March 1st, 2016 BY DOUGLAS A. MERRILL
President Ronald Reagan once said, “Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty” and former United States Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich said, “The long experiment with professional politicians and professional government is over, and it failed.” As the 2016 campaign now is full swing, I am inspired to ponder an issue I am passionate about: term limits.
Trust and failure are the two words that quickly enter my mind, and I am not exclusively thinking of our executive branch of government. I am also thinking of the United States Congress, who, on a daily basis, squanders our trust, and fails to deliver on the promises of its members. Clearly, I am not the only one. A Real Clear Politics poll reports that less than twelve percent of the electorate has a favorable opinion of our nation’s congress. We view congress as dishonest, self-serving, and possessing too much power over whom they ostensibly serve. It is my contention that the time has come for adding an amendment to the United States Constitution.
It would not be the first time legislation has been tried. In 1995, 23 states passed a law that would limit the time any one person could serve in the United States Congress. Soon after that, the Supreme Court struck down those state laws declaring they were unconstitutional. However, within that decision, the Supreme Court left room for congressional term limits to be adopted as an amendment to the US constitution. In this, all that would be needed is for two thirds (34) of the fifty states to call for a term limit convention for the purposes of adding an amendment to the constitution limiting the time a person can serve in congress.
Many people that oppose congressional term limits argue that any such law is unconstitutional. However, in 1947, a Republican-controlled Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 22nd amendment, which limited the time in which any one person can hold the office of President of the United States. The amendment came on the heels of Republicans taking control of congress in the election of 1946. It was the widely held belief then, that the power of the presidency must be limited. Thus, the 22nd amendment defeats the argument that congressional term limits are unconstitutional.
Opponents of term limit legislation also like to argue that limiting time spent in congress would result in the loss of institutional knowledge, legislative experience, and specialization in committee assignments. In my forty-five years on this planet, one thing I know is that no one is indispensable. If not you or me, it will be someone else. It takes a special kind of arrogance to believe that any one congressperson is so important that the wheels of liberty will fall off the democracy wagon if that person no longer exists in congress.
The argument that valuable experience will be lost if the same person is not returned again and again is more of a reason as to why we should have term limits. I, as a common citizen, do not have the experience of running up a tab of nearly twenty trillion dollars. I have no experience putting the lives of citizens of other countries above that of my own. I have no experience allowing our infrastructure (bridges, roads, tunnels, and airports) to fall apart without repair or replacement. And I do not have any experience putting the interests of special interest donors above my neighbors and community members.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the average tenure of a representative in the US House of Representatives is ten years and the average tenure of a US Senator is thirteen years. For those who rise to leadership positions, such as whips and committee chairmanships, the average tenure is more than twenty years. Looking at the overall history of the congress, we see there have been seven congressional members who have served over fifty years; forty-three members over forty years of service; and of those listed, twenty-two of those members died in office.
In case you were curious, being a US member of congress is a pretty good gig, if you can get it. If you were an elected member of congress, there are several perks that would persuade you to vote against a constitutional amendment forcing you to vacate your seat. We start with congressional members receiving an annual salary of $174,000. In addition, members receive an annual staff allowance of between 1.3 million and 3.3 million depending on how far away they live from Washington, and the leadership positions they hold.
Other perks congressional members receive include: better retirement packages than other public employees; subsidies for health care; free gym memberships; free airport parking; free flights; and up to 239 days away from the office. After reading all of these perks of the office, I’m forced to wonder, “why aren’t more people running for office?” It doesn’t take long to realize these are the true motivations driving congressional members to fight to keep their seats in Washington.
A final argument that I often hear as to why there should be no restrictions on time served in Congress is that we already have term limits – they are called elections. This is a nice try, however, it’s not a realistic solution. According to Maplight, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, the average amount of money spent to win a seat in the US House of Representatives reached over 1.6 million in campaign contributions. A successful senate race in that same year raised an average of over ten million. A fair and level playing field to challenge incumbents for office does not exist.
Funding a competitive campaign against an incumbent is only part of the challenge. Party politics is also a hurdle, because what has been called ‘the good ole boys network’ hoards many of the resources that are necessary for challengers to compete. While social media has made the process easier to be heard, the fact still remains that party politics protects its favorites and guards the inside track on funding campaigns.
Americans can see and understand the problems that have corrupted the beautiful democracy of our republic, but they have not fully embraced a rational and effective solution to that problem. I believe we should resist the status quo. We should be proactive and exercise the rule of law by encouraging our state legislatures to call for a term limit convention thereby starting the process for a constitutional amendment. In this, we uphold the Constitution and embrace the truest manifestation of American political philosophy.
Thomas Jefferson believed in national leadership that served the citizenry, not the other way around. He asked “What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that its people preserve the spirit of resistance?”