Leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties have clearly failed in their duty. Millions of Americans, no matter how they describe their political leanings, believe they have lost control of their government and want it back. The fact that decisions affecting every aspect of our lives are made without our involvement, much less consent, and results in deep–felt discontent.
Americans fear not only for their nation’s economy but also for their own financial futures. The warning signs of collapse are everywhere—mounting joblessness, low labor market participation, anemic economic growth, over-leveraged consumers, depleted retirement savings, and a sluggish market for the greatest asset most Americans possess: their homes. As prospects for recovery dim, consumer confidence continues to fall.
The best our leaders can offer is the false hope of forestalling disaster by passing along to future generations the cost of unsustainable commitments. Our elected officials have failed in their duties, all the while assuming more power for themselves, heedless of the consequences of their unaccountable decisions. This, in turn, has created a perverse incentive: The more they fail, the more power they demand.
In November 2000, Americans voted for change. Republicans won the White House and both houses of Congress. What resulted, however, was more of the same: growth in federal power, subordination of state and local power, expansion of federal entitlements and an increase in the federal debt. After six years of Republican rule, the people handed Congress to the Democrats, and the financial crisis hit.
In November 2008, Americans voted for change. Democrats won the House, a majority-proof Senate majority, and the presidency. What resulted, again, was growth in federal power, subordination of state and local power, expansion of federal entitlements, and explosive increase in the federal debt. After two years of Democratic control, Americans handed the House back to the Republicans. Partisan rancor continued to escalate, and we face another financial crisis.
Why so little change? Consider this. In November 2010, the approval rating of Congress was 17 percent, an all-time low at that time. Eighty-six percent of House incumbents were re-elected; only 14 percent were involuntarily retired.
How can politicians so unfavorably viewed be returned to office? Because the vast majority of districts are one-party districts, so November elections are determined in the primaries, which pose little competition for incumbents. In 2010, 396 incumbents ran for re-election; four were defeated by primary challengers. Almost 63 percent of incumbents faced no primary challenge. Because incumbents are so easily re-elected, they “own” their seats and are unaccountable. Ensconced in their sinecures, incumbents expand their power by expanding the size and scope of the federal government.
Fortunately primaries provide an opportunity to reclaim “safe” seats for the people. Because only 8-12 percent of registered voters vote in primaries, relatively few people can change the outcome. So the surest way for organized citizens to bring the federal government to heel is in primaries.
By breaking the cycle of incumbency, we are disrupting the congressional power structure. We are reminding career politicians that they work for the people—not for the special interests—and they serve at our pleasure, not theirs. Once incumbents are aware that their constituents are holding them accountable, they will become responsive once again—or give way to challengers who will answer to the people.