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Incumbency Addiction: the Habit That Doesn’t Go Away

The job of a legislator is for most a time-consuming one with little chance to shape policy, and the pay isn't great. So why do so many of them run for re-election over and over?

A busy day at Indiana's House of Representatives in the state Capitol building. In the 2020 election season, 85 percent of the more than 7,000 sitting state legislators waged campaigns for new terms.
(Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock)
Every two years around this time, we are treated to a flurry of announcements from members of Congress and state legislators that they are fed up and getting out.

Just in the last few weeks, U.S. Rep. David Price of North Carolina announced that he would be leaving his safe Democratic seat because the current climate in Washington is raising doubts in his mind about “the future of the rule of law, the acceptance of election results, the peaceful transfer of power and the very future of democracy.” Adam Kinzinger, a Republican House member from Illinois, declared that he was leaving because he saw ”outrage blinding our ability to achieve real strength.” At the state level, veteran Indiana legislator Karen Tallian, a Democrat, decided to resign abruptly, saying that “after 16 years I’ve had enough. … The process has become degraded. … It becomes impossible to have real debate on the floor.”

When you read enough of these comments, you begin to feel that we are in the middle of a mass exodus from the legislative profession, perhaps comparable to the so-called "Great Resignation" that pundits claim to be finding in the private sector. I’m no expert on the Great Resignation, or whether it even exists, but I can tell you that when it comes to politics, it’s a myth.

In the 2020 election season, 90.5 percent of the members of the U.S. House sought re-election. In the Senate, it was 31 out of the 33 whose seats were up that year. Perhaps more significantly, 85 percent of the more than 7,000 sitting state legislators waged campaigns for new terms. That was the highest number in the past decade. Whatever may be going on in the American legislative process, there is zero evidence of a massive stampede to the door.

What exactly is going on here? Is it possible that the tiny minority of politicians who vent their frustrations about the job are the only ones who feel that way? Do the bulk of others who quietly file their re-election papers find the work stimulating and the opportunities for accomplishment satisfying? By and large, this isn’t true. When most members of Congress and state legislators talk to reporters off the record, they are almost as dismissive and sarcastic as those who take the plunge and get out. But they keep running, the vast majority of them, time after time after time.

Legislators could, of course, demonstrate the courage of their frustrations by imposing term limits on themselves. They don’t do this. Virtually all of the 15 states that currently impose term limits enacted them by citizen referendum. Even legislators who don’t like the job are reluctant to place any sort of upper limit on their service.

WHAT IS DRIVING THEM? It isn’t money. Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $174,000 a year, but they haven’t had a raise since 2009. It seems safe to say that most people who can get themselves elected to the House or Senate could do just as well or better on the outside.

When it comes to state legislatures, the picture is unequivocally clearer. A couple of the big states pay in six figures, but that’s for year-round work. Most of the other states demand three-quarters of their members’ time and pay them an average of $41,110 a year. In the 14 states that style themselves as having part-time, “citizen” legislatures, the average annual pay is less than $20,000. You can make more than that working the checkout counter at Walmart.

What’s much more attractive — or at least it ought to be more attractive — is the opportunity to play a meaningful role in formulating public policy. But for the majority of people who serve in these legislative jobs, in Washington, D.C., or in a state capitol, the opportunity for an entrepreneurial policy role ebbs and flows.

Up through the 1960s, power in virtually all legislative bodies was closely held by a small cadre of senior leaders. The rank-and file members were mostly there as window dressing. The 1970s and 1980s in American legislatures were a time of rising individual freedom, as they were in the rest of American society. Even the most junior members had the chance, if they were talented enough, to enact policy initiatives crucial to the future of the country. But those days ended toward the end of the last century, and they have not returned. Members once again fell into dependence on their leaders, in large part for the campaign money that they needed and the leaders could provide. Members of each party now vote almost entirely in lockstep with the wishes of the party leadership. Opportunities for genuine influence or even simple creativity are luxuries denied to all but a few.

So what is the day-to-day life of a legislator all about these days? For those in competitive states or districts, it may involve hours at a stretch, several times a week, calling up wealthy donors and asking for campaign money. For the much larger number who occupy safe seats, it requires catering to the fringe constituents who present insistent ideological demands and pose at least the threat of a serious primary challenge. It brings a barrage of social media comments, most of them negative, far greater in volume than any previous generation of legislators was required to deal with. In most states, for those who take the job seriously, it imposes out-of-session committee demands that make steady private employment increasingly difficult. But for the majority of them, at least until they reach an advanced age, none of those indignities is sufficient to persuade them to quit and go home.

I REALIZE I AM PAINTING A DARK PICTURE HERE, perhaps a little too dark. There are members in all legislative bodies who derive lasting satisfaction from mingling with colleagues who share their ideological preconceptions. There are others for whom prestige in their local communities outweigh the burdens of political life. But I’m convinced these are not enough to answer the fundamental question of why incumbency addiction exists. To understand it better, it may help to delve into the debates and discoveries of modern psychology.

Over the course of the last hundred years, there have been shifting opinions among psychologists on just what makes politicians tick, and whether they are mentally healthier or less healthy than the average intelligent adult. For the first half of the 20th century, scholars heavily influenced by Freudian ideas posited that individuals entered politics to overcome ego deficiencies. In other words, the politician who looked like a glad-handing extrovert was actually compensating for deep-seated feelings of insecurity. In the second half of the century, as a more positive approach to ego psychology took hold, students of this subject began to claim that those who ran for office were actually above average in mental health — otherwise they wouldn’t be able to endure a life of constant public scrutiny.

I’ve thought a lot about this, and over many years I also watched and spoke to large numbers of officeholders at all levels of the political system. The conclusion I came to is that they are neither more nor less neurotic than the average human being. People pursue public office for all sorts of reasons. Some are unbalanced; some are blessed with admirable mental stability. In the end, neurosis doesn’t seem to be a factor.

What seems to me a more fruitful psychological insight is the concept of loss aversion: the idea that it is more painful to lose something one possesses than to fail in an attempt to gain it, and more powerful than the positive feelings one experiences upon winning or acquiring the same thing. I think this applies to politics just as it does to successes and failures in ordinary life. Holding office, even a relatively modest office, comes to feel like an endowment in the mind of the officeholder, worth more in the individual’s perception than an objective appraisal would yield. The prospect of losing it is enough to drive most politicians to hang on to it even when the office itself is more of a burden than a pleasure.

In simpler terms, politicians fear defeat and rejection. They even come to fear that voluntary retirement will seem to their colleagues and constituents a form of quiet rejection — an instance of losing something they have fought hard to attain. In that respect, they are more like the rest of us than we sometimes think.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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