John Dingell And The Problem With Long-Term Incumbency
As of today, John Dingell has been a Member of Congress for 20,997 days, a new record. That's not something to celebrate.
Today, having served in Congress since before Sputnik, before Elvis and The Beatles, and only two years after the end of the Korean War, John Dingell of Michigan becomes the longest serving Member of Congress in American history. This milestone comes mere days after the death of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who, with a break in between, served nearly 30 years in the United States Senate, including a final year in which he spent much time away from the body due to poor health. As Tom Bevan notes at RealClearPolitics, in their own ways, Dingell and Lautenberg both symbolize the problems with long-term incumbency:
One need not be a term-limit zealot to feel unnerved at the idea that his Michigan district has been in the hands of the Dingell family for 80 straight years. Or to wonder about the Massachusetts Senate seat held by John F. Kennedy and his brother Edward from 1952 until 2009 — when Teddy died in office.
Yes, John Dingell had to face the voters of his district every two years, as constitutionally required, and they saw fit to return him to office. But they did so in a gerrymandered district where challenging him in a primary would be a ticket to oblivion, and the only factor that really mattered every other November is the “D” beside his name.
Another way to view Dingell’s 57-year tenure, which is being treated by the media, pundits and party bigwigs in such a celebratory fashion, is that it is a prime example of the growing disconnect between Washington’s values and those in the rest of the country.
We now have a permanent governing class in our nation’s capital, some of whom have never held a job other than elected office and others, like the Dingells and Kennedys, for whom politics is the family business. (Incidentally, the matriarch of one of those families made news recently with a refreshingly blunt observation. “It’s great country,” Barbara Bush said when asked if her second son, Jeb, should run for president in 2016. “There are a lot of great families, and it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified and we’ve had enough Bushes.”)
No matter how well-intentioned these politicians might be — and contrary to public perception they’re not all crooks and liars, as I often remind my own father — they become part of a culture that operates under self-perpetuating priorities. They become insulated from the real world and distanced from those they are supposed to represent.
For many members, particularly those in the House, their overriding concern quickly becomes winning re-election so they can stay in office. The longer they’re in Washington, the worse it gets. Even those who make pledges to leave after two or three terms develop an odd and very selective form of amnesia. Many of those who do manage to step down, either of their own volition or because of the voters’ wishes, immediately begin plotting their own comebacks.
Such was the case with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. He was an accomplished public servant, a World War II veteran who had made a fortune in the business world. In 1999, at the age of 75 and nearing the end of his third six-year term in the Senate — and facing no formidable opposition for re-election — Lautenberg announced he was stepping down. He left office in January 2001.
That retirement lasted exactly one year. In early 2002, he let it be known he was available for an upcoming vacancy. He ran in 2002, and again in 2008, and when he died this week in office, he was 89 years old and had been in declining health for some time. Lautenberg had announced his impending retirement (again) in February of this year, but the real question is why he was still in the Senate at all.
Such examples are increasingly the rule, rather than the exception. Choosing to stand for re-election as nonagenarians, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Robert Byrd of West Virginia spent their final terms battling health problems and sleeping through roll call votes. Byrd seemed motivated to stand for re-election a final time in 2006 for the express purpose of breaking Thurmond’s record of being the longest-serving senator in United States history. He succeeded, though it’s hard to see how the people of West Virginia are better off for it.
We will unquestionably be treated to more scenes like this in the future as senators, along with everyone else, live longer and longer thanks to modern technology and medicine.
But just because senators can serve longer doesn’t mean they should. It’s not only a matter of health, and having the physical and mental faculties to perform the job. There’s a legitimate question of whether the “graying of Congress” negatively impacts the crafting of meaningful legislation to address the modern problems of tomorrow. Is it really a coincidence that they keep appropriating money for current federal programs by borrowing from a future generation they won’t be part of?
Jonathan Tobin agrees:
As Bevan notes, Dingell, who succeeded his father, has won 29 consecutive terms in a deep blue Michigan district where he has rarely faced a serious opponent. As with many other congressional dinosaurs, Dingell’s survival says more about the power of gerrymandering (which both parties abuse every chance they get) and the way such veterans can use their power to amass campaign funds and employ patronage to buy local support than it does about his personal appeal.
Term limits are a debatable measure for Congress since it can be argued that it takes a while for a new member of the House or Senate to figure out what they’re doing and become effective. But Dingell is the poster child for those who advocate that those limits are the only way to ensure that Congress is not populated by political lifers rather than citizens with experience of the world in which the rest of us live.
Of course, in contrast to Dingell, Lautenberg came to politics late after a successful business career. But, like Dingell, the senator remained mired in the political ideology of the past and was, like many of his colleagues, locked into the old paradigm in which no one ever totaled up the costs for entitlement spending. While Lautenberg’s ADP company helped private businesses control costs and payroll, he and more than a few other “Greatest Generation” liberal pols, who often seemed to act as if it was still 1938, built up a national debt that subsequent generations will struggle to pay off.
Though on average we are living longer than we used to and remaining productive at ages when Americans were usually long retired or dead, there is something slightly pathetic about a political system that recycles people in this way. We should honor Lautenberg’s service, but let’s hope that in the decades to come the presence of aged, out-of-touch and largely ineffective politicians in the halls of Congress will become a rarity rather than commonplace.
There are, of course, two sides to this argument. Those who reject the arguments of those who point out the dangers of long-term incumbency will point out, correctly, that both Dingell and Lautenberg (and Senators Inoyue, Byrd, and Thurmond before them) faced the voters as required and were regularly returned to office. Shouldn’t the voters of their respective states and Congressional Districts be able to get the representation they want? This is a valid point. If the people of Dingell’s District are okay with him representing them for the past 57 years, then who are we to say otherwise? One answer is to note that there are already restrictions on who can serve in the House or the Senate set forth in Constitution. One must be a citizen and be of a certain age in order to serve in either body, so we already place some limits on who voters can send to Washington to represent them. Therefore, the idea that there is something “anti-democratic” about term limits (assuming that a Term Limits Amendment were able to gather sufficient support to become ratified) isn’t really much of an argument at all. Indeed, there are plenty of provisions in the Constitution that could be described as “anti-democratic,” but that’s because the Constitution was never meant to create a pure democracy, it was meant to create a central government of limited powers regardless of what the majority that was in power in Washington wanted to do at a given time. Admittedly, our Constitutional institutions have been somewhat less than successful in achieving this goal.
The main argument against they “they were elected” argument, though, is that it’s laughable to suggest that they were actually elected in competitive elections. Thanks to both gerrymandering, the massive money-raising advantages that incumbency brings with it, Dingell has not faced a serious challenge in either a Primary or General Election in decades. The same was true of Senators Inoyue, Byrd, Kennedy, and Thurmond, and the last true election threat that Lautenberg faced other than the initial race that put him in office in 1982, occurred in the GOP wave election year of 1994 when Republican Chuck Haytaian, who had been Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly, came within three points of defeating him. At some point, for most of these politicians, having to worry about being re-elected is something that stopped being a worry fairly quickly. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. Speaker of the House Tom Foley was defeated in 1994, Senate Majority Leader lost to John Thune in 2004 and, most recently, Republican Robert Bennett of Utah and Dick Lugar of Indiana found themselves on the losing end of primary challenges from candidates supported by the grassroots of their party. For the most part, though, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. For example, Swing Districts are far less common than they used to be. That’s why, in 2012, 90% of the members of the House and Senate who stood for re-election were in fact re-elected, a number that makes even turnover in the Soviet-era Politburo seem democratic by comparison.
The dangers of such a system would seem to be self-evident. A Congress made up largely of people who have been there a long period of time is likely to be far less open to new ideas, and far more interested in amassing the kind of power that helps incumbents keep their fundraising operations alive, than one in which there is frequent and regular turnover in both Houses of Congress. Long-term incumbents are also, arguably, far less likely to look back at decisions that they made in the past and consider the possibility that they might have been wrong. And, most importantly, an electoral system that is essentially rigged to protect incumbents is quite obviously not in the interests of the American people. After all, how can it be said the Congressman Dingell has truly been re-elected, when he hasn’t had to worry about facing a serious challenger, either from a Republican or from within his own party, since before Ronald Reagan was President? Did the voters of his District really have a choice in those situations? I’d say that the answer to that is clearly no.
So, assuming that we’re in agreement that there’s a problem, the question becomes how to fix it.
History Professor Claire Potter suggests that some retirements may be in order. That’s an excellent idea, but, of course, nobody can force a Senator to retire if he or she doesn’t want to and, once they hit advanced ages like Thurmond and Byrd did, it seemingly becomes impossible to dislodge them even though there are clear signs that they are too old for the job. Josh Barro suggests more open elections:
Senate seats aren’t property, and Lautenberg wasn’t entitled to cling to his job even as he became too old and infirm to carry it out. We should have an expectation about Congress, as we do with other high-powered and demanding jobs, that people will retire when they are no longer up to the demands.
One way to achieve this would be through formal rules. Senators in Canada must retire at the age of 75, and many state court systems also have mandatory retirement ages. Term limits would also prevent senators from sticking around indefinitely. But either of these changes would require a constitutional amendment approved by two-thirds votes in each house of Congress, which is to say, they are unlikely to happen.
State governments can help by adopting open election systems like those in California and Louisiana. These “top-two” systems, in which candidates from all parties run in the same primary, can allow voters to choose between two liberal (or two conservative) candidates in a general election, making it easier to replace an incumbent without replacing his ideology.
But the best option is to change our norms about incumbency. Booker had this one right: being a good team player shouldn’t always mean waiting around for your party’s incumbents to retire. More politicians should be willing to make primary challenges, and state political parties should be more tolerant of them. And voters should recognize that “senator” is a job that benefits from turnover.
Personally, as I said in my post earlier this week about Dingell’s less than admirable record, I favor the idea of term limits. A limit of 24 years each for both the House and the Senate would seem to me to be reasonable, although some have suggested even more stringent limits of 12 years each for the Senate and the House. However, I am realistic enough to understand that the odds of a Constitutional Amendment limiting Congressional terms is unlikely to make it out of Congress and on to the the states any time in the foreseeable future. So, we must look to other options. Barro suggests some interesting ideas, although even his idea of an age limit would have to be enacted via Amendment. He’s more correct to point out that, for hope, we must look to the states. Personally, I am far less impressed with the entire “top-two” system that Barro mentions, but I’m willing to wait and see how it works out in California and Louisiana over the coming years. Additionally, though, necessary reforms must be made in Congressional reapportionment in order to minimize the influence of politics on the process. Here in Virginia, for example, Republicans and Democrats essentially worked together to create a reapportionment map that created safe districts for each member of the state’s Congressional Delegation, even if that meant creating one district that stretches more than 200 miles from the North Carolina border to just outside the western edges of the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. We’ll never be able to get politics completely out of redistricting, of course, but we ought to be looking for ways to create a system where the process pays more attention to issues like geographic continuity and less attention to which party a particular map will help the most.
I’m sure that John Dingell is a perfectly nice guy who loves his family and his country, but I cannot find anything to celebrate in the milestone he marks today.