Throwing the Bums Out Is Harder Than It Looks

Despite voter outrage, most congressmen will win re-election.


Americans aren't particularly pleased with what Congress has been up to. A Gallup poll this week found that a majority of voters disapprove of last year's economic stimulus package, the auto industry bailout, health care reform, and the banking industry bailout. The bank bailout was the least popular, with only 37 percent approval. In fact, of major legislative initiatives over the last two years, only the financial reform bill breaks the 50 percent approval mark. Congress has struggled to keep approval ratings around 20 percent for the last year, and a poll earlier in the year showed that only 8 percent of Americans polled wanted the members of Congress to be re-elected.

Those stats sounds pleasingly catastrophic for the political status quo, and nothing makes professional election watchers happier than the words blowout, sweep, sea change, or a chance to use the phrase throw the bums out in a headline. But before everyone succumbs to election season delirium, it's worth taking a moment to remember that no matter how peeved the American population fancies itself, no matter how dramatic a change of partisan control in one or both houses might seem, one thing is certain: The vast majority of the current Congress can count on returning to Washington and business as usual.

Being a congressman is a pretty good gig, so congressmen (and their home-state political allies) have understandably gone to some trouble to fix things up in a way that maximizes job security. Districts are gerrymandered to guarantee dominance by one party. In 2008, 52 congressmen faced no major party opponent at all, and that's actually down slightly from previous years, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. In 1998, an amazing 94 congressmen had no challengers. In Arkansas there wasn't a single House race contested by a major party in 2008.

Once you're all set to win the general election, all you have to do is dodge challengers within your own party. And avoiding a primary challenge is easy. You can piss off voters all you like, as long as you don't piss off the leadership of your party. Of course, if you managed to really piss off the voters—as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) did this year—you might choose to bow out before the election cycle gears up. Running for election is expensive and exhausting, so if you're pretty sure you're going to lose you'll probably decide not to run.

But even when you assume a certain amount of self selection, re-election rates are mind-blowingly high.

In 1980, the reelection rate in the Senate was 55 percent. But that year was a dramatic outlier. In the 30 years since, reelection rates have never fallen below 75 percent for the Senate, and rates fell below 90 percent only once in the House.  

Structural guarantees of re-election are mostly to blame for the predictable fizzle of voter rage. But not entirely. Voters are surprisingly indulgent of their own congressmen's foibles. While poll after poll shows that America thinks Congress overall should be ridden out of town on a rail, those same polls show that voters think their own congressman is a pretty good guy or gal who is just trying to do the right thing. (You can see a similar effect in public education, where parents consistently agree that the school system as a whole is deeply flawed, while still sending shiny apples to little Timmy's teacher and singing the praises of their own neighborhood schools.)

I have no reason to doubt the professional prognosticators when they say that change in partisan control is coming to Capitol Hill, and I believe the pollsters when they say that Americans are outraged, displeased, and generally annoyed with their representatives. But no matter how dramatic election night may seem, keep in mind that the vast majority of those tossable bums will be boarding planes to fly right back to Washington when it's all over.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.


NEXT: Suds vs. Buds

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  1. The vast majority of the current Congress can count on returning to Washington and business as usual.

    ** thinking to itself **

    But can I?

    1. Have I gotten a bunch of federal money for my district, and crowed sufficiently about it in my ads and the local press?

      Oh, good. Glad that’s settled.

      1. Have I managed to avoid my so-called constituents during recesses and not have Fox cover those tea-party bastards protesting outside my office?

        Oh, shit. Well, I have been wanting to spend more time with my family.

  2. Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction ?

    1. So, self-improvement is adultery.

    2. nothing wrong with masturbation.

      1. Ohh, that reminds me. . .

  3. Also in the news: in any election year, you can always count on a certain amount of trite obviousity phoned in by a political commentator with no ideas and a deadline.

    Next up, Mangu-Ward writes a column for Car & Driver pointing out that more than half of us rate ourselves as better than average drivers, and that car buyers have better opinions of, say, a Ford after they’ve bought one.

    Then a follow-up article for the New York Times Sunday edition noting that the average mother inexplicably believes that her average child is unusually attractive, intelligent, and can easily become President some day.

    1. What’s with all the KMW bashing on this blog? This is like the third time in a week.

      1. It’s like when you push a girl in the mud because you like her. Poor Carl Pham… so lonely…

      2. Katherine arouses a certain amount of ire in certain commenters, which I don’t get. But then again, I never got the Howley or Weigel hate either.

        1. If you never got the Weigle hate you must be an idiot. No offense or anything, but really, the guy is little more than brown streaks in a bus station toilet bowl.

          1. I didn’t get it at the time (that he worked for reason), as he hadn’t had his JournoList shit exposed yet. I do get it now.

            Still, didn’t we all enjoy his prog Friday posts? Oh, we didn’t? My bad.

            1. “Still, didn’t we all enjoy his prog Friday posts?”

              That history has been erased Epi.

            2. KMW’s articles seem written for a lower learning curve than say, Suderman’s. John Stossel’s are even lower than that.

              Nothing wrong with that though. The information is still good and they’re still insightful. Those are the ones to pass on to your less politically aware friends.

              I never liked Howley because she just came off as a pretentious lefty. It never inspired me to comment just to talk shit about her.

          2. I think you are over rating him.

      3. The ability to blog anonymously often brings out the worst in people – or it just brings out the worst people; the kind of people who get their rocks off on just taking other people down (checks pants for stains).
        Anyone else notice how much more civil people tend to be on facebook?

        1. What are you, 5?

    2. What’s with all the KMW bashing on this blog? This is like the third time in a week.

      My guess: basement-dwelling 40-year-old virgins will take any opportunity to act hostile to a woman.

      Anyone else notice how much more civil people tend to be on facebook?

      Funny you mention that- I was just thinking about it. I have this one friend on FB who usually acts like he’s on 4chan. It’s pretty embarrassing.

  4. If those charts went over to the left a few decades, they would give a different impression. Bums were quite consistently thrown out until…


    Several, uh, forces were set in motion from about 1910-1920 that have turned out to have a very not-good effect on what the U.S. government is and how it works. One of them, and it may be the big one, or not, is that what voters are signifying when they vote was changed.


    In 1920.

    1. I’m just glad someone hates woman’s suffrage as much as I do. Cheers!

      1. Well, it did manage to double the number of idiots voting.


        This data shows the problem is actually much older than that.

        1. …./documents/QHA-07.pdf

          why does reason hate URLs?

    2. I know for a fact that the reerection rate dropped post-19th Amendment.

      1. Hehehehehe…

        If that ‘reerection’ was deliberate: +1

        1. That’s Virginia Chan.

    3. Well, women should just vote the same way as their husband, so the ratios should stay the same.

  5. This is even more upsetting than Balko’s daily nut-punch. Perhaps he is on vacation, and KMW decided to take up the slack.

  6. … the ball slack?

    1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

      No homo.

      1. Sack-wrangler.

        1. Only my own, pal.

      2. The more they get kicked, the more slack they develop.

        No homo.

        1. I saw an old guy at the gym who had balls so low he had to be careful not to trip over them. It’s as if all of his internal organs had fallen into his ball sack.

          1. And you’re in the gym observing some random guy’s sac because…?

            1. He is sac religious.

              1. Booooooooooo!

                Hiss hiss.


            2. Ba Dum Tssshhh

  7. I propose: In order to be elected, a candidate must receive votes totaling at least half the number of eligible voters.

    Fair enough?

    1. eligible *registered* voters!

      1. eligible *registered* voters Income and property taxpayers.

        There, I said it. It’s on the table.

        1. ** rising intonation **

          What about military service?

          1. Sounds good to me. Of course, no one will know until this is actually in place how it works.

          2. No, he was wrong there. Working for the government should not be a prerequisite to helping control it. That’s like saying only prisoners and ex-cons should be able to vote on prison policy.

            Paying your taxes and not living off the government (be it because you work for them or because you’re a welfare case) should be required, though. Not sure about land ownership – I can’t see how that’s SO relevant that we should deny the vote to those who can’t or choose not to.

        2. But not social security and gas tax and sales tax?

          Given the ability of most Congress people to stay in office, maybe it would be better to simply hold a vote when and if one of them dies, retires, gets impeached, etc.

        3. But not social security and gas tax and sales tax?

          Given the ability of most Congress people to stay in office, maybe it would be better to simply hold a vote when and if one of them dies, retires, gets impeached, etc.

          1. We should hunt them: if you kill a congressman, his seat is yours… until someone kills you.

            CSPAN would become the most awesome channel ever.

            1. Some years ago there was a TV commercial that featured the leaders of two countries duking it out (in place of war IIRC). I often think that would be a much more open and honest way to settle “elections”. If you want it so bad, have at it. No BS promises. No wasteful campaigning. No career politicians.

              1. Kingdoms were won and lost that way.

              2. Sounds good to us.

              3. Agreed. Except replace leaders with genetically engineered warriors who duke it out in giant robots.


            2. THUNDERDOME RULES:

              Two men enter, one man leaves.
              Bust a deal, face the wheel.

              I think this can be amended to the constitution, but if not, I’m gonna start practicing my chainsaw combat skills.

          2. no no, we’d eliminate social security and the gas tax.

          3. no no, we’d eliminate social security and the gas tax.

        4. Income and property taxpayers.

          Hey!! What about us?!

        5. It’s on the table.

          And it is as ugly as Jim Crow.

          1. But the registered voters idea is OK, right?

            1. What happens when no one wins?

              The incumbent stays in office?

              The seat stay vacant with no one representing?

              It is not ugly like Jim crow…still, this idea sucks.

              1. What happens when no one wins?

                You got it: The seat stay vacant with no one representing. If *half* the registered voters can’t approve a candidate (for whatever reason, including “diversity” and apathy), they would be considered unrepresentable.

                That *would* suck, wouldn’t it? You might feel the powers-that-be don’t really hear you. It would kind of be like, um, being a libertarian.

          2. Fool! You have activated my Race Card!

        6. That’s when our country was truly great…when the voting was limited to male taxpayers.

    1. F*ing Awesome!! But, posted to the wrong site. This needs to be posted on a site where people actually think that those defending liberty have the right to expect that those they are defending will not stab them in the back. Here we make fun of people who believe that nations have a right to defend themselves or their borders.

  8. As stated the last time Mangu posted these same graphs:

    This is bullshit.

    The numbers used does not include seats that were vacated because the incumbent did not run for a new term.

    Most incumbents get a clue they will lose an election before they run again. If they get the clue they will lose it is not uncommon for them to simply vacate the seat and not waste time and money on an election they cannot win.

    1. Yeah, I’ve thrown something together (Excel workbook) that shows how incumbents fare, just based on the race info from Wikipedia and’s projections. I didn’t spot-check things too closely, but it’s pretty revealing in any case.

      The bottom line is that around half of the Senate seats up for grabs are going to change from their incumbents. It’s a bit skewed because some special appointees are bowing out. Senatorial races are higher-profile, so senators seem a lot more likely than reps to bow out early. Retirements exceed both primary and projected electoral defeats combined.

      For House races, you still have incumbents retaining around 80% of their seats, net of early departures (and 4% seeking higher office).

      It’s definitely biasing the above charts, because you can see that in races for the more visible offices, there are electoral consequences. There’s definitely a disconnect between people’s views of Congress and electoral reality, but to a large extent I’d bet that has to do with disliking other people’s Congressmen.

  9. Katherine, please quote your sources.

  10. That is always the case…this is not news!

  11. What we should never forget is that only a moron would believe that elections in the socialist cesspool of Amerika are clean and not fixed.

  12. “I never liked Howley because she just came off as a pretentious lefty.”

    Yeah, but she was hot. Still is from what I’ve seen.

    Hot women who are even remotely libertarian are so rare they should really be graded on a curve.

  13. Wish I could properly credit it, and maybe someone has:
    ‘Voters once selected their representatives; now the representatives select their voters.’

  14. Here are some steps we can do to fix this problem:

    1. Eliminate the legislative branch completely.

    2. Enforce only the following laws (edited for simplicity)
    – Dont kill, or harm others. Basically protect the individual person.
    – Respect private property. Dont steal or defraud people from their property and dont destroy property etc…
    – Respect and honor private contracts in so much as they do not require you to break one of the laws above or violate another contractual obligation.

    Done. then all we need are judges and perhaps some judicial oversight. And by the way, you have to eliminate the use of precedent as law. Each case should be tried on its own facts and circumstances. And oh yeah, loser pays in civil court.

  15. I’m not sure this was mentioned, but those percentages are a great example of misleading statistics. Of course about 90% of the house is re-elected every election season. If not, that would mean roughly 43-44 member would be replaced every year which we know is a higher number than the average. For example, a 55 seat swing is only about 12% of the house and that’s a HUGE swing in terms of elections. Even figure some more incumbents get bumped out in their own parties, that’s STILL 85% re-election in the house in what would be considered and absolute Tsunami. Same in the Senate, 90% re-election means an average of about a 5 seat swing, which anyone who follows this stuff knows is about average. Using percentages in this case is a not so clever way to make a point that we already know look like something that it’s not. As you may have noticed in “wave” years like 1994, it’s almost unnoticeable in the charts, which tells you that the charts aren’t good for showing us much of anything other than only a small portion of each chamber is really up for grabs in each election. Again, old news.

  16. What you non government people fail to realize is that the rhetoric between the 2 parties is their primary remaining difference. When politicians are judged by their actions vice speeches, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which party they belong to.

    We at the government have placed you in a 1 party state, and you didn’t even realize it. This is how we cemented our power without your notice. This is why you will never be able to throw us out.


  17. Did you see “High School Musical 3”? There’s this hall, this corridor that’s on a pivot, turning like a cement truck’s barrel. Inside is an American voter who first smashes himself against the Democrat Wall (when Bush is in office) — kicking out all the Republicans and making both the Senate and the House pretty much Democrat.

    It’s now 2010 and The Hall turns again. The voter is miffed at who’s in office and he smashes himself against the opposite wall — this time kicking out all the Democrats and making both the Senate and the House pretty much Republican.

    Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?

    Anyway, this goes on, election year after election year … until the voter “wakes up” on stage, sees the light sitting in the dark, and says to himself, “But of course! I should’ve voted Libertarian from the beginning! No more tumbling corridors for me, thank you!”

  18. You can piss off voters all you like, as long as you don’t sons of anarchy dvd
    piss off the leadership of your party. Of course, if you managed to really piss off the voters?as Sen. michael jackson dvdThe voter is miffed at who’s in office and he smashes himself against the opposite wall — this time kicking out all the Democrats and making both the Senate and the House pretty much Republican.

  19. Career Politicians

    The advantages of being a federal career congressman include:

    $170,000+ salary
    PREMIUM health care plan (free)
    GENEROUS pension and perquisites

    There is also the ability to command lecture fees, write books, make paid apearences, and enjoy other income enhancements difficult to measure.

    Obviously, these are coveted positions – coveted even by those already wealthy. Power has its own attractions. The major flaw (for the citizenry) is that politicians will give up their principles to keep the huge amount of money flowing that enables them to continue their careers. We cannot sensibly expect them to legislate term limits on themselves; nor would their “deep pockets benefactors” allow such a thing.

    The voters, however, can do this. We must make it our policy to never allow ANYONE to hold office more than twice, even if it means voting for someone we’d like to condemn to a desert island. We may lose some good people this way, but keep in
    mind that even “good” politicians go “bad”. The worst offenders have been career politicians, although there may(?) be a few decent ones.

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