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If people hate Congress so much, why do incumbents get re-elected?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 - 12:01 am

Sen. Harry Reid’s assertion that Congress is less popular in America than North Korea got me thinking about one of the continuing perplexing things about voters: Why, if Congress is so unpopular, do most incumbents keep winning?

The Washington Post countered that just because Congress recently sunk to its lowest approval level since Watergate at 10 percent and North Korea had an approval rating of 12 percent, it did not mean that if Americans had to choose between them, they would choose North Korea.

I am certain that is true, but basically, when you have to defend that you are more liked than Kim Jong-un, you are in a definite danger zone.

When I was first elected in 1994, the Republican-led Congress struggled along in the high 30s-low 40s in approval. During the first Bush presidency, the Republican-led congressional ratings bottom was 40 and top was 80.

In other words, congressional Republicans in the Bush years ranged from four to eight times more popular than today’s congressional Republicans. As the Iraq War dragged on, we dropped back down to the low 30s, resulting in the Democrats taking over in 2006.

If only 10 percent of Americans approve of Congress, and it has remained very low since the 2010 Republican takeover, why do most incumbents seem to be safe right now?

Typical arguments include these: 1. money — it takes too much money for an opponent to unseat an incumbent; 2. gerrymandering of congressional districts has resulted in mostly safe districts for incumbents; 3. incumbents get media coverage, the voters hear their explanations and excuses, and thus decide “my” congressman is not the problem.

All those points are valid, but I would argue that something much deeper, and far more dangerous, is occurring. While not sectional divisions like pre-Civil War, nor likely to lead to violent conflict, the nature of this split — 90 percent hate Congress, yet most of Congress gets re-elected — clearly shows an increasing disgust for those with whom we disagree. Yet it is the people who have elected a Republican House, a Democrat president and a Democrat Senate.

In other words, there is not a consensus agreement on what needs to be done. Yet voters demand no compromise or negotiating, which the Constitution by definition requires (it’s called checks and balances). Instead it’s “my way or the highway.”

This isn’t a problem of term limits: Nancy Pelosi’s district, if she quits, would likely replace her with someone even more liberal, if you can imagine that.

Liberals have always taken incremental gains, the drip-drip method. Right now conservatives demand all or nothing, so we have gotten nothing.

If Republicans, who currently have the most to lose given the composition of our party and the overwhelming demographic changes that are occurring, keep insisting on a clear winner rather than incremental gains, it is likely that after the re-districting from the next census there will be a clear winner.

It won’t be us.

Mark Souder is a former 3rd District representative to Congress.