Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Senator Tester's Ad: Not Terribly Early

In yesterday's post, I speculated about the timing of Senator Tester's first campaign ad. Was it too early? Too late?

My colleagues at the Wesleyan Media Project--run by Erika Fowler, Mike Franz, and Travis Ridout (all Wisconsin grads, I might add)--provided some data to help answer that question. In 2010, the first election of the post-Citizens United era, four senators running for reelection faced competitive races: Senators Feingold, Reid, Murray, and Bennet. Feingold lost reelection, and the other three won with less than 53% of the vote. Here's when each launched their first ad:

Bennet: March 17

Feingold: April 27

Reid: April 30

Murray: July 28

Tester's first ad launched on March 26. I'd say given that he's a first-term senator running for reelection, his situation is most analogous to Bennet's--who was appointed to a vacant seat and running his first campaign. Murray and Feingold were both elected in 1992, Reid was elected in 1986--so well-established reputations. Four data points are not much to draw any firm conclusions, but it would seem that Tester's ad launch is not particularly early given the competitive nature of the seat and the fact that he's running for his second term. It seems just right.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tester Up First: Tester Campaign Launches its First Ad

This morning, Montana's airwaves--which have already been inundated by advertising sponsored by outside groups variously attacking Senator Tester or Congressman Rehberg--received yet another campaign ad. This one, however, is different. First, it's actually sponsored by one of the candidates: Senator Tester. Second, it is a positive ad. Watch it below.

A couple of quick points. First, campaigns generally begin with positive, bio spots introducing (or re-introducing as is the case here) the candidate. After some time making people feel good about the candidate, campaigns move into the argument phase, where the candidate makes arguments about why they are the best choice and the opponent is the worst choice. Finally, in the closing weeks, we'll probably see some talking head ads with the candidate making their final pitch and asking citizens for their vote. As expected, the Tester campaign is proceeding as one might expect and anticipate.

Second, according to Mike Dennison's article in the Billings Gazette this morning (read here), the buy is $60,000. One of my sources tells me the buy is actually $53,000--and not a statewide buy at 1,000 Gross Ratings Points as I initially wrote. This buy is only 500 GRP in Billings, and 250 in other markets. So, the buy is not as big and extensive as I had been led to believe. Of course, one might argue that to have an effect--given the Internet and other ways to push ads--that the initial buy might not have to be as great.

Third, the positive ad is long on biography and short on issues. Again, not unusual. That's not what this ad is really aiming to do. It is designed to make Montanans remember why they like Tester: He's a farmer who works his own fields, he's friendly, and he could be your neighbor. Negative ads, for all their alleged faults, are the ads which focus more on issue based concerns. The ad is not devoid of issue content, but it is general and vague.

Finally, it is hard to say whether this buy is early or not. Given the changes in campaign finance and the fact that outside groups have been spending money since April of last year--and much of that has been negative--I'm led to believe that it is surprising that ads haven't gone up BEFORE now. Citizens United did change the nature of the campaign game, so many of us are learning as we go. The next question is: How long will we stay in the first advertising phase before moving into the argument phase?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hidden Returns on Congressional Pay

In his last post Dr. Parker argues against the popular notion of refusing pay increases for members of Congress.[1] I agree with his position that it is largely a “feel good” ploy by the Tea Party and others to pander to our ever declining opinion of those in DC doing the people’s business however, let’s apply some basic behavioral economics to the issue.

First, realize that after 22 years in office a congressman is eligible for a pension payment of around $85,000 per year. Right now, the average term in office is about five years. In 2002, the pension payment ranged from $41,000 to $55,000. Not very much when you consider the expense of a second home in the DC area and the cost of campaigning.

Let’s look at this another way. The average age of members of the House at the beginning of the 112th Congress was 56.7 years - young enough for a second, if short, career. The overwhelming majority of members have a college education – typically a law degree or business background. When the status of a member of the House changes from member to former member what to they do? They mostly move into the lobbying game where they earn very large amounts of money cashing in on their expertise and rolodex as they represent often the very interests they regulated while holding elected office. The classic revolving door.

Viewed this way, the rational thing to do is “invest” in your congressional “education” for about the same amount of time it took to get your law degree and then go for the higher return on investment by starting a new career working on K Street.

Two other things. Keep in mind the overwhelming majority of House members are already wealthy. For example, the median net worth in 2009 of a House representative was more than 2.5 times more than it was in 1984 — $725,00 vs. $280,000 — adjusted for inflation (one interesting fact - our own Congressman Denny Rehburg enjoys a net worth in upwards of $56 million. Out of 535 members of Congress, he is richer than more than 95% of his Capitol Hill colleagues). The other thing to keep in mind is that while leftover campaign funds cannot be used for personal gain, FEC regulations require leftover campaign funds be returned to donors, transferred to a political party or candidate, or donated to charity. Of course generous donations are rewarded with board appointments, jobs, the ubiquitous lobbying contract and, (tell me it isn’t so) even university appointments.

Any way you look at it, serving in the House for even a short period of time has potentially high rates of payoff. The only logical solution to this and other inequities in the current political system is public finance of public elections.

[1] According to the State Department’s Office of Protocol, there is no such title as Congressman for members of the House of Representatives. Rather, they are supposed to be referred to by their social title (that is Mr. or Ms., or Dr., Mrs., or Miss as preferred). I realize this is a small matter but civilization runs smoother with recognition of social niceties. By the way, Wikipedia has this completely wrong.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Montana Senate Race and Why Cutting Congressional Pay May Not be the Best Idea

In a campaign that very much centers on representational style and trust, the issue of congressional pay—not surprisingly—has emerged in the Tester-Rehberg Battle Royale. Highlighting congressional pay, perks, and benefits as an issue is an easy way for a campaign opponent to cast aspersions on the motives of an incumbent, to demonstrate that they are out of touch with their constituents, and infer that they abuse their public office for the purpose of self-gain. Both sides are using the issue to score political points and to demonstrate their closeness to Montanans. Unfortunately, congressional pay is an issue that should not be used as a political football because of the potentially serious consequences for Congress institutionally.

Congressional pay has long been a touchy political issue for representatives and senators. First, members of Congress are loath to increase their pay because of the negative repercussions they may face from constituents. Political scientists Bianco, Spence, and Wilkerson wrote an article on the Compensation Act of 1816, which noted that electorally vulnerable members were less likely to vote for the act, and that supporters of the provision were less likely to run for reelection because of the act’s unpopularity (1996). The act raised the pay of members by thirty percent, but it was the first pay increase since Congress set its own pay in 1789.

The current law governing congressional pay, the Government Pay and Ethics Act of 1989, increased member pay by forty percent over three years (see Hall and Van Houweling 1995). Arguments were made at the time, notably by Ornstein (1989), that increasing member pay was necessary to attract talented and experienced individuals to the job. In addition, several reforms were put in place in the act to create barriers to special interest influence on members. Members would no longer be allowed to accept honoraria from individuals and groups (some members made more than $25,000 annually by giving speeches to trade organizations and the like). Members whose service began before 1980 would also no longer be allowed to convert campaign cash to personal use upon retirement after 1992. Finally, a waiting period was instituted after retirement before members could lobby government. The main point of the act was to raise barriers to special interest influence while paying members more to remove the temptation to look for income in addition to official congressional pay.

As far as I can determine, congressional pay was first raised as a possible campaign issue a year ago by Congressman Rehberg. During the budget debate, Rehberg introduced legislation entitled “No Pay Raise for Congress Until the Budget is Balanced Act”. A press release announcing the bill notes that “Rehberg has a long history of supporting legislation to prevent pay raises or to stop the practice of automatic pay raises in Congress.” The Democratic Party of Montana chided Rehberg, noting that he has voted to increase his own pay “five times” since he was elected to Congress. You can read the party’s press release here.

Just last week, Citizens for Strength and Security launched an ad attacking the Congressman on the issue of congressional pay. It charges that Rehberg is hypocritical for accepting pay increases when he pledged to not accept any pay increases when running for the Senate against Max Baucus in 1996. Read my previous blog and view the ad here. It is important to note that Congress automatically receives an annual pay increase in the form of a cost of living adjustment UNLESS Congress acts to refuse that increase. The votes used against Rehberg are votes he made against proposals that would either end this procedure or to reject the annual increase. Senator Tester introduced legislation in 2011 entitled The Congressional Pay Prevention Act that would repeal these annual increases altogether. Today, Congressman Rehberg’s campaign pushed back saying that Senator Tester voted against a Senate amendment yesterday that would have frozen congressional pay. The vote was on a Senate amendment proposed by Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas. The vote cited can be accessed here. Furthermore, the Rehberg campaign notes that the Congressman has co-sponsored legislation in the 108th, 109th, 111th, and 112th Congresses eliminating the automatic annual pay adjustments. Both sides have called each other hypocritical and attempted to claim the moral high ground on the issue.

There are very good reasons other than electoral considerations for Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg to oppose increasing congressional pay. Senator Tester’s stance on the issue is based largely on equity and fairness concerns. Most Americans do not get automatic pay increases annually. Folks making minimum wage do not get a cost of living adjustment. Farmers, business owners, ranchers, and many others in the private sector not only haven’t received pay increases, but have either lost their jobs or have had to take serious pay cuts. All of this creates a sound argument for why Congress should forgo those automatic increases. Congressman Rehberg’s stance on the issue seems to be based on performance. Pay raises are given in the private sector for tangible improvements in performance and meeting particular targets, like sales goals. Rehberg’s legislation suggests that Congress is not doing its job (and many Americans would certainly agree), so just like workers in the private sector, they should not get any pay increase. Future pay increases should be tied to particular performance metrics—like achieving a balanced budget.

I do not take issue, fundamentally, with the position of either Senator Tester or Congressman Rehberg. Nor do I seek to impugn their motives for their stance on congressional pay. I do, however, think that it is worth considering the broader institutional consequences of attacking the pay of members of Congress. Cutting pay may score points with justifiably frustrated constituents and fit preexisting notions of what is fair and equitable, but the outcome has the real potential to undercut the functioning of Congress as an institution in the long-term. By removing the automatic pay increases, member pay will increasingly become less competitive with other possible career avenues for members currently serving and folks thinking of running for office. Public service will become less attractive and possibly more open to creative income generating opportunities that could compromise the ethical positions of members. Add to the mix the difficulty of passing another pay increase in the future to fix a pay system that has gotten dramatically out of whack--remember what happened in 1816? What makes the situation even more difficult is the fact that most of the public already believe that members are grossly overpaid while simultaneously underestimating the actual value of congressional salaries and perks. If we want to prevent corruption, undermine special interest influence on the legislative process, and attract the best minds to Congress, the last thing we want to do is to cut their pay, send them home, and make them part time (this is something that has become popular among some in the Tea Party and was floated most prominently by Texas Governor Rick Perry during his brief presidential campaign). My position is unpopular and likely to draw some comment, but this an example where perhaps doing what the people want isn’t in the best interest of the people’s house.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Denny Rehberg Subject to Outside Attack

Lots of attention has been paid by outside groups attacking Senator Tester in the Montana Senate Race. Well, now some groups are now going after Congressman Rehberg. Citizens for Strength and Security just dropped $400,000 on the ad below--attacking Congressman Rehberg for taking pay raises throughout his career.

I'll have more to say about this advertisement--and frequent attacks on pay increases--in another blog post coming soon....

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Montana Senate Race featured on NPR

Yesterday, a piece aired by Martin Kaste on the Rehberg-Tester race. You can listen to it here.

The 1982 Melcher campaign ad that I mentioned is on YouTube. You can view the whole ad here.