Democrats and Republicans in Washington haven’t finished playing chicken with your 401(k). But they have, fortunately, decided to take August off.
In that, they’re like your neighborhood’s teenage vandals — who politely wait for you to repaint and reseed and rebuild before they strike again.
Because we are a red state, the debt-ceiling deal and Wall Street’s unhappy reaction have focused attention primarily on President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have sunk to the 40 percent range.
But it would be wrong if we failed to also note American disappointment with the 535 members of Congress. According to a CNN poll, voter approval has sunk to a historic, 14 percent low.
And yet, truth be told, it can be harder to fire a member of Congress than a president.
In the U.S. House, the national practice of building safe districts for incumbents in power — set to begin in our state Capitol next week — contributes greatly to the congressional survival rate. So do the astounding amounts of cash that some incumbents, whether in the House or Senate, stockpile to keep challengers at bay.
Which brings us to an original piece of legislation proposed last week by U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville. His idea: Allow campaign funds to be spent only in the election in which they are raised — eliminating those massive treasuries built by incumbents, whether Republican or Democrat.
The bill would also require wealthy, self-funding candidates to quickly inform their opponents when they spend more than $100,000 on their own campaigns.
Woodall is pitching his bill as an alternative to term limits. “My gripe with term limits is that 12 years with a bad congressman is 12 years too long,” he said in an interview Friday. Moreover, term limits would require a change to the U.S. Constitution.
“We’re a decade away from being able to get that through the Congress and ratified by the states,” he said.
Woodall was elected in 2010, beating seven GOP rivals in the primary and a Democrat in the general election. His legislation is more than interesting — on two counts.
First, though part of the historic freshman class of 2010, Woodall is no slave to the tea party. Tea partyers had a chance to endorse him in the primary and didn’t. They had another opportunity in the primary runoff — and still chose the other guy.
Secondly, Woodall is the former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Linder, an 18-year Republican veteran of Congress who had stashed away a healthy nest egg of more than $500,000 to ward off challengers.
“I thought John did a fabulous job. But he never had any primary challenges. The day he retires, there are eight people in the race who say, ‘You know, I can do that job,’” Woodall said. “My question is, why didn’t he have those eight folks in the race in the year before that? Or the year before that?”
The rules of American politics reward those who stockpile cash, and Linder wasn’t the only one to do it. Currently, three Republicans in Georgia’s House delegation — Phil Gingrey of Marietta, Tom Price of Roswell and Jack Kingston of Savannah — had a combined $3.2 million in campaign cash on hand as of Dec. 31. Gingrey had the most, with $1.3 million.
Woodall himself reported a surplus of $75,000. (Among Democrats, U.S. Rep. John Lewis was the most flush, with $268,000.)
“It does prevent you from having to go back and raise funds that next year. But at some point, having to go out and ask my neighbor to write me a $10 check — that keeps you accountable,” Woodall said.
In other words, nest eggs are dangerous not just because they discourage political challenges, but because they encourage a disconnection with the home district.
Woodall’s legislation raises some questions. For instance, if campaign contributions are in fact political speech, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, can an expiration date be placed upon them?
But Woodall says this isn’t a problem. High-court decisions lifting restrictions on campaign cash have all been about the free-speech rights of contributors. They don’t apply to recipients, and haven’t addressed restrictions on how — or by when — the money must be spent.
“Our legal experts tell us [the bill] will not run afoul of any First Amendment issue,” Woodall said.
You have to ask yourself whether a congressman who’s attempting to encourage primary challenges to incumbents is asking for a tough first bid for re-election next year. To which Woodall has a ready answer.
“I loved our eight-way primary. I thought it was fabulous. You ask anybody who’s in elective politics — the more they worry about their election, the better they perform,” he said. “Competition is good. I don’t want to get anointed next time around. I want to get picked.”
Woodall admits that newcomers will probably look more favorably upon his bill than “institutionalists.” He’s trying to sign up as many Republican members of his freshman class as possible, while their enthusiasm for systemic change remains fresh.
So far, he has one co-sponsor, U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Maryland.
“We all win if folks believe that their power at the ballot box is really the power to run this country,” Woodall said. “Is it scary for incumbents who have to do that every year? Absolutely. Is it scary for those who live in 50-50 districts and have to fight hard every year? Absolutely it is. But it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a real race every time.”
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider