Congress always get the same reply: "Members...

CRITICS OF

October 13, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CRITICS OF Congress always get the same reply: "Members areelected, so they must be doing what the public wants."

This assumes that if you have elections, you have a free and democratic system. But totalitarian dictatorships often have elections. They just don't allow competition. We don't have competition, either.

Typically in the case of the House of Representatives there is one meaningful election. That's for an open seat, when there is no incumbent. Whoever wins becomes a representative-for-life, as there are no more true contests for that seat. It's the American version of those ex-colonial nations' "democracy": one man one vote one time.

Here's a perfect example, chosen not to single out Rep. Tom McMillen but only because he dropped by this week and discussed the problem of Congress' unpopularity with some of us. In 1986, Rep. Marjorie Holt, a Republican, retired as the representative from the Fourth District, which is largely Anne Arundel County. McMillen, a Democrat, ran against Republican Robert Neall. McMillen spent about $800,000 and Neall about $600,000. So the people of the district got a good idea of the candidates' qualifications and views.

McMillen won -- by 428 votes out of 130,000. In a county divided that closely, you would expect a Republican challenge again in two years. Nope. In 1988, Republicans put up a token (some would say fringe) challenger and McMillen won by 70,000 votes. Had he gotten that much more popular in just two years? No, he'd gotten a lock on campaign money. He had about half a million dollars and his opponent had pocket change.

It's more one-sided this year. According to Common Cause he had $762,978 in "campaign resources" as of the end of September. His opponent had $21,255.

It is mockery of democracy to call the results of these elections indicative of public opinion. Think of it this way. Coke and Pepsi are competing in Anne Arundel County. Coke spends $762,978 on advertising to Pepsi's $21,255. Everybody, even Ray Charles, would drink Coke.

According to Common Cause, the race in the Fourth District is typical this year. Of the 405 incumbents running for office, 296 are "financially unopposed." That is, they have no opponent at all or only an opponent with less than $25,000 in the campaign treasury. In addition, 86 more incumbents are in "financially noncompetitive" races. That is, they have at least twice as much money as their challengers.

So only 6 percent of all incumbents are in financially competitive contests. And so incumbents stay in forever. Public opinion -- public choice -- has nothing to do with it. "The consent of the governed" is a conceit. No, a deceit.

Some critics despair of changing the system. They suggest term limitations, which would create more open-seat elections, as the only way to get representative, responsive government. I have a better idea.

Wednesday: Real reform.

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