The Incumbency Encumbrance

By Bellinger, Lee | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Incumbency Encumbrance

Bellinger, Lee, The World and I

A negative if little-understood influence on the quality of public service today is a phenomenon known as the incumbency curve.

The incumbency curve analysis shows that extended exposure to the Washington political scene by elected representatives is directly linked to a decline in the quality of political decision-making in Congress.

For the purposes of the incumbency curve study, public service is defined as Congress' political capacity to control entitlement programs threatening to bankrupt the country, resist special-interest pressures, and fundamentally reform government operations.

The incumbency curve study verifies a widely held belief among voters (80-90 percent of whom consistently support term limits) that the longer an incumbent holds office, the more likely it is that he becomes "part of the problem."

Of course, many respected legislators and other knowledgeable authorities reject term limits. Twelve-term Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), for example, says that the experience gained by longtime congressmen allows them to better serve their constituencies and the country as a whole. Term limits, he says, are already a reality that each lawmaker faces every Election Day.

In a quantitative study with a bearing on term-limits policy, the American Sentinel newsletter selected votes in the GOP-controlled 104th Congress that dealt with fundamental changes to government, including term limits, a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, welfare to corporations, and deep spending cuts.

Second, the incumbency curve analysis counted how often incumbents voted "pro-reform" and compared that information with the amount of time they had served in office. The result seems to confirm the public suspicion that prolonged exposure to special interests and perks by elected officials is directly linked to Congress' institutional inability to grapple successfully with pressing national problems.

The incumbency curve is best illustrated through the demise of reform-oriented votes in the previous 104th Congress. The first GOP-controlled legislative session in more than 40 years, it was arguably the most "pro-reform" Congress we are likely to see in our lifetime.

Understandably, Republican Party activists blame Clinton administration vetoes for the demise of many Contract with America reforms. But it was the influence of senior legislators (of both parties) that rendered the new GOP majority unable to enact term limits, eliminate entire departments, and end corporate welfare.


On congressional decisions affecting fiscal restraint, lower taxes, and profound reform in government operations, the incumbency curve demonstrates that incumbents with extended tenures in office are a significant impediment to fundamental change. This is not attributable to partisanship or "gridlock" alone. Nor can resistance to fundamental reform be entirely dismissed as a consequence of perceived media bias against such changes. Senior incumbents have had a decisive impact on many key reform votes.

Tax and budget cuts. A dramatic demonstration of the incumbency curve's premise that extended incumbency erodes Congress' institutional respect for taxpayers occurred on May 23, 1995. The Senate defeated an amendment offered by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) to enact major tax relief already approved in the House (including $143 billion in tax cuts matched to additional spending reductions).

Over 75 percent of those senators who were in office for two years or less supported Gramm's amendment. Among those who had held office from 3 to 14 years, support for deep budget cuts to finance major tax reductions degraded sharply to 33 percent.

Those senators in power for 15 years or longer were the least likely to align themselves with taxpayers. As figure 1 shows, they supported Gramm's program only 16 percent of the time. Gramm's plan lost by a vote of 31-69. …

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