The idea of term limits for Congress has been around for a while and — based on the number of bumper stickers I see promoting it — it seems to be popular.
Unfortunately most “bumper sticker politicians” don’t put a lot of thought into what they glue to their vehicles unless the purpose is to hide a certain dent or scratch in the paint job. So we’re going to spend this week’s “Tuesday Morning Wisdom Break” examining this idea in more detail.
We have to start by surmising where this sentiment comes from, and I’d have to guess that it stems from a general sense of frustration with government. I understand that, but when we start applying rational thought to emotional sentiment, we can see that the feeling might be a little misguided.
Believe it or not, members of Congress already do have term limits in a sense. Congressional Reps are elected for two-year terms and the big boys in the Senate serve for six. We have the opportunity every few years to do our job and get rid of the bums but — and based on the fact that voter turnout for Congressional elections is generally under 40% — we don’t. So the idea that these guys are somehow magically transforming themselves from being idealistic champions of the people into bloated career politicians is sort of our own fault, isn’t it?
You, however, are a newspaper reader and statistics prove that you probably vote and like to stay informed (or misinformed in the case of Mark Whittaker’s stuff) and are therefore more worthy of the facts. So let’s start with the Dingells — Junior and Senior. John Dingell Sr. represented Michigan’s 16th District for 22 years before handing the job over to his son.
Junior went on to represent the area for 59 years. Personally I can’t imagine holding on to one job for that long without going insane but these two guys — Junior especially — are good case studies to base our arguments on.
The fact that dad could hand the job off to his son makes you wonder about the power of political dynasties. Roosevelts, Harrisons, Kennedys and Bushes come to mind. On the surface this looks like “good old boy” politics at its worst. On the other hand you have to respect the fact that Dingell Junior won re-election 30 times. I mean, wow, maybe the guy was actually good at his job and his tenure is a reflection of the will of his constituents.
Term limits would limit the influence of parties “other than the voters” but at the same time limit the will of the voters themselves. If you, for example, had some weird or deranged reason for voting for Chip Roy for the rest of his life, well, why not? This is your freedom of speech we’re talking about here and your right to vote for the candidate of your choice.
What I like about term limits is the potential for the dissolution of party loyalty. Political parties were not recognized or provided for in the Constitution. Their existence is useful as a brand name for a politician or as an index for where his or her baseline beliefs are, but political parties also stifle new ideas in politics, and party loyalty often gets in the way of working in Congress on a consensus basis (frequently obstructing it, I might add).
Personally, I’m hoping for a lower level of party loyalty in the Senate next month when the impeachment trial gets underway. Whatever your particular feelings on that issue are, you would have to admit that term limits would help the effort to get Trump impeached.
When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and Newt Gingrich wheeled out their “Contract with America” the proposal for term limits was a centerpiece of that manifesto. Didn’t happen, did it? It makes you wonder...
Along these lines the imposition of term limits might actually give rise to new political parties. The Democratic Party already plays to a big audience in terms of different interest groups, and sometimes not that effectively.
On the other side of the aisle the closet anarchists in the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus would have to take the training wheels off and learn a few lessons about political responsibility. In either case, with more interests being represented more efficiently, politicians would be forced to work together and maybe, I don’t know, get stuff done?
Ultimately a discussion about term limits is incomplete without bringing in some thought on ethics reform and the role of lobbying in government but that’s fodder for future columns. Until then, feel free to keep this column handy to reflect on. Or, wrap a brick in it and toss it through my front window.
Thanks guys, I’ve almost got that back patio finished.