Despite Americans continuing to rate Congress lower than cockroaches and lice, a Washington Examiner data analysis has revealed a startling paradox: incumbents are in office the longest in the nation’s history.
As of 2012, 147 lawmakers have been in office for at least two decades, with 53 having served for over three decades. Compare this to 1882, when congressmen usually had an average tenure of 6 years. A mere 10 percent were in office longer than 12 years.
But for political scientists who have studied the results further, the trend doesn’t seem baffling at all. The main difference is that poll results seem to be tracking the public’s views on Congress as an abstract institution, rather than their direct members of Congress.
“There’s typically a big gap in opinion polling about how people feel about Congress as a whole, compared to their incumbent member,” Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics told the Examiner.
However, assuming that the member of Congress is widely despised, Kondik also noted that there needs to be a realistic alternative, since voters need to feel that the up-and-coming candidate represents their feelings, as well.
After all, according to Tim LaPira, a James Madison University political scientist, voters vote for personality over ideology. The personal relationships candidates form with constituents is usually the most important factor in re-election, and in this area, incumbents have a distinct advantage.
“It’s so easy and abstract to say ‘Congress sucks,’ but you don’t run into all of Congress at the county fair, you run into your member,” LaPira told the Examiner.
Part of the frustration stems from comparisons of Congress to the private sector, particularly Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 companies, where high turnover in management helps keep the lifeblood of the organization going, spurring innovation and fighting stagnation. The last hundred years, however, has shown the rise of the career politician. A commonly cited example is Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who held office for 40 years and once described the Internet as a “series of tubes.”
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