WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Americans Re-elect an Unpopular Congress

Nov 12, 2014

After last week’s midterm election, Washington’s Republican leaders imagine their future as “Interstellar.”

But it could be more like the unmanned space station supply rocket that blew up on liftoff Oct. 29, because most incumbents are returning,

Credit Wiki Commons

Actually, what was mildly surprising last week wasn’t the GOP gaining a majority in the U.S. Senate, nor the mixed message of voters electing a few more Republicans while also overwhelmingly casting ballots for a host of progressive issues: a minimum wage hike, voting rights, progressive taxation, women’s health protection and more in Illinois, plus equal-pay, paid sick leave, due process for teachers, labor rights and legalized marijuana elsewhere.

What was a bit surprising was that despite Congress’ approval rating at its lowest in 40 years (16 percent, said Gallup – far worse than President Obama’s 45 percent, which Rasmussen Reports noted on Nov. 2), almost all members of Congress got re-elected. Out of 435 members of the House, only 8 to 17 seats were ever even “in play,” according to analysts from Cook Political Report, RealClearPolitics and others.

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who’s now at Indiana University, said, “Nearly three-quarters of Americans want to throw out most members of Congress, including their own Representative, yet the vast majority of incumbents will be returning to Capitol Hill in January. In other words, Americans scorn Congress but keep re-electing its members.”

How did this happen?

First, elected officials – even in Congress – are good politicians – that’s how they got elected initially. Now, they somehow separate themselves from the obstruction and inaction on Capitol Hill they help create, some even campaigning as “outsiders” from a Congress and government they belittle. A few may also claim a commitment to consensus, compromise and bipartisanship even though most incumbents have track records of voting how their party’s legislative leaders want.

Next, challenging an incumbent is tough. After all, office-holders have staff and salaries, exploit their higher profiles, benefit from favorable gerrymandering of their districts, and rely on the country’s terrible voter turnout. So few Americans vote, Congress is essentially picked by about 20 percent of eligible voters, and many of them make their choices based on one issue, or name recognition, and so on.

It’s not just Republicans. Illinois is one of a handful of states, along with Connecticut, Maryland and a few others, where Democrats controlled re-districting, and it favors those in power in the states, Republican or Democrat. It’s a destructive, anti-democratic practice, whoever does it.

Bill Knight

Matthew Green, a professor at Catholic University of America who specializes in Congress, said, “The biggest reason is that there are very few districts represented by an incumbent from the 'wrong' party. Out of 435 congressional seats, perhaps 20 of them are held by a member whose district leans away from his or her party, with maybe a dozen more being true 'swing' districts. With those numbers, most House elections are bound to be boring affairs.”

This is far from what seems to have been envisioned by the Founders, who had House members run every other year to have elections reflect changing grassroots opinion, and Senate members every six years to shield them from momentary trends.

So: Those seeing change may be disappointed.

Michael Sean Winters, who writes about politics and religion for “Distinctly Catholic,” said, “Not much is likely to get done. The country will still not get the leadership it needs,” he added, “– only the leadership it has come to deserve.”

The result? Another unpopular do-nothing Congress.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University. 

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com