Most of Congress coming back despite low approval
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.
Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, cites post-Census redistricting in which both Republicans and Democrats shore up incumbents and create a significant number of safe, non-competitive House districts.
But Storey points out that the district boundaries reflect a geographical and cultural reality: The United States is a nation of clusters.
"It takes a real quick look at voting patterns geographically to realize that we are very sort of clustered in heavily partisan ways," Storey said. "And so when you start drawing maps, many of these districts, you can't unless you extraordinarily contort the lines, you're always going to have some number of districts, a large number, that are heavily Republican and heavily Democratic. So that is the nature of a geographic dispersion along party lines."
Storey said people decide where to live for a variety of reasons, but the conventional view still stands – rural America is predominantly Republican and urban America is strongly Democratic. The suburbs provide some intersection of the two, and that line moves in and out depending on the election. Other factors come into play, too. The 1965 Voting Rights Act limits what nine states can do in drawing up new districts, to ensure that minorities are represented in Congress.
Just being in office helps a candidate a lot. Incumbents typically have a considerable advantage in raising money, making it difficult for challengers to unseat them.
The result is that next week, despite the public's frustration, Americans won't be sending many incumbents to the want ads or unemployment offices.
That likelihood leaves some people in the world of business and human resources scratching their heads. Think about George Clooney's job-firing character in the 2009 film "Up in the Air" unable to tell members of Congress they're out of a job.
Vic Tanon, the self-described chief simplicity officer for Emplicity, a human resources outsourcing company based in Irvine, Calif., said his firm consults with companies of 20 to 50 employees, the kind that members of Congress repeatedly talk about when they talk about job growth.
"In what you call a small business there isn't a lot of room for keeping, let alone hiring, people that are not delivering results. There's just not a lot of room," Tanon said. "When you get into larger work places, it's easier for people to hide."
Tanon said small businesses have to worry about their own existence.
"They need results. They look directly to their people and their resources to get those results and when they're not, to remain competitive, we need to write up those employees, put them on a PIP – a performance improvement plan – document that. And if they don't meet the PIP, I'm sorry, but we will have to free them to the economy," he said.
Burton Goldfield, president and chief executive officer of TriNet, a San Leandro, Calif., firm that provides health care plans and guidance on hiring and firing, like Clooney's character, sees parallels between Congress and business.
"The results aren't there," Goldfield said. "Now that doesn't mean that you fire them, but if they're not going to acknowledge that the results aren't there, then you're pretty much done. If I'm counseling an employee, and they're not willing to own up to the results, the chances of them surviving in that role are near zero."