Questions for Roscoe - and the system

June 20, 2005|by Don DeArmon

If I were to describe a country whose political system routinely returned 95 percent or more of incumbents to its legislature, we might declare it undemocratic.

But that description fits our current U.S. House of Representatives. As we all learned in school, all 435 seats in the U.S. House are up for election every two years. But in 2006, only 36 of those seats are considered "competitive," meaning there are two well-financed candidates who each have an even chance at being elected. In fact, 63 incumbents are completely unopposed - no one bothered to file against them at all.

Of course, 36 "competitive" seats doesn't mean that many incumbents will lose; in 2002, only four incumbents were defeated by challengers in the general election, fewer than 1 percent.

Maryland is a perfect example of this phenomena. Based on redistricting performed after the 2000 census, lines were drawn that would create eight "safe" seats - two Republican and six Democratic. In 2002, the average margin of victory by Maryland congressmen was nearly 35 percentage points, an average 67 perceent to 33 percent result. And that was with competitive races in two newly drawn congressional districts: Dutch Ruppersberger vs. Helen Bentley in the 2nd District and Chris Van Hollen vs. Connie Morella in the 8th District.


The average margin of victory will only grow during the 2006 election. But will they be elected because they are doing a wonderful job? Well, that question is mostly academic, since the challengers will never be able to mount effective campaigns or offer true alternatives. Why? Because money follows incumbents. At this writing, the average Maryland congressman has raised $774,000 more than his closest challenger during this election cycle.

Since our "democratic" system conspires to discourage well-financed opponents from taking on insurmountable challenges, the types of questions that ought to get asked during a campaign don't get asked.

Here in the 6th District, I've got a few questions for incumbent Roscoe Bartlett.

I'll start with two simple ones: Mr. Bartlett, you've served in Congress for nearly 12 years. What is your biggest accomplishment? What do you expect to accomplish if elected for two more years?

Mr. Bartlett, when you were first elected, you said that reducing the deficit was one of your highest priorities, going so far as to sign a campaign pledge. In the past few years, you have voted in favor of a costly farm bill, a bill providing a new Medicare prescription benefit for seniors, and a number of tax cut bills - all of which have contributed to the nation's annual deficit, which will be $413 billion in 2004, the largest in history. How is this voting record consistent with your pledge about lowering the deficit, and do you think it is fair to borrow from our children and grandchildren to cover current spending?

Mr. Bartlett, do you think our policies in Iraq are succeeding? If so, why are so many Americans still being killed or injured? If not, what would you do differently?

Mr. Bartlett, what steps are you taking as a member of the Armed Services Committee to relieve the enormous pressure being placed on our service personnel, especially our National Guard and reserves?

Mr. Bartlett, when the country is at war, is it fair to vote for tax cuts, especially tax cuts where the benefits go disproportionately to the very well off, as you have done? Shouldn't we instead be asking for sacrifice from the American public in support of the war effort, and shouldn't we have the political courage to pay for our war expenditures and tax cuts as the costs are incurred instead of borrowing from our children and grandchildren through deficit spending?

Mr. Bartlett, it has been nine years since you voted (as part of a base-closing act) to shut down Fort Ritchie. What steps, if any, are you taking to convert it to productive use and why has it taken so long? Why haven't you been successful?

Mr. Bartlett, you have a reputation for voting against appropriations bills because of so-called "pork-barrel" spending. Is it fair to then claim credit for transportation projects or grants to local organizations that were contained in the same bills that you opposed?

Mr. Bartlett, you have voted against construction funds for a $100 million National Institute of Health laboratory at Fort Detrick for bioterrorism research, and you announced publicly that you opposed spending more funds to clean up a hazardous site there. How do these votes support the Fort Detrick community and its mission?

Mr. Bartlett, on more than one occasion, you have called for the re-watering of the entire C&O Canal. Why?

I can think of a number of other questions. But try to find a public meeting where you can ask Bartlett a question - it can't be done. That's a

real contrast with his predecessor, Rep. Beverly Byron, who always devoted a significant portion of her August to public visits in the small towns across her district.

I bet you've got some questions of your own. But the effect of political redistricting and perpetuating the advantages of incumbents necessarily results in less accountability and more complacency by our elected representatives. Well, perhaps we can take solace that well-financed political debates are taking place in 36 congressional districts this year.

Maybe we prefer this version of democracy as we elect the so-called "people's House" every two years. But it has always seemed odd to me that a nation born in revolution is so complacent about the elections that are key to democratic decision-making. And it seems a particular disservice to the young people who are dying and being wounded in Iraq on behalf of "democracy" that we practice such a stunted version of it in the United States.

Don DeArmon is a resident of Frederick, Md., and a former 6th District congressional candidate.

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