The Case For Congressional Term Limits
I’m going to start by making a claim pretty much unsubstantiated: Most of the decay of the American Body Politics is the result of unlimited tenure in Congress. Even the anointment of The One is a result of the vile political environment created by the corrosive atmosphere that has resulted from the the large number of entrenched career politicians in Congress. Presidential term limits are already established. We only have to deal with the Obama God for at most eight years. [shudder]
It is a fallacy that congresscritters can be term limited by the voters. Such a position fails to account for: a) the power of incumbency…independent of any of the following factors; b) the corrupting influence of the congressional seniority system; c) the ability of Congress to tax the electorate for the purpose of buying its own perpetuation; and d) the ability of Congress to effectively outlaw challengers.
The reality is that without some outside effector like Constitutionally mandated limits, a challenger CAN NEVER run against an incumbent on an equal playing field. Only voluntary retirements and situations like Chris Dodd’s current self-destruction has the potential to open a seat to allow a challenger a realistic chance.
1. Incumbents always have an upper hand. They have the ability to get name recognition simply by occupying the office. They can often communicate directly with their entire constituency at taxpayer expense by distributing mailings, flyers and e-mail notices without ever saying, “Vote for me.” Do not think that a “What’s Happening in the Legislature” flyer from a politician is an altruistic act. It is spun to the benefit of the officeholder. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Politicians should communicate with their constituents. But a challenger never has that method of communications open for the entire term of office like the incumbent. And when they do, they have usually had to sell their souls to get the money to make it happen. A successful challenger is often ethically compromised the moment they take office…an inauspicious way to start. But that’s the price of fighting incumbency.
2. The congressional seniority system, whether by intent of accident, is a major corrupter not just of the officeholders, but of the electorate itself. A state or congressional district that takes it on itself to apply term limits to its congressional delegation effectively removes itself from full representation in Congress. Districts rightfully see a senior member of congress as an investment who they have spent decades returning to Congress because that is how the system is set up. Many’s the time that unpopular, ethically challenged and just downright unsavory characters have been returned to Congress because they have the seniority to ‘bring home the bacon’. Remember that the systems itself is corrupt. You get what you incentivize and the congressional seniority system incentivizes sending crooks to Washington.
3) I have always thought that failing to apply term limits was an oversight on the part of the writers of the Constitution who were trying to create a system of checks and balances to prevent abuses of power by the Government. But they did not foresee income taxes and the ability of the federal government to siphon off huge fractions of the US economy to be used by the political class to buy their offices in perpetuity.
4) The non-financial ability of congress to create barriers to challengers. McCain-Feingold is just one example of Congress creating a barrier to challengers by silencing political opposition specifically in the period just before the election when most voters are just beginning to pay attention. Most people have no clue how many laws have to be complied with in order to run for office. And as one can well expect in a system that has essentially been designed to preserve tenure forever, enforcement of those laws are far from even handed. For example, both Democrat and Republican presidential campaigns failed to file for the election in Texas by the official deadline. Neither was penalized and both candidates were put on the ballot. Two women who ran as independents (I don’t remember where) on the other hand were hit with ten thousand dollar fines for not filling out all of the proper forms with the Federal Election Commission. The US has a two party system because the two parties work together rather shamelessly to make it difficult for third parties and independents, essentially establishing a political guild that eliminates competition. Now term limits may not in itself stop the collusion between the two parties to threats to their guild. But it’s a start. And the existence of term limits would reduce the incentive of the political class to create ethically questionable restrictions to running for office because they already know that they are going to be on the outside looking in at some point.
In conclusion, congressional term limits are needed to a) level the playing field between incumbent and challenger, b) equalize the representation across the country, rather than creating power blocks established by a few districts and states having congresscritters who have managed to stay in office for sizable fractions of a century.