The Freak Show: How Congress Rigged The System

The public’s approval rating of Congress is approximately 12 percent. It’s a pretty pathetic picture of what the public thinks of the job Congress is doing. And with the shape our government is in, and the mess they’ve contributed to in terms of jobs, the economy, the debt, foreign wars, etc., it is most definitely well deserved.

People often respond to that by saying it’s our own fault; we could just vote them out. But it’s not that simple. The members of Congress have rigged the system. It’s so hard to vote out an incumbent that it usually takes a scandal to get someone out. Overall, the average rate of re-election is well over 90 percent.

The first, and most egregious, advantage that incumbents have is very simple: Money. Once you’re in Congress, you have ample ways to get it. Lobbyists overrun Washington, and it’s not hard to get your share of the billions companies spend to get you to vote the way they want. You also have the status that enables you to make speeches and have fundraising gatherings where millions are raised.

Special interests also give millions to what are called “leadership PACs.” A leadership PAC is a fund controlled by a party leader to accept far more money than he needs for re-election. He then parcels the money out to other members of his party to help with their election. And, of course, the recipient of the money is indebted to the party leader when it comes time for a vote.

On average, an incumbent Senator outspends his challenger by about $4 million. An incumbent House member outspends his opponent by over $700,000.

And does having so much cash help? In a sample of 905 of the contested House races in recent election cycles, incumbents spent 84 percent of the total money spent, and it resulted in 904 victories for the incumbents, and one loss. And that loss was a Congressman who was under indictment for illegal activities.

Besides having much more money to spend, politicians have set it up so they don’t even have to spend it on little nuisances, such as mail, parking, travel, etc. That’s because they have given themselves so many perks. The major campaign related one is “franking,” which is the ability to send mail to their constituents at taxpayer expense. It’s not uncommon for a politician to spend over $300,000 a year on mass mailings. A nice way to stay in the faces of the people back home to let them know how much you’re doing for them. Challengers have to pay for their mailings.

A challenger also has to pay for a staff. A congressman has a full staff in place, paid for by the taxpayer. Senators usually have between 26 and 60 aides, depending on the size of the state and the salary levels. The maximum salary they are allowed to give is over $150,000 a year. While they are not supposed to use this staff for political activities, that’s hard to enforce.

In addition to money for staff, members of Congress also have travel allowances for trips between Washington and their district, as well as for trips inside their districts. And that travel doesn’t take nearly the amount of time it does for a challenger, who has to go through the usual airport hassles, including parking, waiting in lines, and not being able to skip a flight if they change their mind. Congressional staff makes reservations for members of Congress on special phone lines that major airlines have for them. Airlines also permit members to reserve seats on multiple flights, but only pay for the trips they take. When they do show up for the flight, they are guaranteed free parking close to the terminal at the two Washington-area airports.

And to be sure they have time to campaign; politicians give themselves a lot of time off from their official duties. While most people get one day off for holidays like Memorial Day and Presidents Day, members of Congress get the entire week off. They also take what they call “recesses,” often as long as a month at a time. While a challenger usually has to deal with earning a living during a campaign, the incumbent doesn’t have to worry; the taxpayers are paying him while he is campaigning.

But just to make sure they keep their jobs safe, politicians have taken two other steps that eliminate most competition. The first is called “gerrymandering.” After every census, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the new census numbers. But instead of making it something sensible, like counties, or rural vs. urban areas, the parties collaborate to keep things the best they can for themselves. That’s why if you look at a New Jersey legislative map, you’ll see all these squiggly lines with small offshoots that make no sense. They try to keep Republican districts mainly Republican, and Democratic ones Democratic, and argue over the few remaining ones where two incumbents might actually have to battle it out.

And lastly, politicians make the rules tough for any “outsider” to even get into the race. For example, in New York, 15,000 signatures are required and must be taken from a majority of the state’s congressional districts. Anyone running as an independent, or from outside one of the “qualified parties,” requires three times the number of signatures as those running in established parties. That’s why the only independents in Congress are people who were formerly with one of the major parties, and their name recognition and financing enable them to get past those requirements. In the last presidential election, even the well-known and well financed Ralph Nader couldn’t get on the ballot in all the states.

Vote them out? That’s the one area that Democrats and Republicans agree on. They make sure it’s nearly impossible for anyone but “their own,” who will follow the party line, to win.