It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This
The dichotomy between voters’ opinion of their own congress person and congress as a whole supports the notion that, perhaps, the system is rigged.
We have an electoral system that provides little incentive for politicians to do a good job as long as they are good at campaigning. As a result we have leaders who do not perform well but who are very good at convincing people that they do.
The political system is in many ways designed to help the incumbent get elected. Congress gives its members resources (money, free commercials and other media) that are used to promote the incumbents. Congress people, once in Washington, have access to institutional support from lobbyists, and special interest groups. Connections to these groups are used to raise huge sums of cash which are then used to advertise, and promote the incumbent candidate. In addition to financial aid these lobbyist groups also provide organizational support.
The effect of these insider connections has been magnified by Citizens United which allows super PACs to funnel massive amounts of money to their candidate of choice. As a result the incumbent (in congressional races) almost always out raises his/her challenger (by a wide margin).
The size of congressional districts have become enormous. (Congress controls the size of districts by the way). The huge size of districts requires candidates to raise large amounts of money to compete. This raises the barrier of entry for challengers. In addition to being over sized, congressional districts have been thoroughly gerrymandered to create a large number of seats that are uncompetitive and “safe.”
These are just some of the ways the electoral system favors the incumbent. Incumbents control large amounts of resources that are then used to advertise and try to convince voters that they are not the problem: it is everyone else. And it works.
Challengers cannot compete with this.
In many ways congress men and women use their offices as tools to get themselves re-elected. We have a system that produces leaders who are good at getting themselves re-elected, but really bad at governing.
We deserve better than this.
Should I Even Bother Voting?
According to Gallup, Congress’ approval rating is at 17% (as of June ‘12). This is not a new trend. In 2010, Congress’ approval rating was 13%. Yet, despite this consistent disapproval of Congress, its members continually get re-elected extremely high rates. In 2010 when Congress’ approval rating was a mere 13%, 85% of the members of Congress were re-elected. And this was considered low! The re-election rate is usually in the 90’s.
Why would 85% of a congress with an approval rating of 13% get re-elected?
Either, people really, really, like their own congress person, or the system is rigged.