Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
In my wildest imagination, I never dreamed that I would ever string together the five words of today's title. To go further beyond belief, I also agree with Senators Rand Paul, David Vitter, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.
No, pigs are not airborne. Perdition is not especially cold today. The 1% is not queuing-up to enter heaven. The reason that I agree with this group of Tea Party Senators is that last month they, along with four others, proposed an amendment to the US Constitution to initiate term limits for members of Congress. The bill would limit the House to three 2-year terms and the Senate to two 6-year terms. For the next step in an uphill battle, the bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Congressional term limits are a popular and bi-partisan idea. In a January Gallup Poll, fully 75% of respondents favored limiting the number of terms that a politician can serve. The idea is somewhat more popular with Republicans (82%) than Democrats (65%). That party bias may be because the Tea Party has been pushing the issue for several years.
I can understand the reluctance of elected politicians to embrace term limits. Congress is a sweet gig. Working an average of 2 1/2 days a week while bringing down $174,000/year. Participating in excellent health and pension plans. Having an obsequient staff at your beck and call. Enjoying free junkets funded by lobbyists or taxpayers. No wonder legislators want to remain in their jobs as long as possible.
And indeed, they do stay in their jobs. Despite Congress' abysmal approval ratings, the 2012 reelection rates for incumbents in the Senate and House in 2012 were 91% and 90 % respectively. Between gerrymandered districts, a huge fund raising advantage, and good name recognition for incumbents, it is very difficult to dislodge someone from Washington once they are elected.
Term limits are by no means a new concept. Presidents have been limited to two four-year terms since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951. State governments have a complex patchwork of term limit laws. Thirty six states have some type of term limit on their Governor (Wisconsin does not). Fifteen states have some form of legislative term limits. Many states attempted to impose term limits on their federal elected officials, but the Supreme Court overturned such laws in 1995. If term limits at the federal level are to happen, we must amend the US Constitution.
What type of changes would we notice if term limits were imposed on Congress? Without a class of career politicians, we would see a different type of legislator. Few of our lawmakers would enter politics right out of school. We would have many more officials who had successful careers before entering politics. We would have lawmakers who were “makers” before they became “takers”. We would have more farmers, doctors, shopkeepers, and scientists. We would have more artists, teachers, and accountants. We would have a more diverse, deeper, and more relevant array of backgrounds in these citizen-legislators than we get with a group of lifetime politicians.
Term limits would result in a more active and vibrant legislative agenda. Politicians would be anxious to get things done in the few years they are allowed to serve. The chambers would no longer be full of politicians who were active in earlier days but are now just taking-up space. Fully 48% of the US Senate and 38% of the House is old enough to collect Social Security. Until last year, Hawaii had been represented by the same two Senators since they became a state in 1959. In any other sector of the economy, those folks would be gently “encouraged” to retire.
With term limits, elected officials would be less susceptible to pressure from outside lobbying groups. For example, today the NRA can threaten to support your opponent in return for a vote on sensible gun safety laws. Such threats would mean less in a legislature in which half or a third of the members could not run for reelection. Officials would be freer to vote for their constituents' benefit.
Due to the current high reelection rate of incumbents, the composition of Congress responds very slowly to changes in the political landscape. For example, many incumbent Southern Democrats and New England Republicans remained in office long after their parties were no longer relevant in those regions. I call this phenomenon Legislative Inertia. Inertia also tends to dampen election tidal waves of the kind seen for Democrats in 2008 and for Republicans in 2010.
Lessening Legislative Inertia is probably the main motivation for support of term limits by the Tea Party Senators. They continue to fight an intra-party civil war to remove the last remaining rational and moderate Republicans. It would be easier to remove those incumbents with term limits rather than through primaries. Noting the abysmal success rate of Tea Party Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, term limits are a change that a progressive like me can believe in.
It will be very difficult to get enough votes to institute term limits. The position of our own Jim Sensenbrenner is typical of Washington politicians. Jim started in politics right out of college and he has been on the Government payroll ever since. Representing a super-safe district, he has occupied Congress since the Carter Administration. Naturally, Jim has no use for term limits. In a 2013 town hall session, he stated, “We do have term limits-they're called elections.”
Term limits could change Congress for the better. Having legislative chambers that more quickly adapt to new political realities, electing more legislators with non-governmental experience, decreasing lobbyist influence, and removing entrenched deadwood are just a few of the foreseen benefits. For once, I agree with Ron Johnson.