Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tommy Sowers Headshot

The Cancer of Incumbency

Posted: Updated:

I spent the last 28 days conducting "Boots on the Ground", living, working and listening one day and night in each of Missouri's 8th Congressional District's 28 counties. Across one of the poorest districts in America, voters here in Missouri reflect the record national anti-incumbent mood, a deep anger at all things Washington.

One of the thousands of voters I spoke to -- an old man named Charles -- leaned in close, looked me in the eyes, and said, "I don't have too much longer to live. But what I want to see before I die is legislative reform. If you are the challenger, you have my vote. 'Cause this year, if you are an incumbent, you are out."

Despite this broad and deep sentiment, as a challenger facing an entrenched DC incumbent, I face long odds. A cancer of incumbency infects our nation. This disease has all but killed the citizen legislators our Founders envisioned. At the root of this disease sits our current Congress, the longest serving in history.

Instead of producing experienced, effective legislators, the cancer grows a partisanship of paralysis, so distasteful that moderates like Senator Evan Bayh flee. With a game of grudges to settle when in the majority, and uniform opposition when in the minority, we, the American people, lose.

It is past time we isolate and cure this disease. This is why I support a primary treatment--term limits for Congress. Incumbents will say the ballot box serves as a term limit, plausible only if evidence could support this claim. Yet despite decades of abysmal approval numbers under 20%, we see Congress reelected 95% of the time.

Only a Constitutional amendment would cure the cancer of incumbency. While amending the Constitution is difficult, it can be done. 63 years ago, Americans recognized an imperfect Constitution and passed an amendment to limit the terms of the President. 18 years ago in Missouri, 75% of voters supported a constitutional amendment limiting legislators to eight years in the House and Senate.

My belief in term limits also reflects a belief in the inherent quality of America. In a nation of 300,000,000, no group of 535 individuals could or should be found irreplaceable. The notion that it takes years to figure out how to legislate is preposterous. When I deployed to war, I didn't have years or months to figure out how to keep my soldiers alive. So I trained, prepared, and learned prior to deployment so I could hit the ground running. Rotating in new people brings new tactics, new ideas and new approaches to war, just as it would in DC.

Short of a cure, another approach would be to attack the money that spreads this cancer. Over the past 10 years, my opponent, a former insurance lobbyist raised and spent 25 dollars for every dollar her opponents could muster. Over half of her funds came from special interests. Now I am a good shot with a rifle. But if any reader had 25 shots for every single shot of mine, I'd bet on the reader. Two to one isn't a fair fight. 25 to one is not even a fight.

Last month's Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate and labor campaign expenditures, despite overwhelming numbers of both Democratic and Republican voters in opposition, only spreads the cancer. The real beneficiaries of this ruling are special interests and the incumbents they almost universally support over challengers.

In the last election cycle, special interests gave 700% more funds (PDF) to incumbents vs. challengers. This special interest money to politics is like steroids to baseball, bulking up those incumbents and giving them an unnatural advantage in an already unfair fight. It leaves challengers who work hard to raise their funds from individuals having to work even harder to level a steep field.

While money will always flow into politics, we can isolate its effects. A competitive campaign for the House costs on average $2 million dollars. From the day of election, candidates must immediately raise $20,000 each and every week in the two years up to the next election. This is much easier to do as an incumbent; my opponent can simply host $1000 a plate fundraisers in DC, as she is this week, compelling lobbyists to attend with the threat of lost access.

A simple solution would be to shorten the time when campaigns could raise or spend money. A law that restricted fundraising or expending funds by campaign committees to the year of the election would make races more competitive. Moreover it would afford legislators the opportunity to take a break from fundraising to do the legislating they are sent to do.

Another treatment would be to eliminate the war chests. Currently, when a citizen contributes to a federal campaign, they give for a specific election, currently the 2010 election. But federal candidates are unlimited on how long and when they spend the money. Most incumbents keep hundreds of thousands of dollars as "war chests" of unused campaign funds. Since the funds are given for specific elections, a law stating all unused funds should be given back at the end of a campaign would also treat the disease.

A final treatment would be citizen-funded elections. While a public disgusted with Congress may be loathe to dedicate tax dollars to support campaigns, the truth is this: we already pay. We pay in policies that favor narrow special interests. We pay with legislators beholden to those that can contribute instead of their constituents. The Fair Elections Now Act, with a proposed system of $100 donations from constituents with matching public funds for qualifying candidates, is deficit-neutral and would be another step towards controlling the cancer of incumbency.

While many pundits and commentators discuss the problem of incumbency, I, Charles, and the thousands of voters I met, are far more interested in the cures. We must start to cure our nation with legislative reform and kill the cancer of incumbency.