Friday, August 01, 2008

The Enemy Within

...Or, "He May Be a Corrupt Bastard,
But Gol-darn It, He's OUR Corrupt Bastard"

This story off the AP wire (via triggers a post that's been brewing in my head for a while:
Many Support Alaska Senator,
Despite Indictment
Whatever they might think about Sen. Ted Stevens' honesty or lack thereof, many folks in Alaska aren't ready to see their Uncle Ted go.

Indictment or not, they are grateful for the bounty of federal dollars he has delivered in the nearly 40 years he has represented them in Washington. And they worry about how Alaska would fare on Capitol Hill without him.

"As I told the senator, he can do more in six years that any of his opponents can do in 20," said Joe Williams, mayor of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough and one of many Alaska residents who have rallied to the Republican senator's defense after his indictment this week.

Stevens, 84, pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges of concealing more than a quarter-million dollars in home renovations, furnishings and other gifts from an oilfield services company.
Homebuilder Chuck Spinelli picked up some Stevens yard signs Thursday and planned to display them at his home, his office and on his trucks.

"People of Alaska have hired him to bring money back to this state," Spinelli said. "He has done that over and over and over again. Whatever these charges are, he deserves the respect and our admiration. We should wait to see what actually happens before there's a call to do anything."

Alaska has been a big beneficiary of the federal government's largess, largely because of Stevens' leadership role on the Senate Appropriations Committee and his skill at inserting earmarks into budget bills.
While everyone else in Greater Left Blogsylvania takes the opportunity to gloat over Sen. Steven's long overdue comeuppance, I'm going to take the road less traveled to examine this total disconnect that's obvious in the Alaskan electorate, and by extension the rest of the country's voters.

I'm willing to bet that if you polled Alaskans or any other Americans about the practice of attaching earmarks, aka pork barrel riders, onto otherwise legitimate legislation you would get a pretty strong reaction against. There are a number of reasons you should object to the practice, regardless of your ideological or party affiliations. First, pork barrel projects increase the federal budget and drive up taxes without producing any overall benefit to the country. Second they are an invitation to corruption, as steering government contracts to campaign contributors and political supporters is a quick and dirty way to provide otherwise illegal kickbacks - at the taxpayers' expense. Third they put the integrity of the original bill in question. Is the Senator or Representative voting for or against on its merits, or because of the existence or lack of an earmark for their constituents? Finally they pit state against state, district against district - and thus get in the way of a concerted effort to solve the problems of the nation as a whole.

The weird and even dangerous thing is, no matter how voters may deplore earmarks in the abstract, or on the federal level, they frickin' love them back home. Oh, yeah give me more. F-EE-EE-D ME! As this story about Ted Stevens illustrates,
"..they are grateful for the bounty of federal dollars he has delivered
...he can do more in six years that any of his opponents can do in 20
...hired him to bring money back to this state
...his skill at inserting earmarks into budget bills.
Even Alaskans' beliefs about "Ted Stevens' honesty or lack thereof" is tainted by this parochialism - this local self-interest. They don't care that he's dishonest so long as that dishonesty is working to give them an unfair advantage over their fellow Americans. Not that anybody should think that the voters of any other state would act differently. It's every man, district and state for themselves in a dog-eat-dog environment, and the devil take the hindmost. Hence my subtitle, 'He may be a corrupt bastard...'

It's no wonder that the Gazette Online, of Cedar Rapids Iowa reported the following:
Stevens, 84, also asked that the trial be moved from Washington to Alaska, where he has been a political figure since before statehood. He was named "Alaskan of the Century" in 1999 after unabashedly sending billions of dollars in federal money to the frontier state. The judge said he was not likely to send the case to Alaska.
Alaska ♥s this son-of-a-bitch.
Let's widen the scope of this premise of parochial disconnect, the idea that local (and frankly selfish IMnsHO) political forces outweigh and subvert the greater good. We are confronted with the bizarre fact that the public overwhelmingly disapproves of the performance of both houses of Congress as bodies, but just as overwhelmingly approves of their own Representatives and Senators. Congress has actually managed to score an approval rating below that of the toxic unpopularity of the President, but the upcoming election is expected to just barely buck the trend we see here:

Why Are Sitting Members of Congress Almost Always Reelected?(Citizens for United States Direct Initiatives)
In November of 1998, 401 of the 435 sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives sought reelection. Of those 401, all but six were reelected. In other words, incumbents seeking reelection to the House had a better than 98% success rate. U.S. Senators seeking reelection were only slightly less fortunate--slightly less than 90% of the Senate incumbents who sought reelection in 1996 held on to their seats.

What is it about sitting members of Congress that makes them so hard to beat? Are incumbents just better candidates (on average) or is the deck somehow stacked against challengers?

For years, political scientists have researched and written about the "incumbent advantage" in congressional elections. In an attempt to explain the overwhelming success of members of Congress seeking reelection, researchers have identified several factors which make sitting members of Congress hard to beat. These factors include:
  • The "Perks" of Office
    Each member of Congress has a office budget allotment which provides enough money to hire a sizable staff both in Washington, D.C. and back home in their states or districts...
  • Time
    Sitting members of Congress are on the job full-time--that is what they are paid to do. In fact, many of the things a candidate would do to win an election, such as meeting and talking with voters, attending special events, appearing on television or radio talk shows, etc., are part of the job description of a member of Congress...
  • Visibility
    Sitting members of Congress are almost universally recognized in their districts. Having waged at least one previous campaign, and a successful one at that, and then serving in Congress for two years (House members) or six years (Senators) makes a sitting member of Congress something of a household name among his or her constituents...
  • Campaign Organization
    As noted, every sitting member of Congress has run at least one successful election campaign for the seat he or she holds. This means, among other things, that a sitting House member or Senator has invaluable experience with creating and managing a campaign organization. It also means that incumbents generally have an effective volunteer organization in place and ready go when it is time to campaign.
  • Money
    By far the most widely recognized and probably the most significant advantage enjoyed by sitting members of Congress is the large amounts of campaign contributions they are able to raise, especially in comparison to those who run against them...

As you can see from the graph, TPTB are overwhelmingly NOT supporting the 'unproven' (read: have not yet demonstrated their corruptibility) challengers. In the Senate the incumbents have a massive advantage of more than 2:1, in the House it's nearly 4:1!! It's a battle between The Incredible Hulk and Casper Milquetoast. But a factor that isn't discussed above is that many voters sense what's going on, and it's turning them off from participation.

Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy
-By Thomas Patterson

Mr. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The article is derived from his recently published book, The Vanishing Voter (Knopf, 2002).

Synopsis: Professor Patterson laments the decline of voter participation (threat to democracy!) brought about by this enormous incumbent advantage. The simple fact is, too many voters have twigged to the fact that their opinions are not being heard, their input isn't likely to affect any outcomes.

Only about three dozen of the 435 House seats were actually in play in 2002. In nearly twice that many districts, there was literally no competition: the weaker major party did not bother even to nominate a candidate. And in several hundred other districts, the competition was so one-sided that the result was known even before the campaign began. As was the case in 2000, the victors in House races won by an average margin of more than two to one.
U.S. House races are less competitive-and by a wide margin-than those of any other freely elected national legislative body in the world. The "sweeping" Republican victory in 2002 included a pickup of only a half-dozen House seats. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a gain of 30-50 House seats was the norm. The Democrats gained 75 seats in the 1890 election and lost 116 seats in 1894.
When members of Congress in the 1960s voted to greatly enlarge their personal staffs, they argued that the additional personnel were needed in order to offset the executive branch's domination of policy information. However, an estimated 50 percent and more of congressional staff resources are devoted to public relations, constituency service, and other activities that serve primarily to keep House members in office.
Not since John Connally in 1980 has the candidate who has raised the most money before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire lost a nominating race.
Competition is the lifeblood of democratic elections and, when it dries up, participation suffers. There are many reasons why electoral participation has declined, but one of them surely is that citizens in too many places now have no real chance to influence the outcome.
I suppose you could continue to refer to this state of affairs as a democracy, but I'm afraid you would be fooling yourself. And that doesn't even take into account the primary process, where money seems to determine that candidates from both parties tend to be of the same stripe and serve the same agenda. Every time I look at these sad truths I find it very hard to see even a glimmer of a solution, an effective response. But despair is not an option, so they say. What always comes to mind is this quote from JFK:
"A Government that makes peaceful revolution impossible,
makes armed revolution inevitable."
-- John F. Kennedy --
Not that I'm advocating armed revolution or anything. Just saying, they seem to have made the peaceful revolution of the ballot box a thing of the past.

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