TODAY the debate over whether institutional reform is needed in American government centers on the Congress. It, and not the presidency or the federal courts, is the branch seen by a slew of critics to be performing poorly. Part of the present controversy over Congress originates in pure partisan politics. The Republicans are plainly frustrated. Though they have drawn even with the Democrats in party identification and dominate presidential electioneering, they haven't had a House of Representatives majority since the 1954 elections, and they have controlled the Senate only six years in this span. For the GOP, Congress is a political problem.
But much more than partisan self-interest lies behind the current dissatisfaction with how Congress is operating. Central to democratic governance is the electoral sanction, which enables the public to control its officials by making them private citizens again when performance is deemed inadequate. Over the last quarter century, however, incumbency advantages have become so great in contests for the US House of Representatives that popular control has been lost in practice, though it remains, of course, guaranteed in law.
Over 98 percent of House incumbents seeking reelection in 1988 won and, what is in a sense much more troubling, most of them won by margins that can't be explained by the mix of party loyalties and policy preferences in their districts. House voting in the last election was the most uncompetitive in US history. The winner was either unopposed or beat his opponent by 40 percentage points or more in 242 of the 435 districts, by 20 to 40 points in 128 districts, and by 10 to 20 points in another 36. In only 29 districts - 7 percent of the total - did the loser come within striking distance, losing by 10 points or less.
Most troubling of all, no one knows how the uncompetitiveness in House voting can be stemmed. Some would curb the flow of political action committee (PAC) money, which goes lopsidedly to incumbents. Interest groups know that those presently in office are almost certain to be there after the election, and want to maintain access to them. Yet while any reasonable step that might disrupt the pervasive, cozy ties between legislators and the whole array of organized interests must seem attractive, given the problems those ties pose for congressional ethics, it's not likely this step would by itself diminish incumbents' present advantage.
The biggest edge incumbent congressmen have over their challengers accrues from the big staffs they are provided at public expense. When staffs were greatly expanded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the justification was that Congress would be better able to hold its own with the expert-laden executive branch, and individual members better equipped to do their legislative business. But the staffs are also a potent year-round electoral resource - servicing constituents and keeping the member's name before voters in a way no challenger can rival.
For this and a host of other reasons, the playing field on which incumbents and challengers compete has become uneven. It needs to be leveled. Given the weakened condition of the party system today, this can be done only through a series of measures that reduce the huge resources gap individual challengers now face. Providing extensive radio and TV time before each election that would be controlled by the party up until the nomination and then by the candidate, may be part of an answer. Recognizing that congressional staffs are oversized, and curbing them, is another. Putting teeth into sharp limits on interest group contributions, while encouraging small individual contributions by making them fully tax deductible, would also help.
But the real problem isn't, of course, figuring out what should be done. It's finding a way. Understandably, critics have come to doubt that the needed action will be taken, and this has led them to thrash around in frustration.
One example is the call for amending the Constitution to limit congressional tenure to 12 years - six terms in the House and two in the Senate. Americans to Limit Congressional Terms, which is spearheading the effort, has drives underway in Washington and a third or more of the state capitals. Though its ranks are filled disproportionately with Republicans, the organization has substantial Democratic support as well.
Constitutionally limiting terms of office isn't a good idea. Who really wants to require that able congressmen be booted out when they have reached a 12 year limit? The present problem isn't that some serve a long time. It's that a conspiracy of circumstances involving the parties and the campaign system has robbed the electorate of a meaningful say in who does and doesn't hold office. That's the real problem, one that's been building for two decades and that requires the nation's attention.