The 2006 midterms were, we are told, a great change election. Countless incumbents were swept from power and control shifted from one party to another in both houses of Congress. Well, at least one part of that sentence is true. While the Democrats did wind up in control, over 94% of incumbents were re-elected. The irony, of course, is that knocking off less than 6% of incumbents is considered remarkable. It sounds big compared to the less than 2% of incumbents who had lost in every election since 1996, but it still means that most incumbents had little to fear.
The House of Representatives is known as the "People’s House," because the framers wanted it to be the body of the federal government that is most sensitive to voter opinion. With members representing individual localities rather than states at large, with terms limited to a quick two years, and with every vacancy requiring a special election to be filled rather than appointment, one would assume that the U.S. House, more than any other body, would shift control in sync with the political attitude of the national electorate. In the mean time, it would also follow that the presidency – where presides our head of state and the commander in chief of our armed forces – would be more stable, less prone to big shifts that could affect how our laws are executed.
Of course, we know these things not to be so. In fact, rather than being the most accountable body, the House has changed hands only twice since 1954, in 1994 and 2006. In that same period, however, the party in control of the Oval Office has flipped six times. The "People's House" has shifted down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, in sharp contrast to the vision of our founders fearful of establishing too much executive power.
The fact that the House tends to remain so firmly in one party’s control for so long is not due to a lack of strong political winds blowing in one direction or another. To look at the incumbency rate for the House – even considering the power shifting election of 2006 – an observer might think that there are no political winds in the United States at all. . .only the occasional slight gust that happens to scatter a small handful of bewildered legislators out of office.
The state of Tennessee is a stark example of the immovability of incumbents in Congress. Since 1966, no Congressional incumbent from Tennessee’s U.S. House delegation has ever lost a bid for re-election even once. Woe be unto prospective challengers in the Volunteer State.
Incumbent or not, House races rarely approach being competitive. The average margin of victory overall in House elections was 38.84% in 2006. That’s right, the winner of the average House race in 2006 won by almost 40 points. More than three out of every five races were won with a margin of victory of at least 20 points – far more than any share of swing voters could overcome. The advantage of incumbency is such that even in a bad year for Republicans, GOP incumbents managed to outperform the Republican partisanship of their districts by an average of 1.7%.
Most incumbents can therefore run on cruise control, safe in their seats, knowing that they need not, in fact, be accountable to anyone. Legislative leaders can act in high-handed fashion if they have little fear of the other side regaining power any time soon.
Don't be misled by 2006. Our lopsided playing field has contributed directly to the poisonous partisan atmosphere in Washington (and in many state capitals) where politics far too often overrides problem-solving and independent thinking. Winner-take-all elections, one-sided districts and incumbent advantage have nearly severed the connection between American voters and their leaders. It's high time for a national conversation about making the U.S. House truly the "people's house" envisioned by our nation's founders.
To learn more you can check out a preliminary release of our “Dubious Democracy 2007” report, and for more information from FairVote, contact Paul Fidalgo at (301) 270-4616, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.