Darrell Berkheimer: How term limits would improve Congress
September 15, 2017
The ancient Greek and Roman democracies provided us with many lessons to learn — and sometimes re-learn. One we definitely failed to learn is the importance of governmental term limits, and for the very reason the Greeks and Romans enacted term limits: to control corruption.
Our need to learn that lesson is evident in the failure of our U.S. Constitution to establish term limits for members of Congress. As Congress members gain power through length of service, they become more subject to various corrupting influences — such as favors, large campaign contributions and promises of lucrative employment after leaving office.
Many of our U.S. founders were educated in the classics and were familiar with the Greek and Roman practice of office rotation to limit corruption. Colonial debates reveal a desire to profit from the example of the ancient democracies, and several colonies experimented with term limits.
Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson announced their favor of term limits. And a limit of three years for serving in Continental Congress was established by the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. But term limits were omitted when the Constitution was adopted in 1789.
To get re-elected, are incumbents serving their home state and political party to the detriment of the needs of our nation?
As the states were ratifying the Constitution (1787–88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially for the presidency and the senate. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure as "most highly and dangerously oligarchic."
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Concern about the development of professional politicians serving unlimited terms did not become an issue until the 20th century — because rotation in office was a popular 19th-century concept. Both citizens and office holders viewed rotating out of office as the normal thing to do after a couple terms.
That practice and attitude did not begin to decline until after the Civil War. The subsequent adoption of the primary system and civil service reforms also ushered in the idea of professionalism in office. By the turn of the 20th century, continuing incumbency was accepted.
But now we can point to the extreme as the latest figures show we have had 110 Congress members who served 36 or more years. And seven served for more than 50 years (one for 59 years) before they either died or retired.
Twenty-two senators have served for 36 years or more — and four of them are continuing in a seventh six-year term. A total of 55 representatives also have served at least 36 years, and six are still serving.
John Conyers of Michigan is still serving after 52 years and 26 elections. Don Young of Alaska is in his 23rd term after 44 years in office. And Jim Sensenberger of Wisconsin is in his 20th term after 38 years in office. Three more representatives are now in their 19th terms.
In addition, statistics from the past 30 years show that incumbents in both the U.S. House and Senate have been re-elected 80 and 90 percent of the time.
Such little turnover and lengthy service raises the question: To get re-elected, are incumbents serving their home state and political party to the detriment of the needs of our nation?
Because of their advancing ages, and after so many years in that cloistered setting of the nation's capital, how well can they identify with the needs of our youth and young families? As members of the nation's elite, can they truly represent the middle class and average working people who are the backbone of our nation?
Enactment of term limits will destroy the current seniority system and force an infusion of fresh, and perhaps more conscientious, representatives into our Congress.
Under the seniority system, senators especially can gain entirely too much power. And when they remain in office for 30 years or more, I believe they tend to lose sight of their main purpose.
We need to remind them that we elect them to Congress to vote for the benefit of the entire nation — not just the corporations and pressure groups that finance their election campaigns — and not only the constituents in their home state.
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided in 1995 that states do not have the constitutional authority to regulate the tenure of federal lawmakers. That ruling effectively overturned term limits enacted by 23 states that considered limits a measure for better government.
The ruling was applied specifically to Arkansas, which asserted that "entrenched incumbency … has led to an electoral system that is less free, less competitive and less representative" by allowing unlimited congressional terms.
The Arkansas law had limited senators to two terms and representatives to three terms.
So enacting terms limits would take a constitutional amendment as a result of the 1995 ruling. And any proposed amendment also should increase the terms of representatives from two years to four. Two-year terms create a monumental waste.
First-term representatives spend most of their first year just learning the job, and most of their second year is wasted on their re-election campaign. And much of each incumbent's second year is wasted on election campaigning, which severely reduces a representative's effectiveness.
I believe senators should be limited to three six-year terms and representatives to four four-year terms. That will allow enough time for Congress members to gain stature and effectiveness before they become stale and lose their zest for providing better government with more efficiency.
Our nation needs more positive and out-of-the-box thinking to provide the reforms, services and infrastructure our citizens and businesses need. It's obvious that incumbents who have been in the job 30 years or more have been failing to do that.
And when senators and representatives know they are in their final term, they might be more inclined to vote for the tough actions needed to benefit the entire country rather than "earmark" and "pork barrel" projects for home state, and special exemptions and credits for corporations.
That final term will be their chance to establish their legacy for the history books.
We voters, in turn, are overdue to demand that candidates commit to enacting term limits.
(My next report in this series will show how gerrymandering has warped our election results, making Congress less responsive to the will of the voters.)
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. Contact him at email@example.com.