Sunday, December 06, 2015

When seats in Congress are safe, mass shootings become mundane

Over the past few years, I've taken note of some of the more outrageous actions passed by Congress. Here's a sample that comes to mind:

  • Congress has had more than 50 votes to repeal Obamacare.
  • Congress refuses to increase benefits for veterans of war.
  • Congress handed NASA oversight to a man who is definitely anti-science, Ted Cruz.
  • Congress voted to give land owned by native American indians to an oil company.
  • Congress has a small but strong faction dedicated to shutting government down.
  • Congress has refused to pass reasonable gun safety laws.

I could go on. But the point is not in the specifics. It's easy to get lost in the specifics because there are just so many details. That may be the point of their actions. In other words, what we see in the news may just be obfuscation for what is really going on.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I know, it's cliche, but it's relevant. Our Congress seems to use power with little consideration for the future or the people affected by it. Many members of Congress are playing to their base rather than passing meaningful legislation. They can do this because they hold a position of near-absolute power.

Many members of Congress sit in safe seats and have been re-elected year over year. Wikipedia has an interesting article on a concept known as "Congressional Stagnation". Congressional stagnation is where we re-elect the same people over and over, the incumbents. Here is a list of the longest serving members of Congress. It is worth noting that the top 20 are overwhelmingly Democrat. Of the top 20 only one was defeated. The rest either retired or died in office.

Some might think that the problem of incumbency is a recent phenomenon. Sorry. This has been going on for a long, long time. has two nice charts of the re-election rates since about 1964. Typical re-election rates are better than 80%.

How is this possible? Money. Incumbents get more money than challengers. They have better name recognition, seniority, and experience. I note with interest the following passage at the bottom of the Wikipedia article, Congressional Stagnation. At the bottom, we see, "Increased incumbency as a positive development". Why?
Also, incumbents whose re-election is virtually guaranteed can arguably focus on actually passing productive legislation rather than on campaigning.
But that's not what we're seeing in Congress. reports:
Right now, members of Congress must raise huge sums of money to win elections. And that requires spending 30–70% of their time raising money from wealthy donors and special interests. The incentives are clear: more money = higher chance of getting elected. And more money comes from pleasing their donors, creating a system of cronyism.
If guaranteed elections gave us better politicians with better legislation, we're not seeing it. Well, "better" might be relative. If you're a member of the wealthy funding more than 60% of SuperPAC spending, it's better now with incumbents at your beck and call. If you're anyone else, change is what we're looking for.

With so many incumbent and experienced legislators in Congress, we might be able to avoid government shutdowns, or even the threat of them, but we don't. We might avoid cliffhanging debates on raising the debt ceiling, but we don't. Here are a few recent trends that haven't been helped by increased incumbency:

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 1 in 9 bridges are structurally deficient. We could fix this with a whopping $20 billion (out of a $3.5 trillion budget)
  • The US is eating the dust of Asia and Europe when it comes to internet access speeds of 11 megabits per second, compared to 23.6 megabits per second in South Korea.
  • Income inequality in America has reached all time highs, and is about the same as before the 1928 stock market crash.
  • America has frequent mass shootings, but seems powerless against the NRA to do anything about it. Compare that to Australia, a country that hasn't had a mass shooting in 19 years after passing gun law reform.

The problems we see are a result of a pattern of public policy that most Americans have little influence over. It's well established that America has become quite an oligarchy. But we do have power if we choose to use it.

In 2014, 140 million people, or 44% of Americans went shopping on Black Friday. Did they vote? Only 77 million people bothered to vote, or about 34% of the eligible voters showed up. According to Pew Research, the US is near the bottom of the list for voter turnout in OECD countries.

Whatever the problems we see in America, we are to blame for it. We could go on blaming the wealthy, the elite, but if we don't even show up to vote, we might not even be able to go shopping for Christmas. Why not? Because if we don't vote, someone else will.

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