Many people think change is in the air. Voters are angry. And they want to throw the bums out. That’s the dominant narrative this election cycle. But at least during primary season, that narrative is fitting poorly with actual election results. Politico reports:
Six incumbents have lost this season: Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Reps. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Parker Griffith (R-Ala.). Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, pointed out in Arena that factoring for those losses translated into a 98.3 percent win rate for incumbents so far in 2010.
That 98.3 percent win rate will drop on Election Day. But probably not by much. Not even if one or both chambers switch parties. In 2008, incumbents running for re-election had a 94.9 percent success rate. In 2006, when Congress changed parties, the re-election rate was still right around 94 percent. The last time re-election rates went as low as 90 percent was in 1992 — nearly two decades ago.
The sad truth is that incumbents are safe. It doesn’t matter that Congress’ approval ratings are in the low teens. Voters just aren’t going to throw out very many bums. Voters may despise Congress as an institution, but most people have positive opinions of their own representative.
That’s why the average tenure in the House is more than 14 years, or seven terms. And most turnover isn’t from losing elections. It’s from retirement or running for other office, or death; for many, politics is literally a lifelong career.
So expect a lot of familiar faces to be sworn in when the 112th Congress convenes in January, even if power changes hands.
Though I will, of course, be very happy if events prove me wrong.
The House passed a budget enforcement resolution yesterday. It sets 2011’s discretionary spending $7 billion below what President Obama has requested.
Next year’s discretionary spending target is $1.12 trillion for next year. The $7 billion difference represents savings of 0.625 percent. Barely a rounding error. If total spending (including mandatory and defense spending) ends up at $3.5 trillion next year, the savings becomes 0.2 percent.
Of course, 2010 discretionary spending was $1.39 trillion. 2011 spending will very likely end up much closer to that than the targeted $1.12 trillion. The appropriations process is not kind to non-binding resolutions, however well-intentioned. Especially when the resolution “doesn’t detail how Congress should reach that [deficit reduction] goal.”
Congress lacks the will to cut $270 billion of spending. The interests benefitting from that spending will scream bloody murder the second their programs are put on the chopping block. In an election year when incumbents are more fearful than usual, no politician worth his salt wants to cause an uproar.
Congress need not worry too much, though. Even in anti-incumbent years, re-election are almost always above 90 percent. The vast majority of congressional turnover happens through retirement, running for other office, or death.
The pattern is holding this year, so far. The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato recently pointed out that 5 incumbents have lost their state primary elections this year, while 240 were re-nominated. That’s a 98 percent success rate. There will be a few more casualties, especially in the November general elections.
Most members are safe. They can, and should, rock the boat by cutting unnecessary spending. If anything, the most aggressive cutters might become folk heroes like Chris Christie in New Jersey. They just don’t have the guts.
I will be more than happy if Congress proves me wrong. We’ll find out over the next few months.
Posted in Economics, Elections, Political Animals, Spending
Tagged budget enforcement resolution, chris christie, congress, deficits, election 2010, incumbents, larry sabato, nonbinding resolution, obama, president obama, Public Choice, spending, spending cuts, trillions, university of virginia