Belmont Club

Pork Chop Hill

The Tea Party extremists are on the loose. Senator Harry Reid, describing his disappointment at Richard Lugar’s loss in the Indiana Republican primary to challenger Richard Mourdock, said Lugar was being punished for his willingness to cooperate with Democrats:

Throughout the history of this country, even in the most trying times, that’s times of great social and political unrest, our elected representatives have worked together despite their difference to do what’s right for all Americans. So I worry when I see dedicated patriot like Sen. Lugar drummed out by tea party zealots for being too willing to cooperate. But that’s what happened on Tuesday.

Another Democratic senator, Michael Bennet of Colorado, warned that Mourdock was likely to exhibit “Palin-style extremism.” He told voters: “Democrat Joe Donnelly is taking on the Palin-Mourdock machine in November because he believes that Indiana should send someone to Washington who is accountable to the people of Indiana, not to Tea Party front groups and their special interest backers.” Also:

You can help stop the spread of ideological extremism. Click here to sign the petition to stand with Joe Donnelly against extreme politics.

With the general election campaign officially under way, Palin, Mourdock and their allies are doubling down. The big money special interest groups that carried Mourdock to victory in the primary have their sights set on Joe Donnelly.

But if there is any machine that is to be feared, it is Incumbency, Inc. What is remarkable is that Mourdock could win at all against the incumbent, let alone an incumbent as powerful and influential as Richard Lugar. The chances of any challenger beating any random incumbent are pretty slim. Against Lugar the odds were even lower than improbable. A study of the advantages enjoyed by incumbents reveals some startling probabilities:

Success of congressional incumbents has become something of a half-funny joke recently. These are the figures for those Representatives who sought reelection in the 13 biennial national elections for 435 U.S. House seats from 1982 through 2006: 95.17% of incumbents who sought reelection were successful. What’s more, an average of 396 of the 435 incumbent seat holders sought another term, leaving only 39 “open seats” each biennium for new Members of Congress (Jacobson 2008, 28-29). You can see these effects graphically via — Reelection Rates of Incumbents in the U. S. House, and Duration of Representatives’ Incumbency in the U. S. House. Rounding the 4.83% of winning challengers to 19 freshmen, another 39 get there the easy way by filling a seat vacated by a departing incumbent. So about two-thirds (39 of 58) of freshmen only get there from good fortune of facing no incumbent.

The Senate has not been much better: 86.98% of incumbents were winners in the 1982-to-2006 period. Only 33.3 Senate seats on average are up each biennium (a first 33, another 33, then 34 to tally 100; and back to the first 33). In the 13 elections of 1982 to 2006, that’s 433 senators who could seek reelection; and 361 of them did so, leaving just 82 vacated open seats for new senators. By rounding the 13.02% of challengers who broke through against incumbents to 38 freshmen, that’s 85 of 113 freshmen who got there by virtue of avoiding a collision with a senatorial incumbent. And in 2006, there were six incumbent senatorial losers, all Republicans. At least one, George Allen of Virginia, was a surprising loser considering that he was prominent among those expected to contend seriously for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination …

Something isn’t quite right with this picture. The constitutional idea since the 1913 amendment to adopt direct election of senators is “build it” (elections, that is) and “they will come” (challengers seeking to oust old ballplayers from positions in this Field of Political Dreams). Apparently since 1982, the democratic mechanism of refreshment and change has ceased to work very well.

The challengers aren’t the machine fighting against some poor, hapless, bipartisan incumbent. On the contrary, the incumbents are the machine — an invincible, clanking, sparking, and all powerful juggernaut crushing all before it. This steamrollering phenemenon is well-known. There is even a theory dedicated to the study of the consequences of incumbent invincibility called Congressional Stagnation:

Congressional stagnation is an American political theory that attempts to explain the high rate of incumbency re-election to the United States House of Representatives. In recent years this rate has been well over 90 per cent, with rarely more than 5-10 incumbents losing their House seats every election cycle. The theory has existed since the 1970s, when political commentators were beginning to notice the trend, with political science author and professor David Mayhew first writing about the “vanishing marginals” theory in 1974.

The term “congressional stagnation” originates from the theory that Congress has become stagnant through the continuous re-election of the majority of incumbents, preserving the status quo.

What is the secret of this enormous power? What is the generating source of this invincibility? Over time the incumbents have perfected a mechanism for bribing voters with taxpayer money. The practice is known as “bringing home the pork”:

This can be used to build up a stronger base of support, thereby solidifying their hold on the sensibilities of their constituents, and thereby using their job, to secure their job. Allocation of these funds is often achieved through attaching amendments providing the “pork” to bills that are not related to financial appropriations, and that are likely to be passed, thereby guaranteeing the allocation. Political commentator Michael J. Malbin has commented that Congress suffers from an “I’ll support your pork if you support mine” syndrome and that it would be difficult to eliminate pork without fundamentally changing the way in which Congress appropriates funds.

With incumbents in control of the political institutions, able to aim big media guns at challengers and with access to unlimited supplies of juicy chops, sides of bacon and legs of ham, their position appears more impregnable than the Death Star hovering over some hapless planet. But as the Lugar loss shows, this bristling position has one weakness: the primary system.

Leo Linbeck III explains:

From the perspective of those storming the castle — or if you prefer, hoping to find a ventilation duct down which to drop a puny rebel weapon — re-enabling the defeat of incumbents reopens the long-blocked signals channel whereby voters could remove from office those representatives who failed to serve them well. It does not, as some pundits have described it, fling awry the gates to Rome before invading barbarian hordes; rather it rekindles the hope that Mr. Smith may once again to go to Washington. Maybe he never ever did; maybe that was myth. But unless things change, it will remain forever myth and he never will.

And speaking in grand apocalyptic terms, since the media is able to describe with a straight face the Capitol as being under assault from “Palin-style” extremists emerging from the right-wing universe, perhaps it is not amiss to warn of something even worse, as described in the authoritative Marvel Comics: the attack of the Chitauri:

The Chitauri claim to be part of “the immune system of the Universe”, wiping out disorder and free will wherever they find it. They seem to prefer to act behind the scenes … involving long-term methods of manipulation such as will-inhibiting drugs in many nations’ water supplies, influencing the media, and R.F.I.D. (Radio-frequency identification) microchips to be implanted in schoolchildren. …

However, S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to detect some of the low-ranking “drone” staff of the aliens, disguised as common office workers, and wiped them out in an assault led by Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Maybe the Chitauri are already here. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sarah Palin is really the Black Widow in disguise and Hawkeye is … [well to find out, watch the sequel on this space].

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