Incumbents sit pretty in Congress. THE POWER OF MONEY
Washington — Suffice it to say, the congressman from Little Rock, Ark., is a cinch for reelection. In his first two elections, Democrat Tommy Robinson was sent to Washington by landslide victories. This year, his GOP opponent claims that President Reagan has ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to bombard his mobile home with radiation. Needless to say, Representative Robinson's reelection seems inevitable.
``The House is a rather safe place to be if you are doing your job,'' says Robinson, who anticipates another easy victory.
Members of Congress have become so skilled at the art of winning these days that almost every member who wants to be reelected, is. Many House members will face no election-day opposition whatsoever or, like Robinson, are so popular back home that the most experienced potential challengers have been scared off. They have used the perquisites of their office - among them staff, mail, media, and support from political action committees (PACs) - to make themselves nearly unchallengeable.
In 1986, the reelection rate for House members topped 98 percent. This year's rate promises to be about the same, once again ensuring a House controlled by Democrats, bankrolled by special interests, and gripped by the fear of tax increases and spending cuts.
In the Senate, the numbers are less dramatic but tell a similar story. When Republicans recaptured the majority from the Democrats in 1980, the reelection rate sank to 55 percent. Yet in the next two elections, that rate leaped to 93 percent and 90 percent respectively. Even in 1986, when Democrats recaptured the majority from Republicans, 75 percent of the senators up for reelection kept their jobs. This year, only eight of the 27 incumbents running are considered to be in serious jeopardy.
``There's a kind of aristocracy that digs in here, no doubt about it,'' says Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona.
Actually, there has long been a Capitol Hill aristocracy of lawmakers who have served for decades. It has been 40 years since the House reelection rate fell below 80 percent. And holding on to a seat in the Senate is tougher than it used to be. Until the 1913 adoption of a constitutional amendment that subjected senators to popular elections, they were appointed by their state legislatures.
But today's incumbents enjoy some important and altogether new advantages over their challengers.
In the Senate, members' staffs regularly number more than 40, and even freshman House members command sizable staffs. ``To think that Harry Truman once used this office and the next room to house just himself, a secretary, and one aide,'' Sen. David Pryor says wonderingly. Today, the Arkansas Democrat's 20-person Washington staff spills across a suite of offices; 9 other staff members toil back in Arkansas. Senator Pryor's staff is smaller than many.
Mail is another tool members use to prodigious effect. Last year, Congress spent nearly $96 million in postage to send 759 million pieces of mail - nine times what it spent in 1971. On average, congressional offices send out 12 letters for every letter they receive.
In fact, lawmakers are addicted to mailing privileges - and for good reason. Rep. Tom McMillan (D) of Maryland was first elected to Congress in 1986 by a slim 432-vote margin. Since then, he has sent newsletters to the 230,000 homes in his district, and, by the end of his first term, expects to have spent at least $1 million on such mailings. This year, he is considered a shoo-in for reelection.
Lawmakers are sharpening their TV skills as well. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently opened a $3 million facility to enable Democratic lawmakers and other officials to hold video ``town meetings'' with voters and to produce video ``press releases'' for local television stations. Senate Republicans have established a television and radio studio of their own.
``It's getting easier for incumbents to get their message across because the technology has improved so much,'' says House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California. ``That's a bigger hurdle for challengers to overcome.''
But the biggest hurdle may be the enormous sums of PAC money that flow to incumbents, dramatically enhancing their ability to outspend opponents. Last year, special-interest groups gave $12.3 million to incumbent senators and only about $1 million to their challengers. The spread is even more dramatic in the House, where special interest PACs gave $24.3 million to House members but only $243,075 to opponents. With that help, senators built up a war chest of about $36 million last year, while challengers collected less than $5 million.
``You just can't try to compete with them dollar for dollar,'' says Greg Graves, who is managing the campaign of Republican Rep. Beau Boulter to unseat Senate Finance Committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas. Senator Bentsen has amassed a $5 million campaign fund, more than $1.5 million of which has been donated by PACs. Representative Boulter, on the other hand, has raised about $300,000. ``We're going to have to depend on other ways to get our message across,'' says Mr. Graves.
In the House, the odds are even steeper. By the end of last year, House members had saved up a total of $64.5 million. All their challengers had been able to muster was some $1.5 million.
``We've got the best Congress money can buy,'' complains Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma, one of the few lawmakers who refuse to accept PAC money. Representative Synar has joined dozens of his colleagues to limit the influence of PACs and introduce public financing of campaigns to hold down the soaring costs of seeking election to Congress.
So far, however, such efforts have gone nowhere. And many lawmakers and analysts argue that the very proliferation of PACs - more than 7,000 at last count - prevents any one of them from grabbing too much influence. ``PACS are an easy thing to emote about,'' says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. ``But it's not at all clear what influence they have.''
Even without lavish campaign kitties, many members enjoy a stranglehold on their constituents' loyalties. A number of House members are currently under ethical clouds; few, if any of them, are threatened. For example, Rep. Austin Murphy (D) of Pennsylvania faces no Republican challenger in his quest for a seventh term, despite his House reprimand last year for keeping a no-show on his payroll, allowing someone else to vote for him, and for diverting government resources to his former law firm. Similarly, Rep. Mario Biaggi - who is appealing his 1987 conviction for accepting illegal gratuities and awaiting a House vote to expel him - is running unopposed. ``Constituents feel loyal - even protective - to members who have stood up for them in the past,'' explains Coelho. ``You take care of them, they take care of you.''
And, sometimes, ideology has little to do with popularity. Rep. Jim Jontz (D) of Indiana overcomes resistance in his heavily Republican district by assiduous attention to local concerns. ``Most of my work has almost nothing to do with ideology,'' he says. Instead, he spends most of his time trying to bring jobs into his economically depressed district.
Likewise, Democrat Richard Stallings of Idaho found himself representing one of the most Republican districts in the country after defeating a convicted felon, GOP Rep. George Hansen, by 170 votes in 1984. Today, Representative Stallings's polls show two-thirds support for his reelection. ``Ultimately,'' says Stallings, ``people care who you are more than what your party is.''
Next Friday: Congress turns the spotlight on itself.