2 More Incumbents Get the Message

August 08, 1992

Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan is chairman of the House of Representatives committee that advises and supports Republican candidates for the House. On Tuesday he was defeated in a Republican primary. He got only 41 percent of the vote. On the same day, Republican Rep. Dick Nichols of Kansas lost his renomination bid, getting only 34 percent of the vote.

Those two outcomes bring to 15 the number of House incumbents who have lost in primaries this year. That is almost double the most recent record -- eight primary losers in 1974 -- and close to the modern era record of 18 in 1946. And it is by no means over yet: 20 states have yet to hold congressional primaries.

The authoritative and non-partisan Congressional Quarterly predicted last February that "public anger at scandals, the redistricting process and the creation of more minority districts will mean close to 100 new faces in 1993." That conventional wisdom turns out to have been far too cautious and conservative. In the House alone, 85 new faces are already assured (some defeated, some seeking other office, but most retiring -- many out of fear). There are still those remaining primaries -- and then the general election, where the casualty rate among incumbents is expected to be high. (The Democratic campaign counterpart of Representative Vander Jagt, Rep. Vic Fazio of California, for example, is in a very tough race.)

The modern record of 118 new members, set in 1948, seems likely to be broken, as CQ now predicts. Generally speaking, any institution that loses one-fourth or more of its total membership all at once would be devastated. In the case of the House, we believe the result could be a great improvement. An outcome of that sort -- a message from the voters so clear -- should concentrate the collective mind of the House on its failures.

We don't mean just such obvious shortcomings as the mismanagement of its own internal affairs -- like sneaky pay raises, overly generous perks and the outrageous mismanagement of the House Bank and House Post Office. We mean the inability of the House to cooperate with the Senate and the executive branch to manage the nation's affairs, especially fiscal affairs, in an orderly, responsible manner.

No doubt some fine and competent people have and will lose their House seats to an enraged and indiscriminate electorate. But that is not such a great wrong in the scheme of things. It sort of balances things out. For too long incumbency has been so privileged a state that many incompetent representatives have been re-elected routinely. That, in fact, is a large part of the problem and helps explains the citizenry's rage against incumbents in 1992.

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