HGov: Congressional Members

Incoming-Congressional-MembersMembers of Congress, once elected, are likely to be reelected. Members of Congress can use their office to publicize themselves, pursue a service strategy of responding to the needs of individual constituents, and secure pork-barrel projects for their states or districts. House members gain a greater advantage from these activities than do senators, whose larger constituencies make it harder for them to build close personal relations with voters and whose office is more likely to attract strong challengers. Incumbency does have some disadvantages. Members of Congress must take positions on controversial issues, may blunder into political scandal or indiscretion, must deal with changes in the electorate, or may face strong challengers; any of these conditions can reduce members’ reelection chances. By and large, however, the advantages of incumbency far outweigh the disadvantages. Incumbents’ advantages extend into their reelection campaigns: their influential positions in Congress make it easier for them to raise campaign funds from PACs and individual contributors.

Gerrymandering is a way politicians draw boundary lines for legislative districts in ways designed to keep one party or the other in power in that particular district. In the last 10 years, 78% of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is almost four out of every five members of Congress, did not change party hands even once. In California, with 53 seats, the most in the nation, incumbents were kept so safe that only one of those seats changed party control in the past decade. David Wasserman, redistricting expert for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says only 20 races for Congress are expected to be tossups in the 2012 election. That’s only 20 out of the 435 seats in the House. “In general elections, it’s almost rigged,” he said. And that may be part of the reason why Congress is so polarized.



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