The “Powerful Institutionalists” In Congress
While I was perusing the Internet for a political story that did not make me want to crawl into a ditch, Politico Magazine answered my prayers. Democratic political operative Doug Sosnik argues that “the powerful institutionalists who used to rule the House and the Senate have been replaced by inexperienced partisans. And it shows.” There are two takeaways from this thesis, in my view.
The first is a factual reality. In the past decade or two, the House and the Senate have been shedding their incumbents. Mr. Sosnik points out that “next year, there will be at most 160 House members- barely a third of the body- who were elected before the 2010 midterms” and “in the next Congress, there will be at most only 45 senators who were in office before 2011.” Senators and representatives have less and less experience and several scholars have pointed out how the so-called “incumbency advantage” has been declining.
Let those numbers sink in for a moment. Over 2/3 of the House of Representatives was elected after 2010, and 55 senators were elected after 2011. I knew that people were getting tired of career politicians, but the numbers of recently elected senators and representatives are much higher than I expected. Furthermore, the exodus is not limited to Republican party leadership. Mr. Sosnik notes that “of the 87 Tea Party members elected in 2010, nearly half have already left the House or have announced their retirements.”
It does not matter if you have been in Congress forever or just recently arrived- it is becoming harder to hold your seat.
The second takeaway is more of a question: is this good or bad? As you probably have guessed, Mr. Sosnik believes that it is quite negative. He makes a compelling argument that older lawmakers like Senator Robert Byrd had an institutional loyalty to Congress which was greater than their party affiliation. Instead of being a rubber stamp for executive branch, even when the president was of the same party, Mr. Byrd and others like him strove to protect Congress’s authority and were not afraid to stand up to both popular and unpopular policies and presidents.
Mr. Sosnik argues that the current House and Senate are now full of partisans from both parties. They have little respect for either chamber as independent bodies and are rubber stamps of the White House. Since more inexperienced representatives and senators have less name recognition, funds, influence and their own identity, it makes sense that they would tie themselves to a president who has more of all of those things. They piggyback on a president, and in turn, the president expects loyalty.
While I agree to an extent, I think Mr. Sosnik underestimates the division between both parties. The current Republican Party has libertarians, traditional conservatives, Never-Trumpers and Trumpers shoved into an unhealthy alliance. The Democratic Party has still not aligned its traditionalist and the democratic socialist wings. With so many internal divisions, it is not possible for the Senate or the House to be a monolithic rubber stamp for the White House.
Of course, others see the exodus of long-time politicians as a very positive thing. Many critics point out that these “institutionalists” allowed many problems to grow bigger and bigger, such as our national debt, educational funding, treatment of veterans, the tax code and healthcare, all while they were elected over and over again. They lack of challengers allowed them to become complacent and removed the urgency from their terms.
Since I have examined governments from around the world, this second perspective especially resonates with me. The “democratic” countries with highly corrupt political systems, such as Mexico and Brazil, also had or have an entrenched bureaucracy in which politicians are elected with few to no checks on their job performance. It is very easy to claim that you are an institutionalist, when in reality you are simply reaping the benefits from a very powerful position without doing a whole lot.
Per usual, I contend that the exodus of long term politicians is a mixture of good and bad. We need to have legislators who protect their branch but also stand up to the president. Only the best of the best should make Congress a permanent career choice. I believe that a natural equilibrium will be found.
As the public’s demands and expectations for politicians increase, the number of willing participants will drop. The majority of senators and representatives will run for re-election once or twice to accomplish a particular goal. The intense competition for and the burnout associated with the job will provide a cycle of engaged leaders who need to move quickly and produce before moving on with their lives.
Could I be wrong? Oh heck yeah. I need to stay optimistic about this though, as the general state of politics in this country is so freakin’ depressing.
Let us hope that Congress can remain a strong, independent institution that is populated by capable politicians who do not need to make politics their career, but do so out of choice and effectiveness in their jobs.