I am not one of those who hates Congress and thinks they are horrible people. To the contrary, I think most of them (some definite exceptions) mean well and love their country, even if their vision for its future and their priorities sharply differ from mine. I also know from personal experience that they work long, hard hours. I don’t think that they are either overpaid or that their benefits are too generous (actually, I would like more American workers to have benefits like those – we shouldn’t be working toward the lowest common denominator).
Nonetheless, I think it is time to enact term limits for Congress. I think it is time for new blood, and that some of the destructive patterns we are in now might be disrupted if seats changed hands more often, and were considered less “safe” due to the power of incumbency and gerrymandering (more on that tomorrow).
The congress we have now is very different from the congress envisioned and created by our Founding Fathers. At the time of its creation, being a congressman was considered a part-time job, and they were paid very little at all (6 dollars a day for each day they were in session, the equivalent of about $12K a year now, below poverty wages). It was considered a sacrifice and service to your country. Of course then, as now, the vast majority of congressmen were independently wealthy. And they did not stay in session as long as they do now, nor did they have the constituent demands (representing 30K people each rather than more than 600K) and fundraising needs of modern politicians, so most were able to maintain their civilian professions while they served. Nonetheless, it was thought that few would want to serve for long periods of time in Congress, as doing so undoubtedly cost them money. the Founders did not reckon with the intoxicating appeal of power.
In the current Congress, more than a quarter of both senators and representatives have been in office more than twelve years. As a consequence the average age of a representative is 57, and the average age of a senator is 61. There are 21 congressmen over the age of 65, led by the venerable John Conyers (D- MI), who is 88 years old and in his 60th year in office. And they are getting older with virtually every Congress. In 2018, for example, 18 of the 33 senators up for reelection will be over 65. In 2020, that number will be 21 out of 33. Many of those who serve held other political office before their current one, and can be thought of as career politicians in that the vast majority of their adult life has been spent seeking and holding office.
While there is certainly an argument to be made for experience in office, and the wisdom it brings, it also brings calcification, and it denies opportunity to others to also make their contribution and bring bring fresh ideas into Congress. The opportunity to make a career of politics (and quite a lucrative one) has also led to the phenomenon of career politicians, who have little experience outside of politics, and correspondingly less connection to the people they are elected to serve.
Much of this has come about because of the power of incumbency, which when combined with the vote-rigging scheme that is gerrymandering, means that very few races each year are competitive, which was definitely not the vision of our Founding Fathers. Experts predict that in 2018, for example, only five percent of House races are expected to be competitive. One of the great ironies of American politics is that even though American dislike for Congress as a whole is remarkable (hasn’t been over 40% approval in more than a decade, and has hovered between 15 and 20% for most of the last six years, reaching an all-time low of 9 percent in late 2013), they continue to reelect their own congressmen over and over again, apparently trying to disprove the old maxim (somewhat dubiously credited to Einstein) that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In 2016, the rate of reelection for incumbents was 98%. That’s not democracy, which depends on actual competition to reflect the will of the people.
So something must be done. Actually several somethings, but today I’m just talking about one: term limits. I recommend, in order to break the power of incumbency and make Congress more responsive to the people’s will, that both senators and representatives should be limited to 12 years in office, six terms for a representative and two for a senator. Then it is time for them to go back into the real world and find another way to make a living.
This will require a constitutional amendment, which is a daunting task in America, where our Founding Fathers were so confident in their own work that they made it exceedingly difficult to amend. It is made more difficult by the fact that the vast majority of politicians in both parties will be vehemently opposed to it. That’s understandable, since it would prevent more than a quarter of them from running again, and would deny safe, secure lifetime employment in a high prestige, lucrative job to the rest.
Make no doubt about it. For this to happen, Congress will have to be forced by massive and bipartisan/non-partisan public opinion. Or they must be end run through state legislatures (not that the politicians there, many of whom dream of being congressmen, are likely to be much more receptive). The public opinion is there, waiting to be mobilized. Approximately 75% of Americans favor term limits, according to numerous polls, including strong majorities among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. This is not a partisan issue, but rather one on which the vast majority of Americans agree. What is needed, however, is leadership – a politician or politicians brave and selfless enough to make this their issue and push it. Does any politician in America currently have those qualities? I don’t know, but we need to find some.
Even with that leadership, the odds are heavily stacked against this ever coming to pass. However, I think even a credible threat of it would scare career politicians down to their Gucci shoes, perhaps enough to force them to accept other real reforms. And who knows, if the groundswell were strong enough, if the leadership emerged, and if it could gain sufficient funding, it might have a shot. Wouldn’t that be something?