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Congress for Life
The Problem of Careerism in Congress
and a Case For Term Limits

by John Armor

For the first 125 years of American history under its new Constitution, we were governed by citizen representatives in Congress and in the White House. Tradition, not legal requirements, maintained this condition.

Presidents followed the example of George Washington, who served two terms as president and then went home, not because he was forced to but because he believed in "rotation in office." That meant elected leaders would not always remain in office, but would in turn be the governed, rather than the rulers.

In 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke that tradition by running for and winning a third term, and then a fourth. The nation responded by adopting the 22nd Amendment in 1951, providing that no person shall serve as president more than two terms. All presidents since then have been required by law, rather than encouraged by George Washington's example, to serve limited terms.

A similar, less noticed change was occurring in Congress at the same time. The tradition there was that members would serve perhaps two terms in the House, one or maybe two in the Senate, and then return to their homes to live under the laws they had written.

For our first 125 years, about 35 percent of the members of the House retired before every election. They were not usually faced with potential defeat if they chose to run again. These were "voluntary quits", members who went home because they believed that was good for them and good for the nation.

This does not mean that pure altruism was at work here. In the first century, congressmen had not yet learned the art of feathering their own nests with hundred-thousand-dollar salaries, million-dollar pensions, large and obsequious staffs, and all the perks and privileges that power is heir to. In short, remaining in Congress for decades was not as attractive then as now.

Also, Congress had not yet invented the massive committee structure and the rigorous seniority system to fill the leadership positions. If power, rather than luxury, was to be the draw to keep members coming back, term after term, that was also in short supply in the first century.

Average turnover in the House for the entire first century of our government was 43 percent in every election. There were a few convictions or expulsions then, as now, and there were deaths. But almost all of this massive turnover was due to "voluntary quits". To put that statistic in perspective, the highest turnover in any election in the second century was in 1932 during the Great Depression. The landslide that brought FDR into office also caused a turnover in the House of 37.7 percent, still substantially less than the average for all of the prior century.

Today, the press and political "experts" vigorously debate careerism in Congress. Among the people, that debate has long since been decided. There is no debate, however, that congressional tenure has sharply increased, especially among the leaders of Congress, in the last 70 years.

There is a common error about why this change has occurred. Most reporters and "experts" point to rising reelection rates of incumbents as the basic reason. This is more than half wrong.

Reelection rates have risen, but not sharply. In the first 102 years of our history beginning in 1790 (the second election), the reelection rate in the House was 82.5 percent, overall. In the first 13 elections, 1790 - 1812, the average reelection rate was a very modern number of 93.7 percent.

In the next 50 years, extending into the 20th century, it was 82.7 percent, overall. In the most recent 52 years it was 90.5 percent, overall. For the entire second 102 years, it was 86.7 percent. So, comparing apples and apples, the reelection rate in the second fifty-one House elections was only 4.2 percent higher than in the first fifty-one elections. This modest increase in the reelection rate cannot account for the large increase in average tenure of congressmen.

The other factor, ordinarily overlooked, is the decline in "voluntary quits". Members who simply decided to go home, rather than run again, used to account for more than two-thirds of the turnover in every election. The lack of "voluntary quits" accounts for more than two-thirds of the drastic increase in average tenure. Rising reelection rates and declining voluntary quits are both necessary to create the present level of careerism in Congress.

What about the Senate, alert readers will say at this point? First of all, senators were not popularly elected until after the 17th Amendment was adopted in 1913. Before then, they were chosen by each state legislature. Second, elections for Senate are more visible, better funded for challengers to incumbents, and more competitive than House races. The problem of careerism in the Senate is sharply different from that in the House.

Because of the filibuster and points of personal privilege in the Senate, and the capacity of any senator to introduce any amendment to almost any bill on the floor, the leaders of the Senate have far less control and influence over the individual senators and especially over the contents of legislation than leaders of the House have over their colleagues and their proposed bills. Likewise, committee chairmen in the Senate have far less power over the contents of legislation, or over the more important point, whether legislation on a particular subject ever reaches the Senate floor.

In the House, the Speaker exercises strong control, sometimes dictatorial control, over what will pass and what will never reach the floor. Committee chairmen exercise similar control in the subject areas of their various committees. So, the House is less democratic both in the election of its members, and in the ability of its rank and file members to accomplish anything legislatively, once they get to Washington.

The Foley Forces were fond of saying that "high" turnover in 1992 demonstrates that term limits are unnecessary. The first error in that assertion is the turnover rate of 25.3 percent was not high by historical standards. Only the exceptionally low turnover rates in the last two decades make it seem "high". The second error is that turnover rates are always atypical in years ending with a "2." This is due to the ten-year cycle of "partial incumbency".

The Constitution requires a national census every ten years, from 1790. So, the House has been reapportioned every ten years, from 1792. Reapportionment causes incumbents to run against other incumbents. In five races in 1992, that virtually ensured five incumbents would win, and five would lose.

More commonly, reapportionment adds areas to incumbents' districts that they never represented before. They face voters who don't know them from Adam. In those areas sometimes a substantial portion of the new district the incumbent lacks the advantages of incumbency and is just another name on the ballot. In short, every ten years when House districts increase in size due to national population growth, incumbents become partial incumbents.

This, in turn, draws more and stronger challengers into the races. The goal of gerrymandering, whether done by Republicans or Democrats, is to make seats stronger for the more influential incumbents, meaning those with most seniority and clout. So, long-term incumbents get districts with higher proportions of voters in their party. That makes them safer in the general election. But in redistricting years only, it makes them more vulnerable in party primaries.

History demonstrates the special nature of these years. In every decade since 1932, more incumbents have been defeated in their party primaries in redistricting years than in any other elections. As noted before, 1932 was a watershed year in American politics when FDR swept into office. An all-time record of 42 incumbents were denied renomination. But the pattern continued in normal redistricting years. In 1942, 20 incumbents lost in their primaries. In 1952, 9 lost. In 1962, 12 lost. In 1972, it was 12 again. In 1982, 10 lost in primaries.

The number of incumbents defeated in their own primaries in 1992 was 19. Low though this is by historical standards, it will probably be the highest rate for this decade.

Redistricting has another effect, which also applies in all years ending in a "2". It causes some incumbents to assess their positions and decide to retire or run for other offices, rather than seek reelection to the House. Elective defeat is not now, and never has been, the primary cause of turnover in the House. The primary reason has been voluntary quits.

Until 1900, there were only two years in which the voluntary quit rate was below 15 percent (1808 and 1870). Since 1902, there has only been one year in which the voluntary quit rate rose above 15 percent (1912). The effect has been most pronounced in the 27 elections beginning in 1938. In all but five of those, the voluntary quit rate has been less than 10 percent. (The exceptions are 1952, and 1972-78.). This one major change, declining voluntary quits, is the key to the exceptionally low turnover rates in the House in the 20th century.

So, this category picks up deaths and expulsions as well as choices not to run. The other factors are not an important part of the statistic except in 1988, when seven incumbents died and seven were defeated. Still, 26 incumbents chose not to run again. Voluntary quits remained in 1988 the main cause of House turnover, even though it dropped to its all-time low of 7.6 percent.

The concentration of power in the hands of the Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader, the Majority Whip, and the committee chairmen, all of whom are among the most senior members of the majority party (currently the Republicans), has a second effect reinforcing high careerism and low turnover. Most special interests in Washington, especially those which raise and spend the most money on congressional elections, are organized according to the economic interests they represent.

In 1992, the ten largest Political Action Committees (PACs) in total dollars given to candidates for the House, were: Realtors, at $2.95 million; American Medical Assoc., $2.94; Teamsters, $2.44; Trial Lawyers, $2.37; Nat'l Education Assoc. (teachers union), $2.32; United Auto Workers, $2.23; AFSCME (public employee union), $1.95; Nat'l Automobile Dealers, $1.78; Nat'l Rifle Assoc., $1.74; and the Letter Carriers, $1.71 million.

Using a chart of House committees, one easily sees the committees these PACs look to for legislation in their favor, or for blockage of legislation which might harm them. The Realtors look to banking and commerce, the doctors to all committees dealing with health care, the Teamsters to labor and commerce. The Teamsters win the Mom-flag-and-apple-pie award for their PAC name. It doesn't mention "Teamsters". It's the "Democratic, Republican, Independent Voter Education Committee".

Where do these special interests concentrate their money, and why? They give dominantly to incumbent congressmen who serve on their committees of interest. Plus, they give heavily to the top leaders, Speaker , Majority Leader , and Majority Whip .

Special interests also give heavily to "leadership PACs" organized by such officials. A leadership PAC is a cash drawer controlled by a leader to accept far more money than that person possibly needs for reelection. The leader then parcels the money out to rank and file members of his party who need it. The recipients then become loyal supporters of whatever the leader wants in the future.

In short, PACs know which side their bread is buttered on, and they give money on that basis. PACs gave 71.7 percent to incumbents in 1992 (only 11.7 percent to challengers). They also did not neglect the Minority Leader and Minority Whip.

Again, the logic of the special interests is clear. The minority party might gain the majority after the election' and if they do, they will be Sneaker and Majority Whip, respectively.

PACs understand most major legislation does not pass today without some Minority support. Supporting leaders of the minority party is good business not as good as supporting majority leaders but, an insurance policy nonetheless.

So, consideration of careerism in the House should focus on its leadership, separate from its rank and file members. The committee chairmen usually decide whether a bill on any subject reaches the floor at all, and if so, what its major provisions will be and which provisions will be left on the cutting room floor. The Speaker appoints the members of the Rules Committee, and that committee writes the conditions under which any bill reaches the floor. Often it writes a "closed rule", meaning that other than chosen and stated amendments, no amendments can be offered by anyone on the floor of the House.

Provisions like the closed rule are particularly appreciated by special interests that know how to navigate the halls of power in Washington but know that their interests are not popular with the people back home. A closed rule means no grandstanding freshman congressman can offer an amendment on the floor that will gut-shoot the deal they have carefully worked out.

After the election of 1992, Members of Congress tended to have their political philosophies fairly well established by the time they run for and win seats in the House. The average member was first elected when President George Bush was elected in 1988. By contrast, the average House leader was first elected when President Richard Nixon came into of office in 1968. To put that in perspective, the average House leader had been in office since the original Woodstock Art and Music Festival took place in New York, a quarter century ago.

It is the leadership, and the seniority system that places the oldest members in the positions of greatest power, that poses the greatest danger to the operation of the House. The degree to which the leadership, and therefore the legislative output of the House, are out of touch with the American people, arises from how long ago any of the leaders faced a truly competitive election. Absent competition, the leaders need only pay lip service, not close attention, to the views of their constituents.

Even today, when dissatisfaction with Congress is at its height and an anti-incumbent fever is also high, according to all national public opinion polls, it will still be true in November 2000 that about 25 percent of all incumbents will run without major party challengers.

The critical question, however the biennial deception in which the press plays a major role is the difference between a name on the ballot and an opponent who has any real chance of success. Every incumbent who has any paper challenger in a primary or general election will repeatedly comment that "Smith is a serious challenger. He/she is running a good race."

The truth is, experienced incumbents know full well the difference between a challenger who represents a real threat and those who are just passing names on meaningless ballots. All incumbents in such walk-over elections use the Lou Holtz Bluff.

All experienced incumbents know a dirty little truth most House elections are over six months to a year before they are held. Experienced members of the press know the same thing, but they dare not report it. Conflict sells newspapers and gets people to watch TV. And that, in turn, sells cars, beer, and underarm deodorant. If there isn't any real conflict in congressional races, false conflict will do just as well as long as the public hasn't caught on. Those are bold charges. They can be proved.


Purchase the book
"Why Terms Limits? Because They Have It Coming" 
by John C. Armor

About The Author

John C. Armor is an attorney specializing in constitutional law, a former professor of political science, and an author. This is his fifth book. He graduated from Yale University and Maryland Law School. His involvement in political law cases has continued since his first US Supreme Court win in 1976 on behalf of Eugene McCarthy, independent candidate for President. He also was legal advisor to John Anderson who ran in 1980. He began the research which led to this book in 1990, in the Ph.D. Program in Political Science at American University. He lives with his son on a mountain top in the Blue Ridge, south of the Great Smokies, and commutes to work in Washington, D.C. This article is excerpted with permission from his book "Why Term Limits?", 1994 Jameson Books, Inc., Ottawa, IL. Copies of Why Term Limits? are available for $9.95 postpaid by calling 800-426-1357 to order.


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