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We Can’t Even Throw the Rascals Out : Congress: What does it mean when incumbents keep getting reelected? That we’re pleased with their work?

<i> Lee Iacocca is chairman of Chrysler Corp</i>

All 435 congressmen and 33 of the 100 senators will put their jobs on the line in less than six months, and if it seems too quiet on the Potomac these days, it’s because not more than a handful or so are worried about it.

Congress has become, for all practical purposes, a lifetime job, a privilege that I always thought was reserved for the judiciary. The whole idea of holding national elections every two years was to give us a chance to throw the rascals out if we didn’t like the job they were doing. But today the rascals have made themselves almost invincible.

Huge campaign war chests from special interest contributions, free postage, paid staffs, and all the PR advantages that come with incumbency make challenging a sitting congressman these days almost foolhardy. There’s only a 2% chance of winning, judging by the last couple of elections. In fact (statistically, at least), sitting congressmen are almost as likely to be sentenced to jail as they are to be sent home by the voters. Since 1988, six congressmen went home, and five were sentenced to the slammer.

All this makes you wonder whether we should be patting ourselves on the back for being the “model” for the democratic reforms sweeping Eastern Europe.

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Last year, in the first free election in the Soviet Union in 70 years, there was an 80% voter turnout, compared to less than 50% in our national election the year before. That says something about the relative vitality of democracy in the two countries. An 80% free-will turnout is a figure that we have never achieved in the United States since we started keeping track of voting rates.

There are a couple of ways you can read this thing. When less than half the electorate bothers to vote, and those who do simply rubber-stamp the incumbents, it could mean that we’re completely satisfied with the job Congress is doing. It could mean that we aren’t concerned that they haven’t balanced a budget in 21 years, and that they’ve added $2 trillion to the national debt in the last 10, or that our trade deficits keep mounting, or that we refuse to put a plan in place to compete economically in a global market. (Of course, two Administrations have also been sitting idly by while these problems pile up.)

If that’s so--if we are that satisfied--then it begs the question of whether we even need to hold elections at all.

There’s another way to read it. It may be that Congress has slowly built a moat around Capitol Hill and isolated itself from those who might want some change.

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On average, $380,000 is spent on a House election in this country. Senate elections cost about $4 million and individual races run as high as $25 million.

The money comes from individual contributions, speaking honorariums and especially political action committees (PAC). For every PAC dollar contributed to a challenger in 1988, $7 was contributed to an incumbent. The reason is simple: PAC contributions are made to buy access, only winners grant access, 98% of the incumbents won in the past two elections, so any money spent supporting a challenger carries the lousy odds of a 49-to-1 long shot.

(By the way, Chrysler is one of those special interests with a PAC, but would support moves to curtail PAC influence, including its own.)

Incumbents usually have all the money they need to win; challengers have to try to get their messages across with a fraction of the expensive TV time their opponents can buy. And, in a climate where name recognition is more important than anything else, the incumbents have staffs paid by our tax dollars to help keep their names in the paper (or, in some cases, out of it).

They also have franking privileges that allow them to spend almost $70 million for free mail. Of course, incumbents say that the franking privilege is necessary to keep them in touch with the folks back home. You have to wonder how much the folks back home want to keep in touch, however: For every piece of mail Congress receives, it sends out 12,000 pieces! That kind of ratio makes it advertising, not correspondence.

Democracy lives on change, or at least on the opportunity for change, and that’s almost impossible today unless we first change the rules.

Spending limits on campaigns, more public election financing, mandatory equal TV time for candidates, even a constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms for officeholders--all of these have been proposed.

Each carries some negatives. But any one would be preferable to a system that all but insures that, once elected, a politician has a job for life unless caught stealing or found in the shower with the high school volleyball team.

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