IT'S NOT JUST that incumbency turns out not to be a fatal disease, after all -- it's also not necessarily a bad thing. This is worth remembering in the wake of an election in which, at the federal level (the governors got something of a jostling), just about every incumbent who sought reelection won -- and won in the face of what was expected to be strong anti-incumbent sentiment.
It is absolutely true that most incumbents enjoy enormous, daunting and undue advantages over their challengers. The most notable lies in the familiar realm of campaign finance; they can generally raise so much more so easily that in financial terms they have no real opposition. In House races this year incumbents had eight times more money to spend than their challengers (counting the unspent accumulations from past campaigns), and in the Senate about three times more. In the House especially, much of the extra money came from PACs, the giving arms of the interest groups whose legislative fortunes the returning incumbents will control. Incumbents also have the familiar perks of office ranging from the franking privilege to, in many cases, considerable staffs.
1. Surely they don't win just because the deck is stacked. You have to assume -- you know -- that they're elected at least in part because they accurately reflect the views of their constituents and even are pretty good at what they do. The longer they stay in office, the better they may get at the job; that's at least as plausible and often true as the opposite chestnut that the longer they stay, the farther they drift from the interests of those who sent them.
2. There is a need to level the playing field, but the right way to do that is to go at the things that produce the tilt. Campaign finance reform comes first to mind. The Democrats passed legislation on basically party-line votes in both houses this year, but the House Democrats particularly were never fully enthusiastic, and the bills wereallowed to die in conference. The thing shouldbe properly done next year, and just maybe it will.
3. Term limitation aims at the wrong problem and is the wrong cure -- a wonderful slogan but a bad idea. Legislators are different from chief executives, if only because there are so many more of them; if people like and want to stick with a representative or senator, they ought to be allowed to. A limit on service -- several such initiatives passed on Tuesday -- will deprive what will always be the reactive if not necessarily the weaker elected branch of needed heft and expertise and only strengthen not only the executive but precisely the remote permanent government that in theory it is meant to control.
In fact we already have term limitations in this country. Every two years in the House and every six in the Senate you can throw out whomever you please; that's all a country needs.