Tuesday, October 27, 2020

 Day 7: Congressional Term Limits

 

During the first century of our republic’s history, which is to say since the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, the average lengths of term for Congressmen and Senators were approximately four years and six years, respectively. As of 2019, the average lengths have increased to approximately nine and 10 years, respectively. The longest serving members in both houses of Congress have lengths of service of approximately 45 years. 

 

Term limits in the Constitution were not omitted as a result of not being considered. After all, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which from 1777 until 1789 served as our nation’s governing document prior to the Constitution, set term limits for members of Congress and for the President. However, this changed during the Constitutional Convention.

 

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 53, “A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent reelections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them. This remark is no less applicable to the relation which will subsist between the House of Representatives and the Senate.”

 

The belief was that long-term service in office would enhance the officeholder’s skill in performing the work of government. The idea being practice makes perfect. Furthermore, it was assumed legislators seeking re-election in order to make a career out of politics would be few in number. The majority of Senators and Congressmen would be in office a term or two and then return to the private sector, thereby keeping Congress fresh.

 

One concern about long-term service in Congress was expressed by Constitutional Convention delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut. He said, “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.”

 

Delegate Sherman knew that immersion in politics and power has a corrupting effect. He knew that the spirit of self-government demands governance of, by and for the people, which is and must be distinct from a system that relies on an elite political class.

 

In the first century of our republic under the Constitution, approximately 37 percent of members of Congress never sought re-election. In the past 125 years or so, that average has dropped to approximately 12 percent. A job in Congress is becoming a career for most.

 

What are the effects?

 

If the belief of some Framers be true, we should have many learned and skilled men and women representing us and our interests., and we should be pleased with their representation of our interests and the protection of our Liberty. However, the approval rate of Congress is 17 percent. As prescient as the Framers were, I fear they may have missed the mark in this respect. Few people or groups have a lower approval rating than that of those who serve in Congress.

 

Another consideration is that the lobbyist industry today is larger and more sophisticated than in the past. The longer a politician remains in office, the longer his or her relationships with lobbyists form and deepen. The “richer” these relationships become, the richer the members of Congress become. The pervasiveness of lobbyists and the favors they provide to our elected representatives serve as shouting voices for special interests, drowning out the voices of the citizens – your voice and mine. 

 

This all feeds into massive political machines that are designed with the singular purpose of re-electing incumbents. Politics has become a big (if not the biggest) business enterprise in our nation. What makes it different is that it functions almost as a monopoly. It’s run by cold, hard cash, and there seems to be little your or I, as citizens, can do to impact the functioning of these machines.

 

The ultimate effect is the bureaucratization of party machines that reduce our “democracy” to that of an oligarchy, as laid out by Robert Michels in 1911 in his work, “Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie; Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens.” He characterizes this reality as a “monopoly of power.” And it is important to note that Nobel Laureate Milton Freidman observed that monopolies cannot exist without government support.

 

In 1886, Russian philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky addressed the age-old, existential Russian question, “What is to be done?” in his book entitled with the same question. It is a query that now vexes the mind of every American citizen who struggles with the challenge of term limits, or the lack thereof, and the impact on our government of, by and for the people.

 

We can slowly, but not necessarily surely, “vote the bums out,” as it were at the ballot box. This requires a great deal of time and individual action that could overpower the political machinery that has been in place form more than a century. We also have left to us an ingenious mechanism that the Framers built into the Constitution. It’s known as an Article V Convention. If two-thirds of the state legislatures agree, a convention may be convened to propose amendments to the Constitution. (See Week 22.) Such a convention could introduce an amendment to establish term limits, correcting what some Framers saw as a flaw in the new Constitution.

 

As you research the candidates on your ballot, think about where you stand on the issue of term limits. Are there candidates on your ballot who share your views? If so, vote accordingly.

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