Almost as soon as the dust settled after the 2012 presidential election, many political commentators started talking about 2016, when we the people will (vote for the electors who officially) elect our next president.
In the nearly two years since then, the political intelligentsia have used countless amounts of ink, pixels and bits to run through the roster of contenders for the Oval Office — everyone from the populist David in Elizabeth Warren and her establishment Goliath, Hillary Clinton, on the Democratic side to the filibustering firebrand Rand Paul and the across-the-aisle compromiser Chris Christie on the Republican side.
The same process of presidential election fervor has always started up again every four years. But what about the congressional elections that happen every two years?
While presidents inevitably become major political celebrities through the course of their campaigns, congresspeople usually do not. Local races do often generate local celebrities, but without the nationwide politicking that defines presidential races, casual voters won’t even hear about candidates in neighboring districts until they do something newsworthy, be it scandalous, sensational or both.
One of the major problems with that trend stems from how “celebrity” often becomes equated with “power” in our political system. Because of the celebrity status associated with the presidency, many people either forget or ignore a key facet of how our government should run according to the Constitution: The main power in the federal government should be Congress.
The way the Constitution sets everything up, Congress (literally) comes first, and of the three branches, it has more enumerated powers (18, compared to the presidency’s 3 and the Supreme Court’s 1). And any time a president has tried to expand his own power, like both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have, he has been at least accused of usurping power from Congress — since, in many cases, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
But even with all of that power, people don’t seem to care as much about Congress as they do the presidency, despite the extremely high percentage (over 75 percent) of people who actively dislike what Congress is doing. That’s a major reason that Congress can’t get its power back from the Presidency without SCOTUS intervening.
Midterm election years, like this year, are a prime example of Congress’ lack of cachet: Usually, such years see much lower voter turnout rates than years featuring the dog-and-pony show of presidential races. While presidential elections have had an average of 58 percent turnout since 1948, midterm elections since 1950 have only seen an average of 42 percent turnout. The highest a midterm election turnout has been in the last 50 years was 49 percent in 1966, when the Vietnam War was still young and the GOP was staging a comeback to oppose LBJ’s Great Society.
Even when people have shown up to the polls for congressional elections, the results have often been a foregone conclusion. Despite there being over 450 seats in Congress up for election every two years (one for every seat in the House of Representatives and for a third of those of the Senate), most of the same politicians fill those seats year in and year out.
In every election since 1964, over 50 percent of Senators up for re-election won another term; for Representatives, that figure has never fallen below 80 percent during the same time period.
In many cases, the cause of this staleness in Congress goes back to celebrity, albeit at the local level.
Since we live in a country in which people generally don’t pay much attention to Congress, elections can become a name game — especially for donors. Officeholders running for re-election often raise more money than their challengers, meaning they can pay for more signs and ads that make their names more familiar to casual voters. Though the Tea Party sought to defy that trend in 2010 with its mantra of opposing the political elite as much as Obama’s healthcare and tax policies, Congress is returning to its previous, stale state.
Paying attention to congressional elections won’t solve the entire problem, but it is a first step to help make sure that Congress never stays stale. And perhaps, with some new blood on Capitol Hill, we might see a Congress less willing to shut down the government as a political stunt and more willing to actually solve problems facing the country.
The great thing is, though, that it’s not too late to start paying attention in this election cycle. Granted, some primary elections have already taken place, including here in California.
However, just under half of the states and territories will hold their primaries in August and September — including Alaska, where the Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and whoever wins the Republican primary will help decide which party controls the Senate. Even for races that have already progressed past the primary stage, the campaigns are only going to heat up in advance of the general elections, which will all take place on Nov. 4.
So start paying attention! Read news on Buzzfeed in addition to its cute animal lists, or better yet, read stories from both Fox News and Huffington Post to get a fuller perspective. Look up which congressional district you’re registered to vote in, and register to vote! And, most importantly, when you vote this year, make sure you vote for a person you’ve paid some attention to and have done some research on. Otherwise, you’re just voting for a name.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at [email protected]