THE lack of competitiveness in congressional elections is an old story in American politics. Recent developments have dramatically extended the degree of uncompetitiveness, however, and have exposed a serious challenge to representative government. Virtually all incumbents of both parties who seek reelection to the United States House of Representatives win, typically by overwhelming margins. The underlying core of the problem, reflected in the burgeoning uncompetitiveness, is the virtually complete separation of House voting from judgments about the proper course of public policy.
Political scientist David Mayhew was one of the first to call attention to the ``vanishing marginals'' - House seats where the winner's margin was small enough that the contest could be seen as competitive. In 1960, while both parties had plenty of safe seats, 203 of the 435 contests were at least marginally competitive, with the winner being held to less than 60 percent of the vote. By 1980, though, only 140 House races saw the winner under 60 percent.
This year's House voting was easily the most uncompetitive in US history. The winner was either unopposed or beat his opponent by 70 to 30 percent or more in 242 districts. A respectable showing for a challenger has become holding the victor to ``just'' 60 to 69 percent of the vote, a result obtained in 128 districts in 1988. The losing candidate came within 10 percentage points of the winner - that is, losing by 55 to 45 or less - in only 29 of the 435 House races.
Open seats - those where no incumbent is running - are often quite competitive, but in 1988 there were just 26 of them. Only six incumbents seeking reelection lost, and five of them had been tinged by some form of scandal.
What accounts for the virtual disappearance of competitiveness in US House elections?
One big part of the story is the enormous advantage incumbents typically enjoy in resources for promoting their candidacies. Staff provided to House members was tripled in the 1960s and '70s, and congressmen have put many of their new assistants to work back home in their districts. They have found this useful in serving constituents' needs - and, not incidentally, useful as a little electoral machine made available to them year round at public expense. Few challengers can match this resource for self-publicization.
Incumbents also generally enjoy a large advantage in campaign contributions. Knowing that incumbents are likely to be reelected and that they will have to deal with them in advancing their legislative objectives, the political-action committees (PACs) of the various interest groups heavily back incumbents, regardless of party.
In the 1985-86 election cycle, PAC dollars went to congressional incumbents over their challengers by about $96 million to $20 million. Even challengers in races ``targeted'' by their political parties for special effort usually have less financial support than the congressmen they seek to unseat.
Political party ties are the one thing that could upset this dynamic. A voter might not know anything about a congressman's voting record but still vote against him in favor of a less-well-known challenger because he preferred the challenger's party.
But over the last quarter century, the proportion of the electorate bound by strong party ties has declined precipitously. Better educated and drawing their political information largely from the communications media, today's voters feel they need parties less than did their counterparts of times past.
In highly visible races like those for president, senate, and governor, voters typically acquire enough information to ``make up'' for the decline of the guidance that party ties long provided.
At the other end of the spectrum, in elections of school board members, aldermen, etc., voters often have enough close-up, personal knowledge of the candidates to reach informed judgments.
In between, such as in House races, is where we have our problem. Party voting is no longer decisive, but substantive knowledge of the candidates' records is usually insufficient to furnish a substitute base for substantive choice. Enjoying huge advantages in resources for self-promotion, incumbents in such contests are now winning reelection routinely, by escalating margins.
Literally no one but the incumbents themselves benefits from this profoundly unrepresentative system.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.