Vote for Democracy, Not Incumbency


WHEN Congress voted itself a much-needed pay-raise-and-ethics package, it missed the point. The ethical question isn't simply how legislators earn their salaries. The real issue concerns a principle of democracy absolutely central to its proper functioning: rotation in office. Diplomats and foreign correspondents know about that principle. They know that long experience in a post is valuable. But they're even more aware of the dangers of ``going native'' - defending the nation they're supposed to be reporting on. They solve it by judicious rotation in and out of assignments.

In Congress, particularly the House, there is effectively no rotation. Consider that:

Some 98 percent of House incumbents were returned to office in 1988.

There is more turnover in the Supreme Soviet than in the US Congress.

The problem is worsening. In 1948, 68 incumbents were defeated. Losses in 1988: 6.

Rotation? Hardly. The electoral flywheel has rusted up so tight that you can't even crank it over by hand. Result: Congress is dangerously close to ``going native,'' busily ensuring its own institutional perpetuation rather than seeing to the welfare of the nation.

Why are we in this fix? Part of the fabled ``power of the incumbency'' rests on such pillars as franking privileges that allow mass mailings to constituents and the limelight that attracts bushels of money and the resulting paid television spots. Changes in campaign finance laws, as proposed by President Bush, could make a dent.

But even that misses the point. What needs protecting is the principle of rotation. Here are a couple of reasons why:

First, there's the damaging effect of extended incumbency. Carried to its extreme, it breeds tyranny. And tyranny and democracy don't mix. That point is being made in spades these days among the East bloc nations, where democracy springs up only after decades-long tyrannies of the old guard have been unseated.

In principle, Americans have already addressed this issue. Franklin D. Roosevelt - who liked to point out that the first duty of a politician is to get re-elected - had such an extended tenure in office that, when it finally ended, a sobered citizenry ratified the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the president to two terms in office.

Second, there's the benefit of change. At the heart of democracy lies the idea of a citizenry made up of voters equally entitled to be heard. Granted, not everyone exercises that entitlement. But the presence of startling levels of electoral apathy doesn't mean that nobody cares. It doesn't translate into a mandate to govern without the consent of the governed, or an assumption that only a ruling elite can know what's best for the citizenry. And it certainly doesn't mean that those currently in office are the only ones suited for it.

In fact, democracy is unlike other systems in the way it breeds leaders. It doesn't pass the mantle from the top down. It grows new leaders from the bottom up. That's what brings in freshness - not only to government, but to any organization founded on democratic principles.

But that self-renewal can't happen without genuine electoral choice - in other words, rotation in office.

That, of course, is not a question members of Congress are keen to address. They would evidently rather risk public wrath over a pay raise than their safe seats. So here's a test question to use next election time. Ask the candidate, ``Do you believe that the principal job of a politician is to get re-elected?'' If the answer is yes, you're being asked to vote for something other than democracy.

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