Commentary by Caroline Baum
Previous post on this subject: Increasing Political Competition: Term Limits and Redistricting Reform
The public is mad as hell at Washington: at the corruption, the underhanded deals, the earmarks, the sense of entitlement that comes with lifetime employment. If we don’t want to take it anymore, we can do something about it.
A 1995 Supreme Court ruling, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, held that states do not have the authority to impose limits on congressional service.
A different Supreme Court might see things differently. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said the Constitution is “simply silent on this question.” The silence isn’t about to be broken with President Barack Obama and the Democrats in charge.
That leaves an amendment to the Constitution, which requires passage by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. “Three-quarters of the states is not going to be a problem,” Blumel said. “They have a vested interest in rotation in office” as it provides more open seats.
Term limits is equally popular with the public, among Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. In an October 2008 national poll commissioned by USTL, 83 percent of Americans said they support term limits, the highest ever.
Guess who opposes term limits? Incumbent politicians, their staffs and lobbyists in search of legislative favors. And why not? There is no better guarantee of lifetime employment than incumbency. In the last 10 congressional elections, the re-election rate in the House was 94.6 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, independent research group tracking money in U.S. politics.
Incumbency doesn’t confer the same degree of security on Senators, with “only” 87.5 percent of sitting senators returned to office since 1990. How is it, then, the average length of service for senators at the start of the 111th Congress was 12.9 years, just over DeMint’s two-term target? Answer: Because less than half the people appointed to serve out a senator’s seat end up running for office, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office. For every Paul Kirk, an interim senator for five months following the death of Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy, there is a Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who has been in the Senate for 51 years.
Byrd, 92, represents the kind of permanent ruling class the Founding Fathers feared. They would not recognize today’s Leviathan as the same federal government they created and to which they gave enumerated powers.
If the voters are fed up, why not throw the bums out? Blumel said incumbency is such an overwhelming advantage, many elections are uncontested and others don’t offer voters a meaningful choice. “If Ted Kennedy had lived, would Massachusetts have had a significant election?” he asked.
Thirty-seven states place some form of term limits on their elected officials, according to USTL.
Our elected officials may go to Washington to do good, but they end up doing well, as the saying goes. They forget why they were elected -- to do the people’s business -- and focus on their own: fundraising and campaigning for re-election.
With public approval of Congress at an all-time low and support for term limits at an all-time high, it’s time to seize the day.