Saturday, February 21, 2009

Correcting Congress

I am becoming increasingly annoyed at members of Congress who bandy the word “billion” when they speak about taxpayer money. Look at the poorly named Stimulus Packages under debate. Each item is all about billions, so much so that $17 billion to give one-time $300 payments to Social Security recipients do not seem like that much. With little exception these members, Democrat and Republican, are the same people who let Bush have his war and allowed our economy to fail. The present debate demonstrates that the governing class has long ceased to represent the constituencies that elect it because its job is only to get re-elected. It is not about representation. We need term limits.

The Founders did not intend government to be a career. They intended governing as a volunteer position for a set amount of time and then it was time to go back home. They also debated limiting terms. Washington and Jefferson argued in support of term limits, while Madison and Hamilton opposed them. Not much came of the debate for about a hundred years since members often voluntarily chose to leave Washington and return home. Long-term Congressional incumbency was rare, but times have changed.

There is only one term limit. The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution placed a limit of two terms on Presidents in 1951. There are no term limits for Vice Presidents or members of Congress, whether Representatives or Senators. Politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups continue to combat term limits for those offices.

Fifteen state legislatures have
term limits in effect today and most have experienced a complete turnover in their membership. Term limits have prevented more than a thousand experienced legislators from running for reelection. New legislators have to learn their jobs in less than six years, chair important committees in their first term, and even serve as Speaker of the House after just two or three years in office. The leadership, culture and organization inside those legislatures have had to adjust to limited terms in office, not to mention adjustments of outsiders such as governors and lobbyists.

Voter initiatives of the 1990s are responsible for states adopting legislative limits. In an online column, Wall Street Journal columnist Steve Moore wrote that “limits on politicians' time in office were enacted or reaffirmed by enormous margins nearly everywhere they were on the ballot in what might have been the loudest referendum for term limitation by voters ever.” The Republicans hopped on the bandwagon.

Many Republicans seem to have forgotten that part of their 1994 platform included term limits on Congress. For the first time in more than 40 years, they had gained a majority in the House and their platform, called the "Contract with America," included a pledge to impose term limits. They brought a constitutional amendment to the House floor that limited members of the Senate to two six-year terms and members of the House to six two-year terms. Republicans held 230 seats in the House and got a simple majority vote easily. Unfortunately for them, they needed 290 votes for the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments.

The U.S. Constitution sets no term limits on congress. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution assigns to the states and their citizens all powers not reserved to the federal government. This distribution of powers is seen to create a strong constitutional opportunity for congressional term limits. The Seventeenth Amendment restates the first paragraph of Article I, section 3, of the Constitution and provides for the election of senators by replacing the phrase "chosen by the Legislature thereof" with "elected by the people thereof."

States have tried to extend term limits to members of Congress. However, in 1995 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states cannot impose qualifications for prospective members of the U.S. Congress stricter than those specified in the Constitution. U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton [514 U.S. 779] invalidated the Congressional term limit provisions of 23 states. Congress failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority needed to pass a term limit constitutional amendment and the matter did not come up again.

Calls for government reform come with the territory. Just over a hundred years ago, William Randolph Hearst championed the cause of direct election as he expanded his publishing empire. He hired a veteran reporter named David Graham Phillips to portray Senators as pawns of industrialists and financiers. A series titled "The Treason of the Senate" appeared in several monthly issues of the magazine Cosmopolitan in 1906. Similar calls can be heard today and term limits is one of them.

“Term Limits would also hinder corruption and the effects that lobbyists have upon the government by breaking the established connections between lobbyists and the legislators in power, and by reducing the sway future campaign donations have,” Duncan Quirk wrote recently in the Huffington Post. “Establishing Term Limits would also promote a meritocracy by reducing the number of career politicians and the influence of political families, consequently curbing nepotism and the grooming of future politicians for office.”

Dan Greenberg wrote for the Heritage Foundation, “Term limits would change Congress. They are supported by large majorities of most American demographic groups; they are opposed primarily by incumbent politicians and the special interest groups which depend on them,” “Term limits would ameliorate many of America's most serious political problems by counterbalancing incumbent advantages, ensuring congressional turnover, securing independent congressional judgment, and reducing election-related incentives for wasteful government spending.”

You might ask about the criticism that the committee and legislative processes take many years to master. Such an argument is more about the legislative process than about the legislator. Patrick Basham, a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, wrote, “The bottom line is that the workings of our legislatures are far more complex than is necessary. Remember that legislatures aren't the only place to gain useful experience. The private-sector experience that many newcomers bring to term-limited legislative committees may prove more valuable for the general welfare.”

With less than a 10% turnover rate, to think that our best interests are being represented in Congress is naive. The data does not support such a conjecture. Though the election made me tire of polls, they make two things pretty clear – we do not approve of what Congress does and we keep electing the same people. The problem is that we have effectively lost control of a true representative government that the Founders intended. Instead we have a political class that represents itself and not the people.

We need new people in government with responsible, well thought ideas for the military and economic wars we face. Establishing term limits for members of Congress can make it happen and that requires a Constitutional Amendment. Amendments happen when a national public movement demands it. It has been done before – Women’s Suffrage (19th Amendment, 1920), Poll Tax Barred (24th Amendment, 1964), and Voting Age set to 19 (26th Amendment, 1971) to name a few. It can happen again. Establishing Congressional term limits is not a red versus blue issue. It is a we the people versus them the governing class issue, and its time has come.
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Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine, February 10, 2009

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