Most of Congress coming back despite low approval
15 of 22 senators seeking re-election expected to cruise, including Hatch
Haraz N. Ghanbari, AP
WASHINGTON — Listen up voters, you're the boss.
Your employee has barely produced the past two years, has hardly showed up for work, hasn't cooperated with others and has gotten low marks on every evaluation. Time to fire 'em, right?
When the results are counted this Tuesday, Americans will have resoundingly rehired a big majority of the House and Senate despite railing for months about an ineffective, bitterly divided Congress.
Help from the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts is one reason so many lawmakers will return to Washington. The first election after that politically driven process is typically a high point for those in office. But redistricting is hardly the only reason. The power of incumbency, with its name recognition and cash advantages, also is responsible.
At least 15 senators of the 22 seeking re-election are expected to cruise to new terms. The same is true for at least 330 House members from coast to coast, based on interviews with Republicans and Democrats, opinion polls and a tally of non-competitive races.
There have been some close calls. Twenty-one-term Rep. Charlie Rangel faced a scare in his primary but probably will win in his heavily Democratic New York City district. Sen. Orrin Hatch fought off a tea party challenge and is expected to easily win a seventh term in solidly Republican Utah. Ethics and sex scandals — even skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee — won't stop other incumbents.
Yet in survey after survey this year, Americans overwhelmingly have given Congress an abysmal approval rating in the low double-digits. Even its members joke darkly about their standing compared to, say, used car salesmen or tax collectors or even journalists.
Support for Congress, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has often said, is "down to paid staffers and blood relatives."
A quick look at the statistics suggests why.
In two years of partisan backbiting and brinkmanship over the nation's finances, the current Congress has produced just 196 laws, including quite a few renaming post offices or appointing members to the board of the Smithsonian Institution.
The once-easy work such as a transportation bill took months of wrangling.
Compare that to the 460 laws of President George W. Bush's two years with a Democratic Congress or the Watergate-era 649 laws.
Congress hasn't been around Washington very much of the time. Lawmakers have been in session about 220 days in the past two years of Tuesday-to-Thursday afternoon workweeks that would prompt an avalanche of attendance demerits.
Still, Americans will reward this level of performance, perhaps rivaling only A-Rod's in baseball's postseason, by giving their senators and House members another six- or two-year term at a salary of $174,000 a year.
The re-election percentage for House incumbents in the modern era — 1964 to 2010 — has rarely dipped below 80 percent, even in "wave" election years when the president saw members of his party sent packing, such as Bill Clinton in 1994 (52 House seats lost), George W. Bush in 2006 (30 seats lost) and Barack Obama in 2010 (63 seats lost).
Senate re-election hasn't always been as sure a thing. In 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan ousted Democratic President Jimmy Carter from the White House, nine Senate incumbents fell and the re-election percentage for incumbents fell to 55 percent. Two years later, however, it was back up to 93 percent.
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