As public discontent with Washington continues to rise, the city’s political pundits remain largely in agreement on one issue: Current House district lines make it difficult for Democrats to win the seats needed to retake the House in the 2006 elections. That conclusion seems accurate if you look at the small number of close races for the House in recent elections. But it is not true if you look at partisan voting patterns within the current districts for offices other than Congress.
If the 2000 presidential vote is broken down by current Congressional districts, you will find 33 districts now held by Republicans where President Bush failed to win a majority, and another 17 now represented by Republicans where he won just 50 percent or 51 percent. In addition, there are 46 other districts now in GOP hands where Bush won by less than 55 percent.
In short, 96 districts now held by Republicans should provide Democrats with pick-up opportunities — particularly in an election year in which voters want to express dissatisfaction with the majority party. That is at least true based on the partisan alignment of today’s districts. Democrats would need to win only a small fraction of these districts to gain control of the House. In fact, if Democrats held their seats and won only half of the GOP-held districts in which Bush won less than 50 percent, they would gain control of the House.
Despite the close race recently in Ohio’s second district — a district with an open seat that voted 64 percent for Bush in 2004 — there are significant reasons to doubt a Democratic comeback. First and foremost, incumbent Members of Congress have never been easy to beat, and they are probably much tougher to beat in the current era than ever before.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his cohorts in the House maintained a steady drumbeat of attacks on what they claimed was the excessive advantage that incumbent Members of Congress had in defeating challengers and winning re-election. They argued that the very foundation of our democracy was at risk. The playing deck, they argued, was so heavily stacked in favor of incumbents that challengers didn’t stand a chance — no matter what their platform or how poorly their opponent had served his constituents. Gingrich charged in 1988 that Democrats “have rigged the game better than [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega.”
The 1994 election proved that Gingrich’s analysis was overstated. Gingrich himself was unwilling to continue arguing his thesis because he clearly had no further need for it. He quickly realized that the best strategy to follow as leader of the majority was to do the exact opposite of what he had preached while in the minority. While he temporarily cut back on committee staff, he was careful to preserve the staff and resources of Members’ personal offices. He broke with longstanding House traditions and gave key committee assignments to freshman Congressmen representing vulnerable districts. In short, he distributed key advantages of incumbency to those most vulnerable to defeat by challengers.
But perhaps most importantly, Gingrich and his fellow Republicans began to recognize that the greatest advantage they could share within their conference was earmarks — the ability to direct federal money to a specific purpose in a Congressional district in a way that gives maximum credit for the federal government’s largess to the Member representing that district.
For as long as they were in the minority, Republicans had been vociferous in their attacks on the practice of earmarking. In 1992, Newt Gingrich told the House: “I am committed to hunting down every appropriation … that is some politician taking care of himself. … I am going to be prepared to fight every rule on every Appropriation bill.” Then-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) stated, “Many Americans are saying this is no longer the people’s House but the house of perks and pork.”
But within a few years of winning the majority, the Republican House had not only failed to cut back on earmarking but had carried the practice to levels unimagined by their Democratic predecessors. The conservative watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste commented in an open letter released just a few months ago: “Over the past 10 years, pork-barrel spending has increased exponentially, from 1,430 projects totaling $10 billion in 1995 to 10,656 projects, totaling $22.9 billion, in 2004. … Considering Republicans, a political party that long advocated for less government spending and greater fiscal discipline, have been largely in charge of Congress since 1995, these figures are even more appalling.”
While there has been much public discourse on earmarking from the standpoint of fiscal discipline and the efficient use of tax dollars, little attention has been paid to how the recent flood of Congressional earmarking has affected the electoral process and in particular the competition between incumbents and challengers — a competition that Gingrich rightly pointed out was a barometer of the health of a representative democracy.
Earmarking has not simply grown in volume; the distribution of earmarks has also changed dramatically. In the 1980s, earmarks were largely rewards for Members who had persevered for years on the back benches and risen to positions of significant power on key committees. Today, earmarks are much more broadly distributed among the rank and file, and this most important advantage of incumbency affects election outcomes not just in a few districts of well-connected Members but in virtually all Congressional districts.
There are no formal studies that link earmarking and electoral success or incumbent re-election rates, but one only has to review the press releases or the official Web sites of Members in both parties to learn how they themselves assess the electoral importance of earmarks. In fact, those who follow Congress on a day-to-day basis recognize that earmarks have become an obsession that relegates most policy debates to second- or third-tier status.
Whatever impact war, unemployment, energy prices or other issues may have on voters and their willingness to support candidates from one or the other political party, earmarks, even very small ones, help incumbents change the topic of discussion, localize elections and create a standard of performance divorced from more complex national policy considerations.
Could widespread public discontent on national issues overcome the allure of pork and allow an election to be decided on how well the Congress has performed in protecting the nation and nurturing the economy? It depends in part on how strong that discontent becomes. But it also depends on whether the opposition party is willing to recognize electoral realities and that incumbent protection not only poisons the political system and makes it incapable of creating the kind of competition of ideas and policies that democracy requires, but that it also makes it very difficult for a minority party to ever become anything else.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. He served as both majority and minority staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. This column originally appeared in Roll Call.