In Congress, it's sweet to be an incumbent

Scott Maxwell | The Orlando Sentinel | 11/05/2014

Ask the Average Joe or Josephine what they think about Washington — and they will tell you that Congress is full of hacks who need to be thrown out of office.

Yet, do you know how many incumbents Central Florida booted this week?

Zero.

That's right, not a one.

Congress has an approval rating of 14 percent — yet earned a 100 percent return rate from local voters Tuesday.

This is like treating a case of foot fungus with a barefoot walk through a public shower.

Why does this happen? How did everyone locally — from Democrats Alan Grayson and Corrine Brown to Republicans Dan Webster and John Mica — cakewalk back into office?

Part of it is personality and pork-barrel politics. People are convinced Congress is the problem .... but not their guy or gal.

Their guy brings home federal money for the airport. Their gal delivered a new V.A. clinic. Their guy was on TV just the other night talking about all the jobs he saved at American flag factories.

Everyone else's guy is the money-wasting hack.

So, the electorate rages for change on Facebook and checks the box for the same-old, same-old at the polls. (Those who bother to show up anyway. An even bigger group gripes and moans and then stays home.)

Still, I don't fully fault voters — because the system itself is ingeniously stacked against change, challengers and independent thinking.

Money gushes to the incumbents — often from the very companies the incumbents are supposed to regulate.

If you sit on an energy committee, the oil and gas guys ply you with cash. If you sit on one that handles banking regulations, J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo are your benefactors.

Mica and Brown both sit on transportation committees — and collected more money from rail, transport and airline companies and unions (more than $150,000 each) than their challengers raised all together.

Challengers who try to mount campaigns with pipe dreams and wooden nickels get slaughtered.

The reality, though, is that most challengers never had a chance anyway. They were running in districts where they couldn't win.

It's called gerrymandering. And it is Florida's biggest electoral problem.

Gerrymandering happens when legislators slice and dice districts along partisan lines to get predetermined results.

Poor black people get stuffed into Dem-designated districts. Wealthy whites get siphoned off into Republican ones.

Legislators decide which districts will be "R" and "D." Few are even competitive. In fact, this year, pollsters expected only two of Florida's 27 U.S. House races to be close.

But gerrymandered districts do more than just thwart competition. They foster extremism. When a race is predetermined for one party or the other, it's often settled in the primary where the candidate furthest right or furthest left wins.

Pity the plight of the moderates. Their voice is rarely heard.

Was your voice heard in Washington on Tuesday?

Floridians tried to stop gerrymandering in 2010 by overwhelmingly supporting Fair Districts, a constitutional ban on the practice. Yet legislators ignored that ban. They lied, schemed and gerrymandered anyway.

The matter is still being fought in court, with the state's Supreme Court the citizens' last best chance for upholding Fair Districts.

You should rally behind that cause (FairDistrictsNow.org), because it is about enforcing your vote.

Until then, we can expect more of the same — members of an unpopular Congress staying put,

Foot-fungus references aside, I should concede that Central Florida's winning incumbents aren't all bad. I've seen all of them shine at one time or another.

But I know they could be better.

If they weren't so well protected.

If they knew they had to answer to all voters.

If they thought there was even a slim chance that the people who fuss about them all year long might actually do something about it when given the chance.


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