with opposing political philosophies, is potentially worse.

Consider for example that if in the recent senate race I was a little unhappy with Sherrod Brown--that perhaps he was not liberal enough, or maybe too liberal. The problem is that the only chance I have to elect someone who better represents my views is probably in the primary--which in this case Brown ran unopposed. After the primary, and in this example, I am faced with either voting for Sherrod Brown or Josh Mandel. And even if I am unhappy with the job Sherrod Brown has done in the Senate, there is no way I am considering, or willing to vote for, a polar opposite like Josh Mandel. Sure, there might actually be a couple of third party candidates--but none with any chance of winning. So, once again, the incumbent wins.

Where there might actually be choice--to elect a moderate Republican, perhaps-- is in the Republican primary. But Democrats, obviously and fairly, have no say in the Republican primary. Thus, if there was a Republican candidate that I would vote for, I only get that opportunity if he or she wins the primary.

Thus, if we really do not favorably approve our Congress, we need choice. We need another choice besides the incumbent, who almost always gets a free ride into the general election and the "other party" which often operates at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

To defeat an incumbent without changing political philosophies, we could benefit from additional political parties who offer different wave-lengths along the spectrum. Liberals might consider Green Party candidates-and fiscal conservatives might be enticed by a Libertarian. Or both sides might consider an Independent. But this consideration is dependent on an actual chance of winning--otherwise fear is that the vote is wasted.

And additional parties would offer more real discourse. For example, there would be depth to the conversation as to what separates the views on climate change between the green party candidate and the democratic candidate. There we might find real differences and be able to make real decisions. There is no reasonable discussion, or decision, between a democrat and a republican if, for example, the latter denies that climate change even exists.

A third or fourth party might also put pressure on campaign funding, and donors, particularly large corporate donors, who would have to be more diligent in who they might support. And Political Action Committees would not be able to spend millions trying to defeat just one candidate.

Finally and when everything else fails, we could fall back on term limits to force turnover. As a last result for voters, term limits are a double edged sword. In the short term it might actually increase incumbency as potential challengers might decide to let an incumbent "term out" before engaging. It also serves to remove the really good ones, like Sherrod Brown--who has the passion and experience to get things done-in favor of "someone else." It is a cop out for voters, a skirting of responsibility, but something I would support.

Like many things in politics, a world in which winner takes all, there are no easy solutions. But it is time to consider a reasonable political system which will allow voters to remove incumbents without completely sacrificing political values. We need contested primaries and we would benefit from multiple political parties. We need campaign finance laws that would level the playing field. Some Congressional races cost from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to run. We need to make it easier for ordinary, but qualified, Americans to run for office--in terms of time and cost. Finally, and in addition to term limits, we need active voters--those who are willing to learn about their candidate, vote in primaries and support third parties. An 18 percent approval rating and a 90 percent reelection rate just does not seem to add up.

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