Congress squirms in grip of fears Safe seats fail to make fort courage on issues

October 21, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Correspondent in the Washington Bureau of The Sun.

Washington--No guts, no budget.

That was the story this past week from Capitol Hill, where the political courage of members of Congress seems to have become inversely proportional to their ability to get re-elected. The safer they become, the more timidly they cower in their corners, unable to reach any consensus that carries the slightest twinge of pain to voters or contributors.

"They're guided by sheer, unshirted fear," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "They're paranoid about elections that they have no reason to fear."

As the irrational fear grows, judgment wavers. Votes flop back and forth. Indecision and paralysis reign -- all of which infuriates constituents and contributors, and in turn makes the fear stronger.

The result? The lawmakers bend to every breeze of public sentiment that drifts their way. "You don't have members really responding to a coherent set of principles as much as to a galaxy of special interests," Mr. Baker said. "And as e.e. cummings once said, 'If you stand for nothing, you can be toppled by a slogan.' "

That's the way it goes with fear. But is it that irrational? What about the "throw the bums out" movement supposedly sweeping the country?

Members of Congress have picked up the theme along with everybody else, said John A. Marini, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Reno and co-author of the 1989 book, "The Imperial Congress." "You see a lot of them running 'against the system,' " he said, and so far voters haven't seemed "to make the connection that these [members of Congress] are the people doing what they say is being done by 'the system.' "

Even where voters regard the local Honorable as some kind of bum, opposition is often invisible. The reform-minded Common Cause organization took a look recently and found that 95 percent of the 405 incumbents running for re-election were either unopposed or faced "financially non-competitive" challengers.

Thus, victory margins in congressional races are at an all-time high. The only incumbent who lost in the latest primaries was a 59-year-old Ohio Republican convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old girl.

So then why all the fear?

First, the comfortable party support systems of old have declined. At one time the party offered members help at election time, whether in money or in workers. That bolstered courage to go along with the sometimes politically unpopular plans of party congressional leadership.

"They were backstopped by the party, which now and then would say, 'Go ahead, take a chance, we'll be there if you need help,' " Mr. Baker said. "Now they are their own last line of defense, so they hesitate to risk offending anybody."

"It is subjective vulnerability," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies for the Brookings Institution. "To the extent they do something that is out of synch with public sentiment, they believe they provide an opponent an opening at some future point."

BTC Speeding this erosion have been the quick-buck contributions of special interests. This money is cheaply obtainable with a few big-ticket Washington fund-raisers, and it's the main reason incumbents so easily outspend challengers. But it also obligates the lawmakers to a second, more vengeful constituency.

Naturally, these contributors expect a willing ear and favorable votes for their money. "This works pretty well for these organized interests," Mr. Marini said, "but it doesn't work very well for the general public."

But even if a lawmaker's vote offends a contributor, monied interests these days often seem reluctant to back challengers of either party.

Campaign terror lurks nonetheless. "Intellectually they understand they have nothing to fear," Mr. Baker said. "But there's always that one hypothetical opponent out there, that strong charismatic state senator or that popular insurance commissioner."

And feeding this fear is the nightmare specter of a negative television advertising campaign. "The examples of the media blitzes that have turned around opinion in individual districts and states carry a lot of weight," Mr. Mann said. "It reinforces their belief that lightning can strike at any time."

Structural changes in Congress over the years haven't helped make members courageous, either. The once-centralized committee system has split and multiplied like a swarm of microorganisms, leaving the dominant party to divvy up chairmanships of 51 committees and 244 subcommittees.

That fragments the power of leadership, and with so many chieftains at work, the desire to wield influence seldom seems to go beyond parochial interests. "The norms of the institution have changed so much that just about everyone now is a pork barreler," Mr. Marini said, "and no one wants to be a leader. . . . They can do pretty well just functioning as independent entrepreneurs."

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