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A Call for Reform

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Essay title: A Call for Reform

A Call for Reform

Elections for the United States Congress have become increasingly biased in favor of the incumbents. The problem is especially prevalent in the House of Representatives, which is designed to be the legislature closest to the people, and therefore most reflective of the people's views. However, unlike elections for governors or presidents, the congressional races are generally not competitive races. While an incumbent president does have some advantages over a challenger, they are not guaranteed the win. In fact, two of the last four presidents lost their bid for re-election, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush in 1992. However, in the last four House elections, on average, 92.7% of the incumbents seeking re-election won (Vital Statistics on Congress). There are many reasons for this trend in the House, and just as many possible solutions, but most are likely to fail. However, if the House is to remain truly representative of the people and of the changing times, clearly something must be done.

It is at first surprising that incumbents don't always win in the Senate also. But this is not the case. The incumbent success rate since World War II is only 75% in the Senate, a much more reasonable number. Because the Senate carries more prestige than the House, it is not surprising that Senate races would be more hotly contested. Most people who run for the Senate already hold a public office of some kind, or for some other reason have good name recognition. These two things explain the competition in the Senate, both candidates are generally competent representatives, and people are already familiar with them. However, most candidates running for a House seat do not have a prestigious political background. Because of this, a candidate must either have some other form of name recognition or have a lot of money to get it. Unfortunately, most people don't have either of these, and this is why the House incumbents win 93% of the time.

One possible solution to this problem, the one Americans are currently enacting, is to do nothing. While the incumbent success rate for re-election is extraordinarily high, there is still turnover in the House due to retirement for various reasons and losses in campaigns. For example, in the 1994 elections, 48 people retired and 38 incumbents were defeated in the election. This led to 86 new members of the 435 member House. Yet the incumbent success rate was still 90.2% (Vital Statistics). However, I feel that the lack of competition in the elections is a problem in that it is not giving voters a fair chance to choose the best candidate. In the 1998 elections, 98% of those seeking re-election won. I will not believe that 98% of those people holding office were better representatives than any other potential candidate in their respective districts.

A second solution that is gaining support is term limits for congressmen. Almost half of the states currently have term limits on their governors or state legislatures. Most people in support of term limits feel that career politicians are bad for Americans, and enacting term limits would allow new, citizen based, ideas into Congress. However, the problem with term limits is demonstrated in Fenno's essay, "Learning to Govern." In it, he shows the problems the 1994 Republican majority, with 73 newcomers, created for themselves as they held the majority for the first time in forty years. He believes that these problems such as their revolutionary Contract with America and the government shutdown of 1995 were caused by nothing more than inexperience in governing and interpreting an electoral victory. As an expert on Congress, Fenno believes that inexperience in Congress is not beneficial to anyone (Fenno). By enacting term limits, this is exactly what we would be doing, increasing the amount of inexperience in Congress. While the idea of ordinary people being able to govern sounds good, in practice I feel it is better to have an experienced person making some of the most important decisions of the nation.

The final two proposed solutions are the ones, when used together, that I feel would be most beneficial. These are public financing of campaigns and free air time for candidates. Currently the only candidates that have a chance of beating an incumbent are those with independent

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