10/22/13 - congressional careerists

In today's selection -- from Congress: The Electoral Connection by David Mayhew. A recent poll featured in USA Today indicates that American "voters have a higher opinion of witches, hemorrhoids, and jury duty than their lawmakers in Washington". With an 8% approval rating, how long does one elected to Congress stay in Congress? As recently as 1971, 20 percent of members of the House of Representatives had served at least ten terms:

"Is it true that the United States Congress is a place where members wish to stay once they get there? Clearly there are representative assemblies that do not hold their members for very long. Members of the Colombian parliament tend to serve single terms and then move on. Voluntary turnover is quite high in some American state legislatures -- for example, in Alabama. In his study of the unreformed Connecticut legislature, [James D.] Barber labeled some of his subjects 'reluctants' -- people not very much interested in politics who were briefly pushed into it by others. An ethic of 'volunteerism' pervades the politics of California city councils. And in the Congress itself voluntary turnover was high throughout most of the nineteenth century.

"Yet in the modern Congress the 'congressional career' is unmistakably upon us. Turnover figures show that over the past century increasing proportions of members in any given Congress have been holdovers from previous Congresses -- members who have both sought reelection and won it. Membership turnover noticeably declined among southern senators as early as the 1850s, among senators generally just after the Civil War. The House followed close behind, with turnover dipping in the late nineteenth century and continuing to decline throughout the twentieth. Average number of terms served has gone up and up, with the House in 1971 registering an all-time high of 20 percent of its members who had served at least ten terms. It seems fair to characterize the modern Congress as an assembly of professional politicians spinning out political careers. The jobs offer good pay and high prestige. There is no want of applicants for them. Successful pursuit of a career requires continual reelection. ...

"But surely it is common for congressmen to seek other ends alongside the electoral one and not necessarily incompatible with it. Some try to get rich in office, a quest that may or may not interfere with reelection. [Richard] Fenno assigns three prime goals to congressmen -- getting reelected but also achieving influence within Congress and making 'good public policy.'"


David R. Mayhew


Congress: The Electoral Connection, Second Edition


Yale University Press


Copyright 1974 by Yale University


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