The 1990 primary season is over, and the only incumbent to lose his or her job was Rep. Don-ald Lukens of Ohio, a convicted sex offender.
Surprised? Don't be. In the past decade, the House of Representatives perfected the most effective incumbent protection program ever seen in a modern democracy.In 1978 and 1980, Senate challengers rode to surprising victory using computerized direct mail, spurring House incumbents to protect themselves.
I arrived on Capitol Hill in 1981 after several years as a Democratic political consultant and, as a congressional aide, became a pioneer of the system that married state-of-the-art campaign techniques to official funds.
It worked. By 1988 we re-elected 402 out of 408 members seeking office, a higher success rate than the Soviet Politburo.
To understand how years of debate over congressional abuses produced exactly nothing, peer with me into the House of Representatives of the 1980s as the power of the incumbent grew more imperial.
Congress will be remembered for its profiles in Jell-O. We saw the rise of political action committees, honorariums and campaign contributions, which shoved aside thoughtful deliberations.
The result? The incumbent protection plan: the largest propaganda machine in America, one which takes place in secret without vote, debate or dissension.
The plan works like this.
- Mail, mail, mail. In 1987 alone, congressional members produced 595 million pieces of unsolicited newsletters, postcards and letters. Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee chose to increase the money allotted for franking to $35 million, up from $24 million in 1990. Taxpayer-funded franked mail is the political equivalent of an ICBM, and when under attack you gotta use 'em or lose 'em.
- Computerized voter targeting. The House quietly allows members to use official expenses to purchase computer tapes containing the names and addresses of every registered voter in the congressional district. These tapes often include such personal details as age, sex and political affiliation.
Then, using the most expensive computer your tax money can buy, your representative merges the first tape with a driver's license tape, which pinpoints vital political data such as race and ethnic surname.
- The empire strikes back. Who cares about negative press stories? If I needed to respond to press criticism of my boss, my computer could outprint any newspaper by cranking out 50,000 personal "targeted" letters overnight.
- Coordinate taxpayers dollars with campaign funds. Public opinion polls can be purchased only with campaign funds. But the information gleaned from these polls defines what is right and wrong - what issues to avoid and which ones to champion.
- Keep the money coming. PAC money influences politicians, but the public doesn't realize it's a two-way street: Members hustle PACs as aggressively as the PACs demand favors.
The wails of members of Congress who missed a seat on what we call a "money committee" fill the halls of the House every two years when seats are reshuffled. Forget about our constitutional system of checks and balances. The only checks that count on Capitol Hill are those that can be cashed.
Look at it from a congressional perspective: If you were asked to help run the nation with a staff of 20 to cater to your every personal and professional whim; handed free phones, offices, mobile offices and gifts; offered private gyms, swimming pools, saunas and a host of other perks; given the ability to put your relatives on the government payroll; and paid a salary of $125,000 (one-third of which is specifically to compensate you for not taking bribes), wouldn't you do everything in your power to hang on at all costs?
That is the House today. Members are no longer here to make the laws. They are here to stay.