Volume 2, Number 11
by Dean Shutt
"Throw the rascals out!" How many times in the two hundred and three years of our republic have we heard that refrain? Today we have a new and improved battle cry. "Limit the rascals terms!" It's not as moving a quote, that is for certain. Term limits sound very good on the face of it. They would eliminate career politicians, destroy the "old boys network" and bring an end to "pork barreling" in congress. When you look deeper into the issue of term limits. You begin to see that these beliefs just do not reflect the facts of this issue.
The mass desire for term limits for congress stems from an overall frustration with the political process. In 1988, we reelected 98% of all incumbents actively seeking reelection. With statistics such as these, it is no wonder that we feel the politicians do not care. Indeed, with job security like that, why should they care about what the people want. The question then, is not whether there is a problem, but what the solution to the problem should be.
Let's use California's proposition 164 as an example. The proposition only specified the number of times a person can appear on the ballot. The plan limits senators to two six year terms every 17 years and representatives to 3 two year terms every eleven years. The incumbent can still use all the power of his office to run as a write-in candidate when his term is expired. Even if he loses, a career politician need only spend five years as a consultant or lecturer in the private sector. After that exile is over, he is free to run again.
It is easy to see then, how an individual could still spend his entire life in politics. For example, Richard Nixon spent his entire life in and around politics. Nixon held only three elected offices his entire career. Two of those jobs fell under term limit rules. Yet it would be impossible to describe Nixon as anything but a career politician. Between local, state and national offices, there will always be a plethora of positions for the career politician under term limits.
When people talk about the "old boys network" in congress, they are referring to the seniority system. This system has the truly evil notion that those with the most experience should head the committees. If you were in charge of a large corporation, would you want your middle managers to have one year's experience or ten? Personally, I want experienced legislators in charge of the committees in congress. Congressmen with more time served can take the long view. These legislators can see beyond the latest legislative fad. Seniority also serves to keep a balance between the haves and have-nots in congress. Through seniority, representatives from smaller states or from the minority party can control important committees. This process of equalization would indeed disappear under term limits. The problem then, what system would replace seniority? After each new election, the majority party would install it's own in the positions of importance. If the election brought in a president of the same party, we would have virtual one party rule. It would be impossible for the minority party to be a credible counterweight. With no positions of importance, the smaller party would be reduced to hoping things go wrong. Then they might take control after the next election.
The seniority system acts as an integral (if unforeseen) part of the system of checks and balances that our founding fathers installed. If you take away the minority's ability to protect itself in congress you turn that body into either a rubber stamp or an immovable object.
Another reason given in favor of term limits, is that they would end "pork barreling". This is when frivolous and unneeded appropriations are tacked on to bills in order to benefit a congressperson's home district. The problem that we're dealing with has very little to do with how long a person is in Congress. The problem lies with the way voters select their representatives. It has often been said that all politics is local. Nowhere is this theory more apparent than in races for congress. For example, we have two qualified candidates for the house of representatives (hypothetical of course). The first says we must control federal spending. Everyone, including our district, will have to make sacrifices to do the job. The second candidate also states that federal spending must come down. However, he sees no reason why the hard working members of his district must pay for other peoples fiscal irresponsibility. Given these choices, who are the majority of voters likely to come out for, you be the judge. The fact is, we voters like pork barreling as long as we can call it our fair share of federal funds.
If we do install term limits, the voters will still be faced with the same decision, who is more important? Should we vote for the good of the country at large or our hometown? I have watched politics my whole life. I have noticed a distinct tendency in that time. The closer the polls get, the larger the promises become. The backers of term limits assure us that they will make for more competitive races. With this in mind, it is impossible to see how term limits will have a positive effect on pork barreling.
Perhaps the most laughable reason for imposing term limits is that they will return the power to the people. The fact is, the people have always had the power to limit their representatives' terms, it's called voting. In 1992, fifty-four percent of the people eligible to vote did so. Mandatory voting laws would have more of an effect than term limits. The real problems of our government will not be solved with term limits. They will be solved with publicly funded campaigns, greater ease of voter registration, and a ban on former government officials working as lobbyists for special interest groups. Most importantly, it will require all of us to devote some time and energy to how our country is run. We can no longer search for the quick fix every four years.