Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U.S. Elections

By Bruce L. Felknor | Go to book overview

13 A Result of Reform: Invincible Incumbents

The framers of the U.S. Constitution envisaged Congress as a citizen legislature of amateur politicians, with distinctly different qualifications for the two chambers. At the Convention of 1787 there was considerable discussion of long terms for senators--life, or during good behavior, or fourteen years. Several delegates thought senators should not be compensated, that they would serve out of a sense of responsibility.

There was general agreement that terms should be short in the House of Representatives; the first proposal was for one year. Three years was much discussed because terms in the Continental Congress during the last half of its fourteen-year existence had been limited to three years in any six. For the new Congress Elbridge Gerry said New England would never consent to a three-year term. He considered, so Madison recorded, "annual Elections as the only defense of the people agst. tyranny. He was as much agst. a triennial House as agst. a hereditary Executive" ( Farrand 1966, 1:214). Two years was a compromise. The Founders wanted turnover in the House.

This, like many a dream, eventually got interpreted to death. The modern U.S. House of Representatives has a turnover rate approaching that of the United Kingdom's House of Lords, where death is the only way to lose a seat. In practical terms, the only way other than death that American House seats are vacated is the retirement or elevation of the incumbent. In 1986, of the 435 House members, 408 ran for reelection; 402, or 98 percent, won.

The number of defeated incumbents in 1988--six--equalled the count for 1986 and was the lowest ever recorded ( Ornstein, Mann, and Malbin 1989). In 1990 the percentage of winners slipped to 96 percent.

The Founders knew that, absent the three-years-in-six limit introduced by the Articles of Confederation in 1881, some outstanding congressmen would be reelected time after time. As Hamilton (or Madison) put it in Federalist, No. 53, "A few of the members, as happens in all such as-

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