The House still needs cleaning

November 06, 1992

Election Day wasn't the blood bath for members of Congress that had been predicted, even by some of the legislators themselves. The advantages of incumbency triumphed again, despite the widespread belief that long service was a liability this year. To those who respond, "The voters have spoken, so be it," think again. When incumbents raise and spend more than $1 million to hold on to a Maryland congressional seat, most of it from political action committees and out-of-state fat cats, it's not just the voice of the people doing the talking.

With a handful of contests still undecided, the usual 90-plus percent of incumbents who were seeking re-election will be back on Capitol Hill in January.

A couple of dozen were defeated, in an election where the conventional wisdom predicted that perhaps twice as many would lose. Bounced checks and other trophies of the arrogance of power did claim some victims, like Ohio's Mary Rose Oakar. Others, like Maryland's Tom McMillen, were casualties of redistricting.

Still, the evidence of citizens' discontent with Congress remains clear. Voters in 14 states were asked to impose limits on the terms their members could serve, and every one of them agreed -- often by huge margins. Whether or not term limits are constitutional, or even whether they're wise, is beside the point for the moment. Congress as an institution remains in deep trouble with the electorate. The odor from the House bank, the House post office, the lavish perquisites and sleazy fund-raising will not dissipate that easily.

Defenders of congressional self-indulgence often point out that citizens dislike the institution but admire their own representatives. It's not that simple. Incumbents are able to bombard their constituents with promotional mail in the guise of newsletters, at public expense. They can make TV and radio pronouncements for home-town stations, at public expense. They can put political aides on the public payroll, in Washington and at home. And their fund-raising capacities are much greater.

Mr. McMillen and the successful Rep. Steny Hoyer each raised more than $1 million, mostly from political action committees and the like.

So the return of more incumbents than expected does not prove voters are satisfied. If anything, it demonstrates that the political system still gives incumbents a political advantage that is difficult to overcome. The need to impose controls on campaign financing and to force Congress to clean up its own act is strengthened, not weakened, by Tuesday's results.

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