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Not Quite Microsoft of Politics

BY Rob Christensen
by Rob Christensen on 6/25/00.

If David Price or Jesse Helms were making computers rather than laws, the antitrust lawyers in the U.S. Justice Department would be breathing down their necks.

Deregulation may have helped free up the private sector, but Congress thinks of itself as the Microsoft of politics.

Members of Congress provide themselves with free mail, telephones, Internet access and Web pages. They have taxpayer-paid caseworkers back in their districts. They hold town meetings. They deliver the pork for the folks back home. They design their districts to suit their political leanings.

Incumbents have the inside pipeline to all the special-interest money flowing out of Washington. And to protect incumbents, the Democratic and Republican parties in North Carolina have made it difficult for third parties or independent candidates to get on the ballot.

No wonder that during the 1998 elections, the average margin of victory in North Carolina's 12 U.S. House districts was an astounding 67 percent to 32 percent. Tar Heel incumbents spent an average of $ 671,457 on their elections, while challengers spent an average of $ 172,573.

"The laws they have passed and the institutions they have established that limit the ability of anyone to challenge them in that political marketplace would make even the caricature of the robber baron of old blush with envy," says Jim Miller, a former Reagan administration budget director.

"They have essentially structured these markets in ways that would bring down the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division, plus hearings from Congress, plus private lawsuits too numerous to mention," Miller says.

Miller, a former two-time U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia, came to town last week to plug a conservative anti-tax group he works for called Citizens for a Sound Economy. He recently wrote a book about the advantages of incumbency called "Monopoly Politics."

To offset those advantages, Miller proposes establishing term limits, eliminating free mailing privileges, rotating committee chairmanships and requiring candidates to spend all their contributions during an election so they don't accumulate war chests to scare off the opposition. He also favors abolishing all campaign-contribution limits on the theory that it would make raising money easier for challengers.

Miller is right about the playing field being tilted toward incumbents, but I don't think the situation is quite as bad as he makes out.

Since the 1980s, the 12-member North Carolina congressional delegation has almost entirely turned over. Helms is the sole survivor from the early 1980s. The other Tar Heel members of Congress retired, were defeated or died in office.

Consider the Triangle's two congressional seats. During the past 20 years, the 4th District has been held by Democrats Ike Andrews and David Price and Republicans Bill Cobey and Fred Heineman. The 2nd District has been held by Democrats L.H. Fountain, Tim Valentine, Bobby Etheridge and Republican David Funderburk.

Despite all the advantages of incumbency, the growing partisan balance in the state, retirement and just plain burnout have helped level the playing field.