“All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.” – James Madison
“Every generation needs a new revolution.” – Thomas Jefferson
“A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.” – James Freeman Clarke
“The career politicians in Washington had transformed a government ‘for the people’
into a government for themselves and for special interests.” – Tom Coburn
The Incumbency Advantage
Incumbents have numerous advantages over non-incumbent challengers with respect to winning elections. The strength of this incumbency advantage is demonstrated by decades of very high reelection rates despite congress’s perennially low approval ratings. This incumbency advantage results from several factors, the most significant one being that the average population size of our congressional districts is 760,000! Such massive congressional districts make it virtually impossible for a challenger to unseat an incumbent due to the high cost of campaigning in districts that contain so many voters. This factor is easy to understand by considering this hypothetical question: If you were running for office, would you expect it to be easier to defeat an incumbent in a 50,000-person district, or in one that encompasses over half a million people?
In addition to being well ensconced in massive congressional districts, the incumbents also enjoy the following advantages:
- The federal government gives each Representative over a million dollars annually to pay for postage, staff salaries, travel, and office expenses.
- The Representatives’ office staff often “volunteer” to work on their boss’s election campaigns (which is a good way to help preserve their own jobs).
- While campaigning, Representatives continue to receive their $174,000 annual salary (which ranges up to $223,000 for the Speaker of the House). That salary is typically much more than that of the challengers, who often must resign from their jobs just to run (unless they are independently wealthy).
- Incumbents are well positioned to solicit financial and other support from the Special Interests, and are better able to procure non-financial support from various advocacy groups (i.e., PACs & 527s). In fact, of the $488 million donated by PACS to the congressional races in the 2019-20 cycle, only 8.2% of that was given to challengers. Special Interests are very reluctant to risk alienating a sitting incumbent by supporting a challenger.
- Incumbents can often secure free media coverage arranged by taxpayer-funded media specialists.
As significant as those incumbency advantages are, the paramount advantage which underlies all of them is that the average congressional district contains 760,000 people. Moreover, 257 of the 435 congressional districts (59%) are even larger than that average, ranging up to over 900,000 people! (This disparity in district sizes is an egregious violation of the constitutional principal of one person, one vote).
As a result of these massive districts, candidates must raise huge sums of money in order to market themselves to hundreds of thousands of prospective voters. Obviously, doing this is far easier for incumbents than for challengers: Incumbent House members who sought reelection in 2020 raised, on average, over $2.7 million each whereas the non-incumbent challengers were each able to raise only 15% of that amount (on average). This explains why one politician famously observed that “Money is the mother’s milk of politics”.
Given the incumbents’ numerous advantages with respect to winning reelection, it stands to reason that for a challenger to have even a chance of winning, he or she would generally need to raise even more money than the incumbent does. Therefore, in larger districts, the incumbents’ ability to thwart challengers improves due to the simple fact that the challengers must raise an extraordinary amount of money merely to have a possibility of victory. However, because it is nearly impossible for most citizens to raise the funds necessary to mount a credible challenge, it is not surprising that, in 2020, 95% of incumbent Representatives who sought reelection won.
An insidious consequence of these considerable incumbency advantages is that they prevent many of the best and brightest citizens from even considering running for office, as such an endeavor would appear to be nothing more than a costly folly. This deterrence, in and of itself, must be quite injurious to the republic, as instead of political challengers being the wisest and most capable of us, they are often either wealthy, extraordinarily optimistic, or foolhardy.
The significant reelection advantage provided to incumbents by their huge districts is borne out by analyzing the correlation between district population size and the incumbents’ average number of years in office. This relationship is illustrated in the chart below for each of the first 108 Congresses through 2005.
The analysis above shows that there is an indisputable correlation between the district population size
and the Representatives’ total years in office
. Simply stated, the chart confirms that as the congressional districts grew larger over the decades, the Representatives become increasingly entrenched in their office. As a result, our massively sized congressional districts provide political strongholds that make the incumbents virtually undefeatable. This problem will become increasingly worse over time: Our nation’s total population is growing rapidly while the number of Representatives remains arbitrarily fixed at 435.
However, the effect of these incumbency advantages would dissipate significantly if the size of congressional districts was substantially reduced (by significantly increasing the number of Representatives). For example, because most of the Representatives would be working from their home districts, their sizable office, travel and other expenses should be reduced significantly (if not eliminated). And when an incumbent is merely one of several thousand Representatives, rather than one of 435, then their ability to procure Special Interest support and call press conferences will be reduced in the same proportion. This is how we can replace a few hundred career politicians with several thousand citizen legislators!
Given all that, consider what would happen if we reduced the average population of congressional districts from 760,000 to 50,000 or less. Reducing the size of single-member districts would drastically reduce the candidates’ need to raise money from the various Special Interests. Any industrious citizen living in those community-sized districts could conduct an effective and credible campaign on a reasonable budget (as he or she may need to do nothing more than canvass several thousand homes in the district and hold a few open meetings for the community). Whatever the cost of campaigning in a district of 50,000 (or less), it would be considerably less than the cost of campaigning in the imperial-sized districts we have today.
The Arguments For and Against Mandatory Term Limits
The goal of term limits is to level the playing field by neutralizing the incumbency advantages to some extent. Term limits would force the House to bring in fresh perspectives to replace long-serving incumbents who may be focused on their career ambitions and beholden to the Washington orthodoxy. The underlying belief is that spending too much time in Washington corrupts even the most well-intentioned congressmen, which certainly appears to be true to a large extent.
Term limits would also enable Representatives to spend more time doing their job, and less time campaigning and fundraising. It is also argued that term limits would allow the Representatives to make unpopular decisions without fear of retaliation at the ballot box (though that could be viewed as a disadvantage as well as an advantage).
Perhaps the most compelling argument against term limits is that barring someone from running is undemocratic, as it limits the voters’ ability to exercise their constitutional right. Some districts may genuinely wish to reelect their Representative indefinitely because he or she is doing an excellent job of representing their constituents.
Another opposing argument is that term limits would decrease congressional capabilities by forcibly expelling some Representatives who may bring indispensable expertise and experience to the House, and/or who are very effective legislators. Related to that, term-limited members may not be inclined to develop deep expertise in specific areas since they will not remain in the House long enough to fully utilize that knowledge. There is some evidence that these inexperienced Representatives would overcome their knowledge gaps by an overreliance on government agencies, bureaucrats, and industry experts.
Another objection is that mandatory term limits would disproportionately affect the smaller states, which could suffer an involuntary loss as high as 100% of its Representatives (along with losing whatever seniority they enjoyed). The effect on the larger states would be far less consequential due to their larger delegations. Of course, this concern would be eliminated by a much larger House.
A crucial limitation of term limits is that it does absolutely nothing to reduce the advantages for incumbents who are eligible to seek reelection. All the benefits expected from term limits manifest only during the incumbent’s final term in office. Given that the term limit proposals for Representatives range from three to six terms, the effect of term limits is to empower the incumbents to fully exploit their advantages to thwart challengers until their final term in office. And even then, in a mega-sized congressional district, what prevents such an incumbent from using those same advantages to secure an election victory for his or her heir apparent? Such a successor could be, for example, a family member, a partner in a law firm, or a previously generous donor. The point is: Term limits without much smaller districts would be an inadequate solution for the House of Representatives.
Small Districts Will Overcome the Incumbency Advantage
Imposing term limits on the Representatives would be an effective way to limit some of the problems resulting from perpetual tenure in office. However, doing that would require a constitutional amendment which, at this point, doesn’t seem very likely. In contrast, it does not require a constitutional amendment to reduce the size of congressional districts by enlarging the House. In fact, Congress could do that at any time! However, it would require a constitutional amendment to compel Congress to enlarge the House. Interestingly, such an amendment was proposed in 1789 by the first congress. (Read the fascinating story of Article the first.)
Of course, enlarging the House does not preclude the option of also proposing a term limits amendment, which could be done either by Congress or by an Article V convention of states. Term limits and representational enlargement are complementary measures that could work in tandem. And it is far more likely that a term limits amendment would be proposed by a much larger House than by the current political oligarchy of 435.
As a practical matter, as the congressional districts become smaller, and the Representatives become fractionally less significant, the incumbency advantage becomes so diminished that the need for term limits for the House of Representatives may eventually disappear. In this sense, small congressional districts can be viewed as creating virtual term limits. And, unlike mandatory term limits, the benefits of virtual term limits are not limited to the incumbent’s final term in office.
However, in the absence of mandatory term limits, it is open to debate as to how small the congressional districts would need to be to substantially overcome the incumbency advantage. If the size of the House were increased by only a few hundred, or even two or three thousand, the congressional districts would still be too large to enable challengers to have a reasonable chance of defeating a sitting incumbent (though it would be an improvement over the present situation).
With respect to enlarging the House, bear in mind that if we had several thousand Representatives, most of them would be living and working in their home districts (where their constituents can better monitor them) rather than in distant Washington, D.C., the lobbyists’ one-stop-shop. Instead of spending most of their time year around fundraising, the incumbents will have the opportunity to establish more substantive relationships with their constituents.
Reducing the size of single-member congressional districts by increasing the number of Representatives will bring an end to the virtual guarantee of perpetual job security for incumbents. And depending on how small the districts are, this could eliminate the need for mandatory term limits entirely, at least with respect to the House of Representatives.
Imposing virtual term limits is only one of many reasons that representational enlargement will enable we the people to take our government back from the powerful Special Interests and the political ruling class. Explore this website to learn all about the other benefits of representational enlargement.
© Thirty-Thousand.org [Article Updated 02/01/22]
TermLimits.com: Why is a term limits amendment required and what is the process?
CRF-USA.org: Term-Limits Debate: Professional Politician or Citizen Legislator?