Why better candidates don't run for Congress
© Greg Nash

I have a confession. I’ve considered running for Congress. Perhaps you have too.

My resume seems to support a congressional run. At 53, I have been a successful financial planner for over two decades, held minor public office, managed successful ballot initiative campaigns, raised a handsome and unbroken family, served on boards of both charities and other organizations and I speak publicly around my district and the country on public policy issues. Not to mention that I have been asked to run for Congress on more than one occasion.


But I am not going to run for Congress. Congress is no longer a place to serve; it has become a place where aggressively ambitious career politicians help themselves and their cronies.

If our republic was governed by a representative democracy our politicians would be successful individuals from every walk of life who step away from their vocations to serve for a time and then return home. But, without term limits on Congress, most successful people do not run – except those who aspire to be career politicians.

Most people who have success outside of politics will not run for two related reasons, the impossible conditions required to beat an incumbent and the lack of influence a new member has in Congress.

Incumbent advantage is so great that since 1970, just shy of 95 percent of all incumbents running for the U.S. House have won. Challengers lose as a rule; it’s a longshot akin to a penny stock. This is not the kind of investment prudent individuals make.

In so-called “wave elections” like 2018, no more than 20 percent of U.S. House races are competitive.

Congressional seats eventually do open when incumbents retire, die, or are sent to prison, and competitive elections are held. Though a small number of seats each election—only 55 seats were open in 2018 — this is where competition in American congressional elections occurs.  

If outsiders make it through, they don’t get to be in leadership. Earning a seat in these positions of power is primarily a waiting game and the line can be a decade or even decades long. The mean tenure for current Democratic committee chairs in the House, for example, is 24 years. The current system rewards those who go to Washington to stay and keeps power from those who would serve and return to their productive careers.  

When someone considers running for Congress, they ask themselves if it’s worth it to surrender to a decade or more of mind-numbing frustration with so little opportunity for success. For a successful, goal-oriented individual who wishes to give back, running for Congress is simply not an effective way to achieve that goal.

There is a simple reform that addresses these issues. Term limits will open each U.S. House seat every six years. With competitive open seat elections, it is reasonable for a successful qualified individual to make that investment. Rather than seats opening in a random unpredictable manner, successful individuals can plan years ahead to prepare, to build support in the district and raise the money needed to campaign.

Term limits overthrow the established seniority system and force power to be allocated in a smarter fashion within legislative bodies. Leaders will be termed out like everyone else and popular new members can expect to move into a position of leadership within four years. Congressional leadership will be made up of individuals who better represent the people because they will have recently faced competitive elections. Successful individuals will run with the anticipation of spending a few years of their life in office with a real opportunity to influence policy that inspires them. And they will expect to leave office and return to their vocations.

Bottom line: The best people should be representing us in Congress but they are not; instead we are getting aspiring career politicians. Voters deserve a real choice, with a better caliber of candidates. Yet, without the competitive elections brought by the regular rotation in office that term limits mandate, they’ll rarely see them.

Philip Blumel is a Certified Financial Planner in West Palm Beach, Fla., and president of U.S. Term Limits.