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Data: EXography

EXography: Americans revile Congress --- but keep re-electing incumbents over and over

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Rise of the career politician
Source: Washington Examiner analysis of United States data Politics,Congress,Watchdog,Senate,House of Representatives,EXography,Luke Rosiak,Minusextra,MinusRelatedPhoto,Elections,John Dingell
John D. Dingell
60 years | D-MI
John Conyers Jr.
50 years | D-MI
Thad Cochran
48 years | R-MS
Edward J. Markey
46 years | D-MA
Charles B. Rangel
44 years | D-NY
Chuck Grassley
42 years | R-IA
Don Young
42 years | R-AK
Orrin G. Hatch
42 years | R-UT
Patrick J. Leahy
42 years | D-VT
Tom Harkin
40 years | D-IA
Ron Wyden
40 years | D-OR
George Miller
40 years | D-CA
Henry A. Waxman
40 years | D-CA
Barbara A. Mikulski
40 years | D-MD
Nick J. Rahall II
38 years | D-WV
Charles E. Schumer
36 years | D-NY
Thomas E. Petri
36 years | R-WI
F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.
36 years | R-WI
Carl Levin
36 years | D-MI
Frank R. Wolf
34 years | R-VA
John McCain
34 years | R-AZ
Harold Rogers
34 years | R-KY
Harry Reid
34 years | D-NV
Barbara Boxer
34 years | D-CA
Christopher H. Smith
34 years | R-NJ
Steny H. Hoyer
34 years | D-MD
Pat Roberts
34 years | R-KS
Richard J. Durbin
32 years | D-IL
Robert Menendez
32 years | D-NJ
Benjamin L. Cardin
32 years | D-MD
Marcy Kaptur
32 years | D-OH
James M. Inhofe
32 years | R-OK
Sander M. Levin
32 years | D-MI
Joe Barton
30 years | R-TX
Howard Coble
30 years | R-NC
Dianne Feinstein
30 years | D-CA
Bill Nelson
30 years | D-FL
Peter J. Visclosky
30 years | D-IN
Mitch McConnell
30 years | R-KY
John D. Rockefeller, IV
30 years | D-WV
Tim Johnson
28 years | D-SD
Peter A. DeFazio
28 years | D-OR
Fred Upton
28 years | R-MI
John Lewis
28 years | D-GA
Thomas R. Carper
28 years | D-DE
Bernard Sanders
28 years | I-VT
John J. Duncan Jr.
28 years | R-TN
Lamar Smith
28 years | R-TX
Frank Pallone Jr.
28 years | D-NJ
Louise McIntosh Slaughter
28 years | D-NY
Nancy Pelosi
28 years | D-CA
Daniel Coats
26 years | R-IN
David E. Price
26 years | D-NC
Richard E. Neal
26 years | D-MA
José E. Serrano
26 years | D-NY
Roger F. Wicker
26 years | R-MS
Dana Rohrabacher
26 years | R-CA
Sherrod Brown
26 years | D-OH
Eni F. H. Faleomavaega
26 years | D-AS
Eliot L. Engel
26 years | D-NY
Nita M. Lowey
26 years | D-NY
Jim McDermott
26 years | D-WA
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
26 years | R-FL
James P. Moran
24 years | D-VA

It’s the most inexplicable paradox in politics: Americans revile Congress and its inhabitants, yet are voting the same individuals into office far longer than at any time in the nation’s history.

In 2012, 147 sitting lawmakers had been in office for two decades, while 53 had served for three decades. It didn’t used to be that way.

Exactly a century prior, only 26 members had been in office for two decades, and only four had served for three decades, according to a Washington Examiner analysis of congressional elections dating back to the nation’s founding.

Eavesdrop in a bar in any town and it won’t take long before conversation turns to disgust at Congress and the people who go to Washington and become corrupted by it. In some public opinion polls, Congress scores lower than cockroaches and lice.

Yet the vermin seem easier to get rid of. In 1882, most congressmen had been in office six years or less, and only 10 percent had served for 12 years. Now, most have served for a decade or more, and 10 percent have served for more than a quarter-century.

Americans appear to believe that every single member of Congress except their own is rotten.

“There’s typically a big gap in opinion polling about how people feel about Congress as a whole, compared to their incumbent member,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Not only does the incumbent have to be unpopular" to be voted out, Kondik said, he needs a “viable alternative that matches [voters’] own feelings to some degree. That’s not an easy needle to thread.”

Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University, said in local races, people vote based on personality over ideology, and that congressional districts are small enough that incumbents are able to forge personal relationships.

"It's so easy and abstract to say 'Congress sucks,' but you don't run into all of Congress at the county fair, you run into your member."

It’s widely acknowledged in the private sector that new energy and fresh perspectives can shake an institution of a status quo that isn’t working well.

“You look at the Fortune 500 companies, they’re changing CEOs every 5 or 10 years,” said Rep. Tom Marino, a second-term Republican from Pennsylvania who has advocated for term limits.

Burger King's CEO is in his early 30s, and the company has had 21 CEOs since its founding in 1954, according to Businessweek.

The idea is to capture some of the nimbleness and innovation of Silicon Valley, where products that have reshaped Americans' everyday lives are routinely developed by 20-somethings.

Meanwhile, the congressional terms add up quickly — especially with the Senate’s six-year terms, which enabled Ted Kennedy to serve from 1962 until his death in 2009 while facing voters only nine times.

Critics contend that's why both chambers of Congress are soon populated by members so old that they can be out of step with the current world.

Alaska Republican Ted Stevens served for 40 years and wound up chairing the committee in charge of regulating the Internet, which he described as a "series of tubes."

West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd was a onetime member of the Ku Klux Klan who served in Congress for nearly 60 years until he died in 2010.

The Senate in particular was designed to be a council of elders, and Arizona Democrat Carl Hayden was born in 1877, before Arizona was a state.

Yet Hayden served until 1969, by which time, congressional lore has it, his aides would wheel him out once a year to prove that he was still alive.

Adolph Sabath was born in 1866 and served for 46 years starting in 1907. Samuel Dana, a member of the Federalist party born before the nation's founding, served 28 years.

But these men were the exceptions, to an extent that is not explained merely by lengthening lifespans. Early members appeared to follow the model set by George Washington, who made a point of relinquishing the presidency after two terms in order to not become, in effect, a king.

The rise of the career politician could be a contributing factor to bitter partisanship: When members feud, they may not be only arguing about the issue at hand.

Battles invariably get personal, with perceived slights from prior negotiations, perhaps dating back to the Clinton or even Reagan years, entering the equation.

“People have been around so long, hating each other so long, maybe you can mitigate some of that buildup of ill will” by bringing in new blood, Marino said.

It's also true, though, that recently-elected members, many of them Tea Party Republicans, often seem more partisan than ever.

That’s largely a reflection of the fact that “Americans are more self-sorted politically than they used to be. For instance, there are fewer rural Democrats and urban Republicans than there used to be,” Kondik said.

And that, in turn, means that a member won’t be knocked out by a candidate from the opposite party, and turnover will occur either by him stepping down, or losing a primary battle, which is unlikely to occur because of party backing given to the incumbent.

In the end, like so many things, it may come down to money — in this case the rising cost of campaigning that is virtually always a benefit to incumbents, who run for local office using money raised from national interests, often the industries they regulate via their committee posts.

Political activity by industries and lobbying have risen as the government has grown and the stakes have become higher, which also makes it harder for citizen legislators to return to the towns they came from and resume life as a doctor, store operator or the like, as they may have in earlier times.

Instead, members can ride out their own seats as long as they can and then stay in Washington and collect money for lobbying their former colleagues.

“I think there is some truth to the idea of government and ‘government relations’ being more of a profession than it used to be, as the government has grown,” Kondik said.

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