Something unusual happened this week. Justin Amash has a challenger! Amash is the fifth term Congressman from the Third District of Michigan (a southwestern district which includes Battle Creek and most of Grand Rapids and its eastern suburbs). It is a conservative Republican district and Amash is certainly a conservative Republican. In fact, he describes himself as a libertarian Republican. Libertarians (there is a libertarian political party) feel themselves to be the ultimate Originalists. They believe in a very limited government.
Amash, who is in his fifth term, made news this week by issuing a series of tweets suggesting that the Mueller Report had made clear that Donald Trump had committed impeachable offenses, a report which he suggested most House members had not bothered to read. That provoked a tweet storm from Trump and a challenge by State Representative Jim Lower. Lower, an avid Trump supporter, declared himself unhappy with many past votes taken by Amash. For State Representative Lower, Amash’s willingness to suggest that impeachment was appropriate was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
So Amash has a serious Republican challenger in next fall’s state primaries. The surprise is not just that he has a challenger but that, across the country, there are so few of them. A bit of history: Up until about 1890 there was in place something called the two term rule. Back in the beginning, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other early officeholders served only two terms. They did that partly because they wanted to establish a precedent that would keep elected officials from becoming too built in.
After about 1800, political party leaders at the different levels of government began to choose candidates. Those candidates understood that they would be in for two terms and then be replaced. It did mean that a lot of men had a chance to hold office, particularly when state office terms were usually one year. It also meant that by the time people reached Washington they would have had the experience of proving themselves in lower offices. That all went out the window when, as a reform, candidates began to be picked by primary (party elections). People already elected could run and be returned over and over. They began to hog the offices.
And, they have gotten better and better at it. Once in office, each House member gets well over a million dollars a year to hire staff. Many of them work back in the district and do “casework”. They help people, and those people are reminded about where that help comes from. Members can take advantage of free mailings to their constituents. And, they spend an amazing amount of time raising money for their next campaigns. Enough money so that challengers know they will be overwhelmed.
There are reasons why Lower’s challenging Justin Amash is so newsworthy: It’s newsworthy because a Republican member has summoned the courage to speak up about the President’s conduct. Republican office holders are mindful of the fact that many voters who come out to vote in next fall’s primaries will be dedicated Trump supporters.
The challenge is also newsworthy because it is so rare. It may seem strange that, with polls showing that Congress is roughly as popular as root canals, the same people keep getting reelected to matter how ineffective they seem. Ask yourself what the voters’ real alternatives are? Independents may get themselves on the ballot but they have little chance. And, legislatures in most states have manipulated district boundaries (they have gerrymandered them) so that most are hopelessly Democratic or Republican. Candidates usually have little to fear from the opposite party.
And, because incumbents have so many advantages, same party challenges to office holders have become so rare that members are terrified of them. Having a primary challenger does mean having to spend a lot of time going out and meeting voters who may reasonably be disgruntled and unpleasant. It is unpleasant for same party challengers too. Their party will do all it can to discourage them. Sources of funding will magically dry up. In the end they usually back away.
Members certainly have an incentive to stay in. The job pays well, $174,000, plus perks (including free trips home), and fairly generous pensions (some make more retired than they ever did working). Reasonably, many do not want to leave all that marble and have to face life back home. If they do leave, many take up lobbying the members they left behind.
It is tempting to say that the problem is that the Congress is split. The Democrats do have a majority in the House, and the Republicans control the Senate. But that isn’t really it. The problem is with the Republicans. In the last Congress, with Republicans controlling both houses, not much was done either. The Republican leadership decides everything (think Mitch McConnell). Legislation is not being passed (really). Budgetary rules are simply being ignored. There will probably be no budget. With their reelections secure, it is cost-free for Republican members to obey their leadership and pass nothing.
The voters are mesmerized by the President’s antics and tweets. Every week there is something new to be angry about. Those voters who only care about abortion are pleased. The very wealthy and leaders of corporations are happy with their big tax cuts. But the tax payers are paying a lot for people who are doing little (535 people collecting $174,000). They can keep on doing nothing because there is no way for those really concerned to get them out. Most will again win their primary and be the candidate. They can stay as long as they want! Only a few, like Justin Amash, need have the fear of being sent home by a challenger from their own party. They are home free.