The House Incumbent

The House Incumbent

The House Incumbent

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 3 2000 8:30 PM

The House Incumbent

He can't lose. 

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Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., is running hard toward Election Day. The five-term incumbent has been legislating frantically in Washington: In the past eight weeks, he has pushed through (and publicized) a "Camp Bill" to ease international adoptions as well as four separate "Camp Provisions" (one to use unspent funds from House offices for debt reduction, another to ensure local control over the Great Lakes, etc.). Camp is stumping his central Michigan district (hello, Greenville Danish Festival) and soliciting endorsements by the bushel. By Sept. 30, he had raised nearly $1 million for his campaign and had spent more than $800,000 of it—a fortune in his rural district.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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So has Camp held off some feisty challenger? Has he extinguished a grave Democratic threat to his seat? Uh, sort of. Given that hardly anyone has heard of Democrat Lawrence Hollenbeck, that Camp has outspent Hollenbeck by a ratio of nearly 200-1, and that Camp won 91 percent of the vote in 1998, he has as much chance of losing Tuesday as he does of getting hit by a blimp.

Is there a cushier job in America than incumbent House member? The media keep reminding us that this is the Free Agent Nation: No job is stable. We are all in a constant state of being fired and rehired and competing against younger, better-educated rivals. But our representatives have more job security than tenured professors.

Political analysts are noodling over the vicious battle for the House, so you might think that lots of members are competing in tight races. But the battle for the majority is largely confined to three dozen open seats. Of the 400 incumbents running for re-election, 64 have no opposition at all. Only 40 have remotely competitive races, according to Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. And of those 40, only half a dozen are likely to lose. Barring an act of God—and God is even less interested in Congress than voters are—the 2000 incumbent re-election rate will top 97 percent, nearly equaling the 98 percent rate of 1998.

Incumbent re-election rates have been ridiculous for a generation. In the '40s and '50s, voters routinely fired more than 10 percent of the House. But the re-election rate has averaged about 95 percent for the past 40 years and has seldom slipped below 90 percent. More than half of districts lean so strongly to one party that no challenger has a chance, and most of the remainder have such entrenched incumbents that any challenge is doomed. In any election year, only 15 percent of districts are competitive.

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Money, more than anything else, reinforces this status quo. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, incumbents have out-raised challengers nearly 3-1 during the 2000 cycle. (The real disparity is greater, because the CRP ratio doesn't count unchallenged incumbents.) In two-thirds of all House races, the leading candidate (invariably the incumbent) has out-raised the challenger more than 10-1.

The incumbent also exploits other benefits of office—notably constituent service—to suppress a challenge. Beginning in the '50s, says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy, incumbents "recognized that constituent service was a good way to shield themselves against partisan winds. They have made sure to serve [the] non-ideological needs of constituents." They hector Social Security for constituents, navigate the Medicare bureaucracy, grab Head Start funds. (Darrell West, political science professor at Brown University, notes that constituent service has become more important because the federal government has expanded so much. "Everyone needs a tour guide to government now.") Most incumbents establish well-staffed, friendly district offices and eagerly maximize their franking privileges. Camp brags that he has sent 300,000 letters during his tenure. That is enough constituents served to re-elect him twice over. (Common Cause found that incumbents spend more on franking—which is federal money, not their own campaign funds—than challengers spend on their entire campaigns.)

Incumbents also shovel pork furiously toward their districts. In the past month, Camp directed a "Higgins Lake Wastewater Demonstration Project" to his home, secured $44 million for bovine tuberculosis, and directed grants to local colleges.

Any year is a wonderful one to be an incumbent, but 2000 is particularly fine. It marks the end of a census cycle. Districts have been stable for five elections, so voters are familiar with their reps. According to the Cook Political Report's Walter, many strong challengers skipped the 2000 race to prepare for 2002, when redistricting will endanger some safe seats. Reapportionment is the best hope of the challenger: 1992 was the last year incumbents won less than 90 percent of House races.

And 2000 voters are incredibly complacent. The economy is good, the world seems safe. Why shake anything up? Not even grotesque behavior seems to bother voters. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., was caught with a hooker several years ago, but he faces no opposition. The House Ethics Committee recently brutalized Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., for misbehavior—including spending "campaign" funds on fancy dinners with lobbyists at the Capitol Grille. But Shuster doesn't have a challenger either.

The tenuring of House members undermines democracy, reinforces the tyranny of money in politics, and deprives voters of real choices. But it is a lot of fun for the incumbents themselves. Most of them—even those in the safest seats—raise enormous sums they don't need. Part of this fund raising is pre-emptive. Having $700,000 in the war chest scares off most challengers and allows the incumbent to bank lots of cash for the next election, when a real rival might emerge. Part of the fund raising is convenience. Corporations and PACs are desperate to fund winners. If they want to supply you with a few grand, why not take it? And part of it is sycophantic. Incumbents collect cash so they can dole it out to colleagues in tough races. Both parties have even imposed quotas on their safe incumbents: They must ante up thousands to the party, which then distributes it to struggling candidates. Next year's committee assignments depend on this year's giving. Such donations butter up the recipients, who will return the favor one day.

There's no better evidence of the incumbents' easy life than how they are spending the election run-up. The House has remained in session, as GOP leaders and the White House war over the budget. You'd expect that anxious members of Congress would acquiesce to anything in order to end the session and get home to campaign. But GOP leaders remained intransigent, Congress has kept working, and there has been a shocking absence of congressional griping about the overtime. Then again, why should the incumbents complain? It's not like they have anything more urgent to do.