Richard Greene

March 15, 2014

Booting rascals from Congress appealing but rare

Polls show deep disapproval, but most incumbents are re-elected.

With congressional primary elections in full swing across the states, it seems a good time to take a fresh look at the reality of the anti-incumbent spirit we hear so much about.

The “throw the rascals out” cry seems louder and louder. Since the last elections in 2012, the overall approval ratings for those collectively serving us all in Washington have not broken through the 20 percent level.

Currently, the average of polls across the country so far this year finds a mere 13 percent of the American people approving of the job that Congress is doing.

So, again we ask the question that always seems to come up when we hear these numbers: Will we see some kind of wholesale transformation among those 535 who gather under the Capitol dome to represent us?

For those not wanting to read any further, I’ll go ahead and answer the question. No, we won’t.

With history as my guide, including what President Obama called a “shellacking” when a “historic” 10 percent of incumbents were defeated in 2010, you can bet money on my forecast.

But, you may say, this time it is different. And, surveys abound that would lead to a logical conclusion that all kinds of incumbent members of Congress are in real trouble.

That would include, seemingly, the possibility that people aren’t complaining about Congress just as a whole, but their own members as well. In the past, throwing out the rascals meant “except for my rascal.”

An ABC News/ Washington Post poll this month asked a scientifically selected sample of voters: “Are you inclined to re-elect your representative in Congress, or are you inclined to look around for someone else to vote for?”

The results: Only 22 percent say they are inclined to stick with their representative. While “looking around” is not the same as saying you are not going to vote for your current rascal, there is a strong message here.

These two media giants have been asking that question for 25 years. The anti-incumbent response has never been this high. In fact, until 2010, those saying they supported their incumbent member of Congress were about double what they are now.

This bit of analysis will bring us back to the question of how can I be so sure there will be nothing really new about the results this year.

Something called “Fenno’s Paradox” remains as a definitive answer. Richard Fenno Jr., of the University of Rochester, launched a seven-year study that resulted in a 34-page analysis and conclusion published in The American Political Science Review in 1977.

Fenno, a highly regarded political scientist known for his pioneering work on Congress and its members, traveled for seven years with various members of the House of Representatives to, “observe and inquire into anything and everything the members do.”

His conclusions have stood the test of time: “So long as House members explain themselves but not the institution, they help sustain (wittingly or unwittingly) the gap between a 10 per cent approval level for Congress and a 90 per cent re-election record for themselves.”

Thirty-seven years later, the beat goes on. Throughout the state, our one senator and all but one of the House members scored big victories in this month’s primaries and will likely sail smoothly back into Washington in November.

Their collective message, like most incumbents across the country: “Send me back and I’ll fight the very institution I am a member of to straighten out all the things you don’t like about it.”

Regardless of the rancor we will hear over the next few months, at least 90 percent of the rascals will successfully explain themselves and return to their seats.

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