Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Term Limits

"We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion."

The Washington Post recently posted a funny story about Senator Orrin Hatch test driving a hybrid Hummer for the media. First of all, I applaud the good Senator for trying to take the lead on the issue of increased fuel economy and technologies. The story, however, is about Sen. Hatch's basic incapability of driving a car. He could not distinguish between the brake pedal and gas pedal, he did not know how to start a car or even know if it was on or not, and he could not perform basic maneuvers.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here in suggesting that perhaps Senator Hatch has it a little too cushy in his position as Senator which he has held since 1977, a total of 31 years and counting. Hatch is notorious for campaigning against the incumbent, Frank Moss, in part because 18 years in office was too long and he, Moss, had lost touch with his constituency. I have no doubt that Sen. Hatch meant what he said, but it is all too clear that Joseph Smith was right: once a person gets what they think is a little power and authority, they find it suits them rather well and they'd just as soon hold on to it by any means necessary, thank-you-very-much.

One very obvious exception to this is the Father of our country, George Washington, who would easily have been reelected for the rest of his life had he so chosen, but instead was hesitant to even be elected for a second term, and was adamant that two terms were enough for any President. This set a precedent that was only broken once, by FDR, who was elected to four terms (though he died shortly after the fourth term started). Soon thereafter we got the Twenty-Second Amendment which official limits the president to two terms.

There was a major push for a Constitutional Amendment requiring term limits in Congress in the mid-90's. The limits would have been six two-year terms in the House and two six-year terms for the Senate. The Amendment was voted down 227-204, short of the two-thirds majority needed to keep the Amendment process going.

So system we get instead is one of Congressional Stagnation. Incumbents are re-elected to Congress more than 90% of the time. Most never face a primary challenge, many do not face any opponent at all, and those incumbents that are challenged are challenged by under-funded candidates without any really support (Pete Ashdown, anyone?). This is a vaguely democratic system, but not by much.

And the American people suffer. We don't get fresh, new ideas out of Congress. We don't get varying ideas and healthy debate out of Congress. We don't get leaders who are willing to take risks on important new ideas. We don't get representatives who are accountable to their constituencies. Instead we get entrenchment. We get leaders who are only interested in getting re-elected. We get status quo, no matter what the status quo happens to be. Change happens a a glacial pace (which is good in some areas and very, very bad in others). We get intellectual dishonesty passed off as cool-headedness. We get cliques. We get increased pork spending because that is why people keep sending their ineffective representatives back to Washington, seniority alone. We get more and more influence from special interests.

I firmly believe that federal term limits would revitalize our government. I think such a system would attract interesting new voices and ideas to the national debates we have on important issues. It would attract talented leaders who are more interested in progress and innovation as opposed to power-mongers who are only looking for a life-time gig. I actually find it fascinating that there is not a more sustained and organized push for federal term limits because I can't think of a single good reason to not limit terms. If our greatest leaders can achieve so much good in eight years as President, I certainly think that our greatest leaders in Congress could achieve great things in twelve years.

But the catch is: how do you get a bunch of men and women who are, by definition, power-hungry to limit their own power?


peter said...



Quentin said...

Thanks for the post and the reminder of what I should fast for next week.

Doug said...

Here in Colorado we have state legislative term limits. It has lead to a lack of institutional continuity and experience. Some of our best legislators have left office just when they could be most effective. Developing the art of governance can be challenging and time-consuming. Much can be learned from books, but nothing beats hands-on experience. This is important in examining and understanding budgets and in becoming knowledgeable of the limitations of governing.

Newly elected officials usually, and wisely, spend their first year or two observing their more seasoned colleagues and gaining insights through contacts with veteran staff members and department heads.

I'd like to think that as citizens, we should monitor the performance of those we elect. The public does this to a certain degree.

Rather that instituting federal term limits I advocate campaign finance reform. High incumbency in politics and money are in fact two sides of the same coin. For years in our private money-driven election system, our elected leaders have spent far too much time at $1000 a plate fundraisers and taking money from special interests' industries they're supposed to be regulating. We're now dealing with the results of this system.

Successful programs in several states currently allow candidates to run for office on a blend of small contributions and limited public funds. Candidates qualify by raising a certain number of small contributions of $100 or less from their home state. They receive a grant of Fair Elections funds for the primary and general election, and can continue raising unlimited small contributions. Those contributions are matched 4-to-1 with Fair Elections up to a cap, to ensure that candidates can run a competitive race even if they face a well-financed opponent.

The high cost of running political campaigns is at the root of congressional stagnation. Attracting interesting new voices and ideas to the national debates is a direct result of making running for office affordable.

The question of how to get a bunch of men and women who are, by definition, power-hungry to limit their own power still stands. However, individuals, advocacy groups, and some powerful voices in congress are working actively to bring about campaign finance reform.

Jacob S. said...

I agree that campaign finance reform would go a long way to solving some of these problems. It is absolutely true that only those that are already rich and the powerful, typically, can seek high public office, which is offensive to democracy, I think.

The common federal term limit amendment, however, is twelve years: two terms for senators and six terms for members of the House.

I agree that experience is often a good thing for legislators, but twelve years seems to me to be plenty of time to be effective. We only give the President eight years. If it takes a year or two to get your feet under you and hit your stride, you still have a full decade to be an effective and experienced legislator, which I think is more than enough time.

After that amount of time I would think you'd start to become less effective because of a certain amount of coziness with the position and the power it entails.

Doug said...

I don't disagree with term limits as a general concept, but they don't necessarily solve the problems they are intended to.

Subcommittee heads will always have a lot of power, but term limits merely transfer this power to less experienced politicians, rather than limiting it. Furthermore, veteran politicians will continue to exist even with term limits: term limits will simply allow people to hold different offices subsequently rather than the same office for a long time.

The Supreme Court declared in 1995 that imposing Congressional term limits would require a Constitutional amendment. So, it will be very difficult to institute term limits federally. I really see campaign finance reform as the more urgent need.