Think more competitive House races would help? They might actually make things worse.

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 31, 2014 · 2:34 PM EDT

Here’s the rare idea about which both Democrats and Republicans agree: Way too few members of Congress emerge from competitive House races — and it’s causing problems.

“Put congressional reform atop the national agenda,” wrote David Brooks recently. “More states could have open primaries. Nonpartisan commissions could draw district lines.” Governing magazine blamed congressional gridlock on incumbents who “don’t need to worry much about being sent back home.” And an NBC Nightly News piece during last year’s government shutdown flayed gerrymandering for causing dysfunction on Capitol Hill. Raleigh’s former mayor, Charles Meeker, added that “Unaccountable office-holders are less responsive to constituents, hold fewer district meetings and even ignore public opinion because they do not have to worry about reelection.” A Brookings Institution report tied all this to the rise of partisanship, concluding that “the country suffers as a result.” Closely-fought House races would supposedly create a more responsive, more functional, and potentially more moderate House of Representatives. No wonder job approval for lawmakers is mired near 13 percent and, according to a recent CNN poll, a majority of Americans believed this is “the worst Congress of their lifetime.”

It’s true that just over 10 percent of the 435 House seats are competitive enough to have a chance of flipping from one party to the other in the upcoming elections. At least 70 percent of incumbents get reelected routinely with at least 60 percent of the vote. Voters aren’t exactly holding members’ feet to the fire.

But when it comes to dreaming of more competitive House races, be careful what you wish for. Ending redistricting as we know it and creating a bevy of new, competitive congressional districts could have serious, negative unintended consequences. In truth, they would cause members to spend even more time worrying about reelection — meaning they’d spend more time raising money and even less time legislating. It would make American elections far more costly.

Today, the permanent campaign already dominates the lives of members. Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post got his hands on a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee PowerPoint presentation recommending that vulnerable incumbents allot four hours per day on the phone asking people for money — or roughly the same amount of time allotted for hearings, votes and meeting with constituents, combined. And that schedule didn’t include raising money at events. Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) estimated that senators spend two-thirds of their time asking people for money.

And fundraising isn’t just perilous because of the time it takes. Members must also say certain things in order to recruit donations: Solicitation e-mails tend to feature the most partisan rhetoric in order to appeal to donors most likely to give the money. “I won’t dispute for one second the problems of a system that demands immense amount of fundraisers by its legislators,” Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut told the New York Times last year. “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting, it’s wasteful and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption. It’s unfortunately the world we live in.” Himes isn’t even in a competitive district.

Tight races mean boatloads of voter contact — by direct mail, on Web sites and, most expensively, on TV. Already, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, House candidates spent close to a billion dollars on races in both 2010 and 2012. That number ignores party committee and Super PAC spending, and it comes from a universe in which less than quarter of all House seats are at risk of changing hands.

Just the candidate spending in competitive vs. safe races can be dramatic. In 2012, Republican Allen West and Democrat Patrick Murphy spent $23 million in Florida’s 18th District; nominees in the three neighboring, “safe” districts combined to spend $2.8 million. Democrat Jim Matheson and Republican Mia Love spent $4.8 million in Utah’s 4th District; nominees in Utah’s three other districts combined to spend about $2 million. And in Kentucky, 6th District nominees spent $4.7 million in a competitive race; all five other Kentucky races combined for $5.5 million.

What’s more, there is just no guarantee that a Congress with more members from competitive districts will result in more compromise or more productivity. “[T]he way that both sides have boxed themselves in on tough issues like immigration, entitlements, and climate change on the campaign trail ultimately leaves little room for any meaningful compromise in a 2015 Congress,” wrote Amy Walter in a recent analysis for the Cook Political Report.

And what about all that nostalgia for the good old days when members and their families socialized together and spent time hammering out the details of complex legislation? Competitive races could make that idyll even more remote, since vulnerable incumbents will want to get back to their districts as quickly as possible for fundraising and politicking.

Finally, would the mood on the Hill really improve if dozens (or hundreds) more members had just survived millions of dollars of attack ads from the rival party? A member might feel compelled make certain token gestures at bipartisanship to appease a closely-divided electorate. But at the same time, the rigors of a tough campaign would surely factor into his or her willingness to suddenly sit down and talk reasonably with foes from the other side of the aisle who had just spent a year or more trashing his or her character.

Don’t get me wrong. As a political handicapper, more competitive races are probably in my self-interest. But similar to other well-intentioned endeavors such as campaign finance reform, there can often be other, serious consequences that add to the very problem people desire to fix. More competition in campaigns could actually add to congressional dysfunction, not cure it.