Challenging Incumbent Advantage

November 10, 1991|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,Paul West is The Sun's national political correspondent.

Last week, voters in Washington state narrowly shot down the harshest term limit measure ever placed on a statewide ballot. The impact could be enormous.

It's way too early, both sides insist, to declare the term limit movement dead, especially since voters in three states have already imposed limits on state legislators, at least ten more states may have term limit proposals on the ballot next year and public sentiment is wildly supportive of the idea. Also, there are special factors about Washington state -- including the severity of the proposal (six-year limits for congressmen), a moderate level of voter discontent, a resilient economy that owes much to federal largess and the popularity of the nation's top-ranking legislator, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley -- all of which suggest that it may be an exception, not a trend-setter.

Still, the successful campaign to block term limits in the Pacific Northwest, the first major setback for the national anti-incumbent movement, provides a handy formula for defeating similar measures elsewhere.

The basic argument is simple: imposing term limits in a single state amounts to unilateral political disarmament; even those who would like to see incumbents retired after a few terms may think twice about putting their state at a disadvantage in the perennial struggles for political favors in Congress. And unlike officeholders in Washington state, who awoke to the threat of term limits at the eleventh hour, politicians are likely to react earlier and more forcefully from now on.

The vote last Tuesday may also point up the inherent political weakness of the term-limit movement: many of the most alienated voters, those hungriest for a quick-fix solution for government's failures, are often too turned off to vote. This may help explain why an idea that received widespread backing in opinion polls fell short at the ballot box.

Defeat of the Washington initiative may delay a final answer on the other potentially serious question facing term-limit advocates, that of legality. A Florida court is now considering whether it is constitutional for that state to limit the terms of its federal representatives; but it could be years before the issue is finally resolved by the U. S. Supreme Court.

Even many critics of term limits endorse its basic goal -- reducing the enormous advantage that incumbents enjoy in elections today. The disagreement comes over whether forcing members of Congress to retire at a set point is the best remedy.

Those who don't like term limits, a group composed of well-meaning skeptics as well as those who benefit from the current system, have offered a number of alternatives for making elections more competitive. They include:

* Free advertising time on television and radio for both incumbents and challengers.

* Restrictions on donations from out-of-state.

* Limits on total spending and a ban on political action committees.

* Public subsidies for candidates.

* Slashing the size of congressional staffs, by up to 30 percent.

* Further limits on Congress's free mailing privileges and other perks in an election year.

All of these changes would go directly to the heart of incumbent advantage: money.

According to figures by Common Cause, which lobbies for campaign reform, almost half (15) of the 32 senators who ran for re-election in 1990 were either unopposed or faced no well-financed challenger in the general election. In House races, 90 percent of incumbents seeking re-election (369 out of 406) were similarly home free.

Incumbents were able to out-raise challengers by more than six to one in the most recent House races and nine to one in Senate contests, according to an analysis of campaign spending reports by Common Cause. Much, if not most, of this money went for political advertising. In Senate campaigns alone, an estimated $240 million was spent on TV and radio ads. The candidate with the largest bankroll, quite clearly, is best able to get his message across to the voters in those crucial 30- and 60-second spots.

Large staffs in Washington, D.C. and in their home states, office computers, government television and radio studios on Capitol Hill and other taxpayer-funded advantages also help facilitate communications between officeholders and their constituents -- adding to the enormous leverage that incumbents enjoy over challengers. Small wonder that it has become an article of faith in politics that a member of Congress, once elected, has to be either stupid, lazy or crooked to lose his or her seat.

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