'Permanent Legislature' To Be Sworn Again In January

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The results are in and the winners of the 2004 congressional elections are-surprise, surprise-the same people who won the 2002 elections. And the 2000 elections. And the 1998 elections.

That is, incumbents continue to be reelected in record numbers every election in a system that is looking more and more like the House of Lords in England, whose members are appointed and never face election by constituents.

That comparison, by the way, was first made last week by the Washington Post's David Broder, one of the foremost political writers in the country.

He was referring to the increasing erosion of voter importance in the make-up of the House and Senate.

This year, if you subtract the three Texas races where carefully designed redistricting forced incumbents to run against each other, only four incumbents lost.

This means that incumbents were almost guaranteed reelection, winning more than 99% of their races.

That's a new record, topping last election's record, which topped the record set the elections before, in 2000.

In other words, once you're elected to Congress, you can basically stay as long as you want, unless you're indicted or do something else to shock the voters.

There are several reasons for this disturbing elimination of the voters from our electoral system. The biggest is the politically stacked redistricting process by which the political party controlling the state legislature carefully draws congressional districts to protect its representatives.

The Texas situation is the most glaring one this year. In the Lone Star State after the Republicans won control in the 2002 elections they set about drafting a new congressional map that insured that four long-time House Democrats (credit union supporters all) were left to run in heavily Republican districts, assuring their defeat on election day.

The result was the GOP picked up six new House seats in Texas for next year's Congress.

Similar situations occurred in recent years in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and other states that reconfigured their congressional districts after the 2000 census.

Then there's the power of incumbency. Incumbents not only have the ability to communicate with voters at the taxpayers' expense with regular mailings and other media paid for from their offices, but are easily able to out-raise challengers in the most-important electoral tool of all-money.

This trend becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because as the reelection rate increases, then campaign donors become increasingly likely to contribute to incumbents, who are almost never turned out of office.

The overwhelming financial benefits of incumbency were evident this year as never before. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which follows the congressional money trail, preliminary results show that 96% of House races and 91% of Senate races were won by the candidates who spent the most money.

The results are preliminary because final campaign spending reports are not due until Dec. 2.

But what is more depressing are these findings by the CRP. Almost a third of all House races, 127, involved a candidate with no financial opposition.

In 30 of those races there was no opponent at all.

In 97 of those races, winning candidates faced challengers who either spent no money or filed no reports with the Federal Election Commission, which only requires reports if a candidate spends more than $5,000 on a campaign.

Money was also decisive when two challengers faced-off for open House seats, the CRP found. The top spender won 84% of open House races and 88% of open Senate races.

And for those idealists who thought that a ban of unlimited soft money contributions would help reduce the influence of money on political campaigning a chilling reality reared its head.

Candidates and allied interests spent more than $4 billion on this year's races, almost 30% more than the $3 billion spent in the 2000 elections, the last presidential election year.

Spending was up across the board, for the presidential race, for House and Senate races, and by special interests, with the so-called 527 groups more than replacing the soft money supposedly eliminated under the 2002 McCain-Feingold law.

Preliminary figures also show the Republicans continue to enjoy a wide advantage in money, despite the avid spending by Democratic-affiliated 527 groups in this year's election.

Republican candidates and affiliated groups are expected to have outspent their Democratic counterparts by more than $250 million when the figures are all in.

This conjures up what to me was the most memorable warning about efforts to rein in campaign spending.

That was by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, an opponent of McCain-Feingold, who said trying to limit money in politics was like squashing Jell-O under a rock, it squirts out in all directions, many of which could not have been foreseen.

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