Sept 1, 2021

The "Peter Principle" is a theory popularized in the 1970s that posits that everybody's career is predicated on the premise that they continue to rise until they reach a level of incompetence and then no longer get promoted.

Members of the U.S. House need not worry about their creeping incompetence. For them - and this applies to both parties - their version of the Peter Principle is they rise to their level of obedience. And an obedient congressman/woman either (1) has the campaign money to get re-elected in the short-term or (2) has the district to be safe in the long-term.

Obedience equals longevity. Forget about intellectual creativity, independent thought, and perish the notion of bipartisanship. Just vote the party line, support/oppose the current administration and all will be well.

Of the 435 House members, at least 80 percent, or about 360, are unbeatable in a general election, or roughly 180 in each party. That puts about 75 seats in play each cycle. Whichever party wins 50 of them has the magic 218 majority. Nancy Pelosi's Democrats have a 221-211 majority (with 3 vacancies).

Another theory is the PVI, an acronym for "partisan voter index." As detailed in the chart, 12 (8D, 4R) of Illinois' 18 members have a PVI in double digits, which means an utterly safe district as long as they vote the party line and in conformance with their district's majority. A PVI is determined by adding up the most recent presidential vote (81,268,924 Biden/74,216,154 Trump or a 51.3-46.9 breakout of the 2-party vote) and dividing it by 435 districts and assigning that average D/R to each. Then the actual 2020 presidential vote in each district is compared to the "average" and the PVI is the percentage above that average.

For example, congressman Mike Quigley's (D-5) Lakefront/ Northwest Side district has a PVI (see chart) of D+22. Against desultory Republican opposition in 2020, Quigley won 258,661-96,200, getting 70.8 percent. The Biden-Harris D+22 PVI means they got about 22 percent more than Biden's 52 percent national "average," or a 74D percent in the 5th District. Quigley, age 62, will be re-elected in perpetuity, until he either quits or moves on to a different elected office.

Unlike an administrative spot, like governor or mayor, where incompetence cannot be easily concealed, a legislator demonstrates incompetence only when he/she alienates the party base. An example is ex-congressman Dan Lipinski (D-3) who was pro-life (or anti-choice) on abortion. He was a high-ranking, influential member of the Transportation committee, had seniority dating back to 2004 and always backed the Democratic/ Pelosi economics agenda, but he failed the social litmus test on choice and LGBTQ. He was anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and didn't endorse Obama in 2012.

Marie Newman challenged him from the Left in 2018, and lost by 2,195 votes. In the 2020 primary she beat Lipinski by 2,816 votes. Non-conformity is terminal.

The 3rd District takes in a few Chicago wards (23, 13, 19) but then extends out into the mostly white southwest suburbs (Oak Lawn, Tinley Park, Orland Park) and continues out to Lockport in Will County. The district has a D+6 PVI, meaning a Republican base of over 40 percent. Lipinski was a good fit. But now Newman, an obedient Democrat, will be around for a decade or more.

And this circumstance leads to political arterial sclerosis, where incumbents like Bobby Rush (D-1), Danny Davis (D-7) and Jan Schakowsky (D-9) last forever because they have simply been around forever. They won't give it up because they don't have to.

Their district PVIs are D+25, D+27, and D+21, respectively. Their ages are 76, 79 and 77, respectively. Davis and Rush are multi-generational political icons, both having been elected Chicago aldermen in 1983 coincident with Harold Washington. Both ran for mayor. Neither leaves much footprint in Washington. Neither is beatable at home via a primary attack from the Left. Davis is, a former member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

There are provisions under the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) mandating "non-retrogression," which means once a majority-minority district is created it lasts forever. Rush's 1st District extends from the South Loop through the west half of the Black south suburbs to Manhattan-Monee in south Will County. It contains enough African-American voters to ensure that an African-American candidate is always nominated. Likewise, Robin Kelly's 2nd District extends from the south Lakefront (Hyde Park) to beyond Kankakee. Davis's 7th District extends from the near West Loop to Maywood. The state's population is 15 percent African-American, but Illinois will forever have three Black-majority districts - or 18 percent of the 17 districts.

The same premise applies to Jesus "Chuy" Garcia's 4th District, a horseshoe-shaped entity stretching from Stone Park and Melrose Park east through the North Side Puerto Rican wards then south through Bridgeport through the South/Southwest Mexican-American wards to Cicero and Berwyn. The district is anything but contiguous, but it packs in every Hispanic available, which is OK under the VRA. It has a PVI of D+33, which means Biden-Harris got about 85 percent.

As for Schakowsky, a longtime ally of Speaker Pelosi, her Evanston/North Shore 9th has a PVI D+21. If as expected Republicans win the House in 2022, Pelosi will be out and Schakowsky's clout will be gone. She will retire in 2024.

Two Democrats will face a problem if a 2022 anti-Biden Wave develops: Sean Casten (D-6) and Lauren Underwood (D-14). A "wave" is a +/- 10 percent PVI change from one cycle to the next, usually in midterms. The president's party vote dips 5 percent and the "outs" turn out bigger and are up 5-plus percent. That occurred in 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. Only a PVI of +10 can withstand a wave when the cycle is nationalized, as it will be in 2022. It will be a referendum on Biden-Pelosi. Casten won 213,777-183,891 in a DuPage area district with a PVI of D+3, and Underwood won 203,209-197,835 in a district that wraps around Cook County from Naperville to Crystal Lake and has a PVI of R+2. A 2022 wave means both will be gone.

Since 2000 there have been two trends. First, ticket splitting has nearly vanished. How one votes for president is how one votes for all down-ballot offices, especially senators and representatives. The House is 51D/49R percent, and the Senate 50D/50R. And second, constituent service no longer matters. Pleasing a single constituent by handling a single request is inconsequential. Getting funding for a new post office was a big deal in the old days. Now voting for (or against) trillion dollar bills with thousands of projects is the new norm.

Pleasing the district's party base is all that matters - along with pleasing the party's House leadership, which funnels the money to obedient incumbents' campaigns.

Congressmen have devolved to cogs in a partisan machine. They represent their party, not their district. It doesn't matter what they say.

As comedian George Carlin once said, "This country was bought and sold and paid for a long time ago." Whatever they shuffle around every few years doesn't mean a thing.

He was on to something there.