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Capitol Update: Despite Surveys, We Favor Those Already in Power

Capitol Update

Apartment Industry Colleagues,

One of the most talked about statistics in politics is the Congressional approval rating. How the nation feels about its elected officials is surveyed and monitored on a monthly basis. According to a February poll by Gallup, 12 percent of Americans approve of the job that Congress is doing. This is a little below what it was at this point in 2013, but three points above the record low of 9 percent in November of last year. But what value does this number really have? I would say not much more than a punch line. This column itself has on occasion used the historically low favorability of the Legislative Branch to feed a pithy quip or two. “More people support communism than approve of the job that Congress is doing.” Ha. Ha. Ha. What is more interesting is the dichotomy between feelings toward the institution of Congress and the individual members which plays out in the context of incumbent re-election rates.

Traditionally, voters loathe Congress but support their own representative as one of the “good guys” doing right by the nation. Historically, when asked about their own Congressional representative, voter approval rises to a range of 40 to 60 percent. Despite some cracks in this lately, evidenced especially in the Republican primary process, it appears that this trend continues to hold and contribute to high re-election rates among incumbents, especially members of the House of Representatives.

In the 25 two-year election cycles since 1964, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, 80 percent of incumbent House members were re-elected. In 19 of those 25 election cycles it was 90 percent or higher. The Senate is a little lower with 16 out of the last 25 election cycles seeing re-election rates above 80 percent. This is not surprising when you consider the advantages for incumbents in terms of status as the officeholder, franking privileges, fundraising advantage, etc. Setting aside battleground Congressional Districts (more on those later) it would seem that only resignation (forced or otherwise), retirement, primary defeat or aspirations for higher office change the incumbent landscape. If you’ve been watching the news out of Congress recently, you know that there are a fair number of such incidences taking place right now.

Currently, the makeup of the House of Representatives goes like this – 232 Republicans, 199 Democrats and 4 vacancies (one death, one appointment to the administration, one resignation resulting from a legal matter and one immediate retirement). Sixteen incumbents are seeking higher office (or in the case of Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-CA), “lower office” as she has decided to run for county supervisor). Ten are Republicans and 6 are Democrats. An additional 10 Democrats and 12 Republicans are retiring. These numbers mean that there are approximately 38 incumbents who will not be around the House next Congress. That’s change, right? Yes, but the important follow-on question is how many of the new representatives who take these seats will be of the opposite party from their predecessors?

The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index (PVI), a measure of how strongly voters in each Congressional district vote Democrat or Republican, helps identify which seats of the above group are likely to change party hands. The higher the “D” or “R” rating, the less likely the seat will change parties. By my reading of this yardstick (those seats with a D or R rating of +5 or higher, there are 12 seats where there is some real potential for a party change. The remaining districts are so Democratic or Republican in their voter makeup that it is quite likely that the incumbent party will retain control. As a result, while the person in the seat may change, the party makeup of the House will not change with the new occupant. And, if we stipulate that new members will do little to buck the overall system, but will run with their party most of the time then the ultimate result is little change in how business is done on Capitol Hill.

Beyond the potential for changes as a result of retirements, higher office campaigns, etc., there are also those House seats that are considered “competitive” and could also change hands. Again using the PVI of the Cook Political Report, there are 77 of these. They fall into three categories – “toss-ups,” those that “lean” toward one party or the other and those that are “likely” to go for one party or the other. If you take away the “likely” category, which tend to be the least competitive of the competitive seats, that leaves 44 races (24 Democrats and 20 Republicans) that have the best potential to result in a party seat change. Together with the 12 (6 Republican and 6 Democratic) seats from the pool of retirements that could also change parties, and you have a total of 56 incumbents or 13 percent of all representatives who could lose their positions in Congress. If all were to lose that would still be an 87 percent incumbent success rate.

Our political system favors those already in power and we the voters apparently favor them too – at least the vast majority of the time – despite our survey responses to the contrary. This creates a situation where at best we see only the thinnest incremental change from election cycle to election cycle. So when does real change occur? When can we affect the kind of policy solutions that are clearly needed with the same players at the table who have no incentive to alter their behavior? If we are going to address the really big issues of the day we need to figure it out and soon.
What do you think? Email me at [email protected] and tell me your thoughts.

Talk with you next month.   

Greg Brown is NAA’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs. He joined NAA in the spring of 2010 to lead the expansion of the Government Affairs Department. Greg has been a housing advocate for 15 years, with a strong emphasis in multifamily issues. Tell him what you think about his musings by emailing him.