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.