Authored by Caroline Baum, originally posted at MarketWatch.com,
To clean up Washington, send the swamp creatures packing
When they run for re-election, more than 90% of House members win.
When we said that an authority conferred by the free suffrages of the people never harmed a republic, we presupposed that the people, in giving that power, would limit, as well the time during which it was to be exercised. – Niccoló Machiavelli, “The Discourses,”. 1517.
Ronald Reagan famously said that “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.” In the same vein, he might have said that the nearest thing to lifetime employment we will ever see on this earth is a seat in the U.S. Congress.
Since 1964, the incumbency rate has averaged 93% in the House of Representatives and 82% in the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Low approval ratings are clearly no obstacle to re-election.
Anyone watching the bi-party obstructionism and hypocrisy in Washington these days would surely conclude that it’s time to clean house. To the extent that the 2016 presidential election reflected a populist rejection of the status quo, what institution better encapsulates “more of the same” than Congress?
Donald Trump came out in favor of term limits during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
“If I’m elected president, I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Colorado in October. He subsequently quantified those limits: six years in the House and 12 years in the Senate. If such a law were applied to the current Congress, almost half the sitting members would be out of a job.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged to bring term limits to the floor for a vote. Even if he does, no one expects lawmakers to vote themselves out of a secure job that comes with generous benefits, including health care and a pension (five years of service required to qualify), and minimal demands on one’s time. The House has logged an average of 139 days in session a year since 2001.
(To be fair, representatives have duties to fulfill in their home districts as well.)
The public is on board with the idea of term limits. An October 2016 Rasmussen survey found that 74% of likely voters favored establishing term limits for members of Congress. The other 26% were equally divided between opposed and undecided.
That’s a pretty solid starting point, but history urges caution.
Term limits were included in the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America,” but the measure failed to garner the required votes.
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia served more than 51 years in the U.S. Senate, longer than anyone in history.
Besides, voters may say they want to throw the bums out, but the evidence on re-election rates suggests they give their particular bum a pass!
What is to be done? Term limits have had great success on the state and local level. Fifteen states have term-limited legislatures. Thirty-six state governors have some form of term limits. Nine of the U.S.’s 10 largest cities have enacted term limits for mayor. And half of large-city governments limit the number of terms an individual may serve.
The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1951, limited the president and vice president to two terms in office. The only elected officials immune to term limits, it seems, are members of Congress. Self-interest argues that the thrust to impose them will have to come from the states.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides the guidelines for amending the original document in either of two ways. Congress may propose amendments, with the approval of two-thirds of both Houses, or the legislatures of two-thirds of the states may call a convention for that purpose. To date, the states have never exercised that option.
Phillip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, a single-issue advocacy organization, reports some encouraging developments on that front. While a term-limits amendment is regularly introduced in each session, “this year it was almost a competition from members of Congress to introduce the bill,” Blumel says.
And for the first time in 2016, U.S. Term Limits turned its focus away from the national level to the states in a effort to get them to exercise their option to call for a convention.
“Our test case was Florida,” Blumel says. “The bill passed. The vote on the floor was overwhelmingly in favor.”
This year, U.S. Term Limits is targeting eight states to enact applications for a convention. That’s still a long way from the two-thirds, or 34 states, required.
“For us to be successful, the states do not have to have a convention,” Blumel explains. “Passing applications in the states will get Congress to act. Congress would write its own amendment.”
I am skeptical that these lifers will legislate themselves out of office. But Blumel cites a precedent: the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which established the popular election of two senators from each state for a six-year term.
Prior to 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures. The House had passed several measures proposing an amendment on the direct election of senators, but “the bills could not get out of Senate committee,” Blumel says.
Then the states got into the act. Once 30 states had passed applications for a convention to amend the Constitution — close to the 32 needed at the time — Congress wrote and passed its own amendment.
“It took a decade back then,” Blumel says. Things happen a lot faster nowadays, which means “we’ll know in the next five years whether it’s going to happen or not.”
Many of the Founding Fathers, including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were in favor of term limits. They feared creating a permanent ruling class that would pursue its own interests at the expense of the public’s. Jefferson stressed “the necessity of rotation in office” as a means to prevent abuse.
But term limits, which were included in the Articles of Confederation, never made it into the Constitution based on the belief that regular elections were the best form of term limits.
In theory, elections should be the best form of term limits. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Many House seats are uncontested. The odds are so stacked against challengers that serious candidates are discouraged from running for office. Voters have a choice between an incumbent and a non-entity. Or the lesser of two evils.
And as for our public servants, the idea that they are self-sacrificing individuals interested in the common good is a fantasy. They are, like the rest of us, interested in advancing their own careers and financial security.
Because the public sector doesn’t offer open-ended monetary rewards, at least in terms of salary and bonus, power becomes its own reward, leading to unethical behavior, abuse and even corruption. Term limits would prevent special interests from completely overwhelming the public interest.
If the 2016 presidential election is any guide, the American public’s disgust with the political class has reached such an extreme that voters are willing to take a chance with devil they don’t know. Grass-roots organizations need to harness that “outsider” preference and build momentum for congressional term limits quickly before that enchantment with the devil starts to wane.