August 19, 2009
An Argument for Term Limits
An old proverb suggests that a few bad apples spoil a barrel. That adage rings true as we witness the arrogance displayed by a few members of Congress, as they return to their home districts supposedly to listen to the opinion of their constituents regarding their plans for health care reform.
However, at least some of them don’t seem to be listening. A few examples: Anthony Weiner, who represents New York’s 9th district, claimed he will vote the way he chooses regardless of the wishes of those who put him in office. Barney Frank, as responsible as anyone for the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and who represents Massachusetts fourth Congressional District, lashed out at critics at a recent “town hall” meeting. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois decided that discretion was the better part of valor, so decided to take a pass, as the meetings are “loaded” with insurance companies and “people like them.” The list goes on.
In my opinion all of this suggests that the time has come to revisit the concept of term limits for members of Congress. While the Constitution does not include limits, it is hard to imagine the Founders could have envisioned the current environment with members of Congress flying about in our private jets, displaying arrogance and disdain toward the voters who gave them their jobs. In ancient Athens, the Council of 500 rotated its membership annually. In ancient Rome, elected magistrates served a single year. Our government is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We should return to that principle.
President Washington set a standard of two terms for the executive office, though no such limits existed at the time, and his example was followed until Franklin Roosevelt decided to run for a third and, subsequently, a fourth term. Following his death in April 1945, Congress passed and the States quickly affirmed the 22nd Amendment, limiting the President to two terms.
Fifteen state legislatures have set term limits, as have eight of the ten largest cities. (Mayor Bloomberg is, dangerously in my opinion, challenging the concept today in New York.) However, no such governor acts on our national legislative branch. Once elected to national office a Senator or Representative has essentially secured a sinecure, a position he often has for life and, at times, passes on to the next generation. Only if he is indicted or censured (and not always then) does he risk losing his job. It breeds contempt and a sense of haughty indifference toward the electorate.
The arguments against imposing term limits include the concept that it would be unfair, if not undemocratic, to exclude a segment of the population. Opponents also suggest that it may not be wise to ignore the wisdom that comes from experience. It seems to me that those reasons, while having a certain validity, pale in comparison to the advantages of passing a bill mandating limits. As Warren Buffett so articulately wrote this morning in The New York Times, Congress needs to close the deficit. Such discipline can be achieved through a reduction in spending and/or an increase in taxes. Given Congress’s predilection to spend what they have (and usually what they don’t!), I give very little credence that current members of Congress, who through years – and decades in too many cases – incur obligations to a variety of special interest groups and lobbyists, can achieve financial discipline.
Certainly there are honourable members who work diligently on behalf of the constituents they represent, but the problems have become rampant, especially among those who have been in Washington the longest.
Incumbents, not only because of gerrymandering, have enormous advantages over contenders. Certain districts never change parties. The perquisites of office present barriers to challengers. They outspend contenders three or four to one. The only outside candidates that have a chance are those with a large personal net worth – not, I would guess, an intent of the Founders. Term limits should be imposed so that Congress, once again, will become responsible to the people.