Upsetting The Congressional Equilibrium

Douglas Koopman

March 1, 2002

To hear Democrats discussing this fall’s congressional elections, this year is the time when voters restore the party of Jefferson to its “rightful” place as the congressional majority, unfairly and unwisely terminated in the 1994 electoral “earthquake.” But a look at the historical record indicates that today’s partisan split in the House and Senate is no one-time aberration, but just where voters want things to be. If President Bush remains popular and the economy really is rebounding, Republicans stand to increase their House margin and probably take back the Senate.

One cannot really blame Democrats for believing Congress is rightfully theirs to control. Despite frequent Republican success at the presidential level, Democrats controlled the House uninterrupted for the forty years before 1994, and likewise the Senate for all but the first six Reagan years of 1980-1986.

But the legitimacy of those four decades of Democratic dominance is in question. While Democrats may have initially gained their congressional majorities fair-and-square, their perpetuation and expansion were built upon questionable practices.

One way that Democrats unfairly extended their majority was in creating a huge congressional bureaucracy that made it easier for incumbents to get re-elected. Respected Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, in his slim 1989 classic Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, focused on the distorted distribution of congressional seats caused by growing congressional perquisites. If congressional perks had stayed at the limited levels of the early 1960s, Fiorina found that Republicans would have obtained House majorities in 1972, 1980, and 1984. Extending Fiorina’s data to today gives the GOP additional House majorities from 1994 until the present.

Another way that congressional Democrats extended their congressional majority, closely related to the first, was in insulating House elections from presidential contests. The Nixon landslide in 1972, and the Reagan-Reagan-Bush One victories in the 1980s would surely had ushered in a complete Republican takeover of Congress had presidential coattails be as strong as they were a generation before. Either way one accounts for Democratic dominance from the 1950s to the 1990s, it’s hard to justify by the numbers.

This brief historical review is important to put this year’s congressional elections in perspective. For Democrats, 1994 was an unnatural aberration whose correction is long overdue. Give us fair shot, Democrats argue, and voters will again choose us to lead Congress. But 1994 was not a one-time aberration; rather it was a correction of a long-term accumulation of little inequities, growing election year by election year, congressional district by congressional district.

The 1994 election “earthquake” restored Congress to just about the right partisan equilibrium, much as a real earthquake releases tension slowly built up by the growing pressure of colliding land masses. While Republicans misread their 1994 victories as a conservative counterrevolution with virtually unlimited potential to increase Republican seats in Congress, Democrats read it just as wrongly.

Both parties are bumbling into what could be a potentially strong Republican year. Despite the best efforts of some House Republicans, President Bush’s agenda and persona have re-cast the Republican Party as a more ideologically moderate and demographically diverse party. Since 1994 House Republicans, overestimating the appeal of conservatism, have been trying to win over and over again the last thirty—overwhelmingly conservative and southern—seats they picked up that year. But the chief fruit of that strategy has been to pick up a few straggling seats in the South and West, with larger losses in the rest of the nation. What House Republicans should have spent their time since 1994 doing is trying to win the next thirty seats, which are chiefly from the ring suburbs of the upper Midwest and small towns of the Central Plains. But to do so requires a more moderate image, which only President Bush has been able to bring to the party and, in some cases, force down the throats of congressional Republicans.

Democrats are at least thinking more clearly. They know their electoral hopes hinge on the ability to divert voter attentions from President Bush to the economy, and that the economy in turn tanks. Republicans, despite themselves, stand on the verge of a successful year if they can divert their electoral attentions from the Deep South and Far West, to the rest of the nation that seems ripe for a new kind of Republicanism.

Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.