When in Doubt, Throw Them Out

26 May, 2010

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

May 26, 2010

Media pundits have already declared 2010 the year of the anti-politician. Primary elections in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, wrote the New York Times, “illustrated anew the serious threats both parties face from candidates who are able to portray themselves as outsiders and eager to shake up the system.”

Polls indicate the start of a wave that may force a record number of congressional members out of office come November. A Washington Post-ABC News survey last month said only one-third of voters are inclined to support the reelection of their member of Congress.

If this rebellion against incumbents does happen this fall, what will be the consequences?

First we should consider the arguments against a general House – and Senate – cleaning. We need to remember that the average reelection rates in the last seven cycles have been 96% in the House and 86% in the Senate. (Even in 1994, the year the GOP regained control of the House, 90% of representatives and 92% of senators kept their jobs.)

As Time’s Michael Grunwald points out, primary voters represent a small percentage of the electorate and tend to be more partisan than the average voter, which makes them more likely to nominate strident candidates. These candidates, including Kentucky’s Rand Paul, may or may not do well in a general election.

Another reason there may not be widespread change is that American voters are not of one mind or mood. Not only do their politics vary in different regions, so do their circumstances. Those in the southwest, for instance, face high unemployment and a growing public frustration about immigration. In swing states with poor economies, people are particularly impatient with Congress. But on the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest, where the recession’s impact has been less severe, the anti-incumbency mood is not as rampant.

We would be naïve, however, to assume the nation will be in an upbeat mood come Election Day. And that means turnover rates in Congress could be higher than average. What alarms me is that no matter how high or low the reelection rate is in 2010, the result may be a Congress less capable of making hard public policy choices.

Both parties are under pressure from their political bases, which will make it more difficult for members to cut bipartisan deals. Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state who lost to Paul, was attacked for being too close to the Republican establishment. Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter was assailed not only for switching political parties, but also for being too centrist. The same middle-of-the-road label was placed on Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who was forced into a June 8 runoff election.

While many Americans expect bipartisanship from Congress, those on the fringes of each party can be loud, and they tend to shun compromise. As NPR’s Linton Weeks wrote last week, “More angry voters are choosing more angry politicians to represent them.”

Even incumbents who beat back challengers this fall will get the message: Stick to your values, fight for constituents, and don’t waste too much time fraternizing with the enemy. In the new Congress, a legislator will need a safe seat and years of experience before being willing to take a bipartisan approach on tough issues.

The perception that an angry public is watching their every move (and vote) will also discourage members of Congress from taking political risks. If there is no reward for voting with the president on healthcare, the stimulus plan or efforts to rescue U.S. car companies, why would a vulnerable Democrat want to take a chance on environmental legislation?

Both of these trends will make it harder for public affairs professionals, no matter what cause they represent, to advance issues before Congress. If you think gridlock has been bad over the last decade, it’s likely to be worse in the next several years.

But gridlock is not the greatest danger of rising anti-incumbency. When voters become so fed up with government that they believe political experience is a handicap, they’re likely to elect less capable candidates. Despite popular opinion, constituents who are represented by an experienced Washington insider have a huge advantage.  Whether Republican or Democrat, that “insider” knows the legislative process, understands public policy issues and has the strong personal relationships needed to get things done.

Back in the 1990s, when term limits were the rage, we heard the same arguments against “career politicians.” If only we could send citizen-legislators to Congress and then force them to leave office after several terms, said term-limit advocates, we could reduce the influence of special interests and build a better government.

After term limits were passed in many states, things didn’t work out quite that way. Less-experienced politicians had to rely heavily on staff to interpret complex laws, explain procedural rules and create policy positions. They also had to rely more on the expertise of those same special interests everyone was trying to avoid. For these and other reasons, six states have repealed term limit laws since 1997.

Managing the federal government is enormously complicated, and the stakes are incredibly high. When the nation is facing an ongoing economic crisis, a record deficit, two wars and other intractable issues,  knowledge is a vital asset.

“We’ve come to take our government back,” said Paul, the ophthalmologist and Tea Partier after winning the Kentucky Senate Republican nomination last week. The question is, if Paul and other “outsider” candidates do manage to take the government back, will they know what to do with it?

Comments? Email me at http://pac.org/contact/blog.