The leading argument made in favor of congressional term limits a number of years ago was the need to address the overwhelming electoral advantage enjoyed by incumbent members of Congress.
Supporters of term limits claimed that limiting the number of terms a senator or representative could serve was the only practical way to ensure healthy turnover in congressional seats.
The incumbent advantage is strong, but polls and early primaries this year are proving it is not insurmountable. Voters may not act as quickly to get rid of incumbents as term limits would, but they are willing to do the job when they decide it is necessary.
Just ask Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va. Both lost primary races earlier this month. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., are in danger of meeting the same fate when primary voters in their states go to the polls today. A number of veteran members of Congress also have opted to retire rather than face the voters this year. In at least some cases, their decisions probably were influenced by the tough, perhaps unwinnable, races they saw ahead.
A poll completed last week by AP-GfK Roper Public Affairs &Media confirms the anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping the country. Only 36 percent of those who responded said they wanted their own member of Congress to win re-election this fall. That’s down from about 43 percent in an April poll.
Usually voters dissatisfied with the way their state or federal government is being run blame other lawmakers, not their own representatives. They’re all bums up there, they think, except for our representative; he or she is just fine. Hence the incumbent advantage.
It doesn’t seem to be working this year. The AP poll indicated that people aren’t necessarily unhappy with their lives, but they aren’t happy with Congress. Only 28 percent said they approve of the way Congress is handling its job. And as partisan as the country seems right now, those ratings are pretty consistent across party lines. Congressional Democrats had an approval rating of 37 percent and Republicans were at 31 percent.
Ratings like those create strong opportunities for political challengers.
This may be the year that proves term limits aren’t the only way to ensure turnover in Congress. It’s one way, but when voters reach a certain level of dissatisfaction, they are more than capable of creating that turnover on their own.