Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Term Limits Revisited”
July 23, 2017
“Will Rogers once said, it is not the original investment in a Congressman that counts; it is the upkeep.”
President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)
Daniel Webster spent a total of 27 years in the Senate and the House and served as Secretary of State for three Presidents. So, he knew whereof he spoke when he once warned: “Now is the time when men work quietly in the fields and women weep softly in the kitchen; the legislature is in session.” Today, his words sound dated and, perhaps, sexist, but his meaning resonates. Congress can be dangerous to our health. Webster understood power – its benefits, its temptations, its iniquity. To the good, it is a means to improve society; to the impressionable, it is an aphrodisiac; to opportunists, a venue for harm.
It is true that our representatives no longer represent us as they once did. Demographics prove the point. In 1800, there were 32 Senators and 106 House members, representing a population of 5.3 million people, or one for every 38,400 people. By 1900, the population of the U.S. was just over 76 million. We were represented by 90 Senators and 357 members of Congress, or one representative per 170,000 residents. Today, with a population of 321 million, 100 Senators and 435 House members, each member represents, on average, over 600,000 residents. Our representatives are less representative. However, the adaption of social media and changes in communication and travel should mean they are not isolated, that they should be able to better understand and be more responsive to the needs of the people. Somehow, that doesn’t seem true. They live, it appears, as secluded as the gods once did on Mt. Olympus.
The arguments used to support term limits tend to congregate around the idea that our representatives are out of touch; that party affiliation is more important than the wants and needs of constituents; that cronyism has become endemic and costs of campaigns, along with the time required to raise funds, take their toll. Term limits would encourage more active participation, and representatives would be freer to use judgement rather than heeding the demands of lobbyists. Term limits would promote fresh ideas and empower more quickly new arrivals to the Senate or the House. There are times when Congress absolves itself of laws it imposes on constituents. Ruth Bader Ginsburg made that point: “One might plausibly contend that Congress violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers when it exonerates itself from the imposition of laws it obligates people outside the legislature to obey.”
After an election, approval for Congress typically rises. People assume that the new Congress will enact laws championed by the victors during the campaign. But, inevitably they disappoint. The 2016 election was no exception. Congressional approval rose to 39% in January, but has subsequently slipped to 20%, according to Gallup, about where it was before the election. Bickering and rancor returned. Egos prevent accommodation. Whichever party is in control follows the advice of former Louisiana Governor Huey Long: “I used to get things done by saying please. Now I dynamite them out of my path.”
With a love for cameras and an eye on C-Span, members of Congress spend hours investigating opponents. They lean toward cronyism and have become ineffectual in terms of critical legislation. As well, it is a lucrative place to work. A study for the years 2004-2012, done three years ago by Ballotpedia, looked at the net worth (and changes in net worth) of elected officials in Washington and compared it to the average American. For the first time in history, most members of Congress were millionaires, while 50% of Americans could not afford to spend $5,000 in an emergency. During those eight years which included the “great recession,” the median American saw his net worth decline by 8%, while members of Congress saw their net worth increase by 13 percent. The “swamp” became more putrefied.
Yet, despite these arguments I have changed my opinion regarding term limits. I don’t see them as an answer to our problems. First, it is unlikely Congress would ever limit themselves. It is a will–o’–the–wisp that advocates for term limits are chasing. While the arrogance and hypocrisy of Nany Pelosi are reasons for term limits, the vigor and common sense of Paul Ryan are reasons to let the system stay. And there have been giants in the past – people like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Arthur Vandenberg and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. John Quincy Adams spent twenty-two years in the House and Senate when not serving as President, envoy to the UK, or minister to Russia and Prussia. Would the nation have been better served if these men had been forced out because of term limits?
There are additional arguments for letting the system remain: Most important, in a democracy people should be free to vote for whom they please. Also, experience has value, and the good would get tossed out with the bad. Familiarity among members should help bi-partisanship, though that has not been the case over the past several years. Critically, strong leaders in Congress can thwart a President who assumes too much power. Some believe cronyism would be reduced by limits. J. Scott Applewhite, a reporter for the Associated Press, wrote a column about states that had adopted term limits, in which he suggested otherwise: “The legislators elected after term limits were imposed often lack knowledge of the details of many complex policies and turn to lobbyists for information.” The evidence is mixed as to whether term limits have been positive for the balance sheets of states. Using the 2017 Mercatus Center ranking of states, the bottom five states – Maryland, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Illinois and New Jersey – do not have term limits. But, neither do three of the top five states – North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The other two states among the top five – Florida and South Dakota – do use term limits.
The problems we face are broader and deeper than simply term limits. They are a consequence of a culture of relativism that has arisen out of fear of offending those whose values are different. It has emerged from the bog of political correctness that does not recognize good and evil, right from wrong. We have become a society that dismisses the concept of a “melting pot” by encouraging pluralism. We foster dependency, endangering personal responsibility and we claim multiculturalism is superior to a universal moral sense.
We live in a “me-first,” “selfie” world that places fame and fortune above tolerance and respect. We have institutionalized care for the aged and disabled, forgoing personal compassion, while freeing the individual to focus on him or herself. Style subsumes substance. We promise entitlements without regard to their cost. Many universities have eliminated (or lessened in importance) liberal arts and the classics, relaters of morals and tellers of universal truths, courses which afford students a better sense of self and provide the perspective of history. Unhealthy partisanship has replaced healthy skepticism, as biases dominate universities and the media.
Term limits for the Presidency are good, as executive power has increased since Franklin Roosevelt entered office eight-five years ago. But, as for Congress – it is for us, the voters, to responsibly elect decent people, those of character, not blowhards or those who exaggerate or lie about their heritage and history. There is much in our country that needs fixing, but term limits for Congress will not solve the problems.
 Party affiliation appears more important than term limits as to the financial well-being of a state. The legislatures in all five of the states in the soundest financial position are controlled by Republicans, while the legislatures in four of the five states with the worst financial conditions are controlled by Democrats.