Mad as Hell? Tough

October 23, 1990

The headline on the full page advertisement on Page 11A of The Sun Monday read: "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!" It was placed by Jack Gargan of Tampa, Fla. It has appeared or will appear in 132 newspapers, according to Mr. Gargan. His goal is to get people to "rise up and and vote every incumbent senator and congressman out of office!"

A recent Gallup Poll showed a mere 24 percent of the American people have confidence in Congress. About half the people in another Gallup Poll said they were going to vote against the incumbents in their state and district.

Still, there's bad news for Mr. Gargan and others who are outraged with Congress: We are going to take it some more. The same cast of characters will be back at work and play under the Capitol dome next year. It has become all but impossible to oust an incumbent. This year, when public dissatisfaction with Congress is higher than any time in memory, almost every incumbent running for re-election seems headed for victory.

According to Congressional Quarterly, only two senators are in races "too close to call." Political scientist Allan Lichtman, using a formula he says correctly forecast 63 of the 67 races in 1988 and 1986, predicts all 32 Senate incumbents will win this year. On the House side, CQ says only five incumbents are in races in which they are not clear favorites. Representatives' margins of victories may go down, says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, but not their victory rate.

Some members of Congress say defensively that this is the way it has always been. That's not true. From 1924 through 1982, the percentage of House incumbents winning re-election was in the high 80s and low 90s. In the last three elections the percentage has been at all-time highs of 95.4, 98.0 and 98.5 percent. The Senate is a little better compared with the House (89.6, 75.0, 85.2 percent) but not compared with its own historical record. From 1968 through 1980, the Senate incumbent re-election rate was 69.5 percent.

If in a year of high discontent, voters return nearly all incumbents to Washington, the time will have come for a major effort by a prestigious group not under control of Congress -- perhaps something like the old Hoover Commission, the Warren Commission or the Kerner Commission -- to find out why this is and what can be done about it.

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