“Term Limits – Enough is Enough”

By Sydney Williams A libertarian friend, when asked about term […]


A libertarian friend, when asked about term limits, replied that if he had to make a choice he would opt against them, regardless of how many years one candidate had been in office. People should have the right, it was his opinion, to elect whoever they choose. It is a worthy sentiment, and was obviously the intent of the founders. But times were different.

Public service, in the first years of the Republic, was seen as an avocation rather than a vocation. It was something one did after a successful career in some other field. People did not live as long in those days. Life expectancy in 1800 was about 40 years; though if one survived to 20 one could expect to live into their late 50s. Today, we live twenty years longer. Also, before the advent of the railroad Washington was a difficult place to get to; thus serving in Congress often meant long absences from home.

Nevertheless, a precedent for term limits was established by George Washington when he decided, like Cincinnatus, to give up the Presidency after two terms and return to his farm at Mount Vernon. Keep in mind that Washington, as the nation’s first President, was acutely aware of the precedents he was setting.

Following FDR’s bid for a lifetime Presidency, the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, limiting any President to two elected terms. Forty states have term limits on governors, while fifteen states limit their state legislators. The fear of elected officials being in office too long is palpable among many. Yale classicist Donald Kagan, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview and quoting Thucydides, said, “…you can expect people whatever they may be to maximize their power.” That is certainly true of Congress today.

Democracy is fragile. It can easily be lost. In fact, there are those like Plato and Aristotle who believed that democracy inevitably leads to tyranny. Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress can bribe the public with the public’s money.”  If that is so, we are on a downward slope. With half the electorate no longer subject to federal income taxes and with entitlements consuming almost half the budget, we are in the midst of an enormous wealth transfer. In the Journal piece, Professor Kagan argued that the American will has been weakened by the concept that government will always be our backstop. While many of us believe that some level of entitlement spending is necessary in a compassionate society, it is a question of how much and who are the recipients. Whatever one’s opinion, there should be no doubt in the public’s mind that wealth transfer is underway and what its ultimate consequences may be. The transfer is aided and abetted by politicians who speak of duty and service, but in fact seek sustained personal power.

Democracy respects freedom as a value to be treasured, not as a right to be surrendered in return for the provision of more comforts. The inherent rights of individuals are recognized under democracy, which assumes that people are willing to take responsibility for their actions. Democracy implies self-reliance and a lack of dependency on government, yet the transfer of wealth infers greater dependency. Democracy depends upon the goodwill of the people, the willingness to live within the law, and it assumes leaders recognize that power is ephemeral and that it will be ceded to others when their term in office is up.

British historian and moralist, Lord Acton once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see that in our country with the two-way street between K Street and Capital Hill. It is the increasing and demanding role of money in politics that is the handmaiden of cronyism. Running for national office requires vast amounts of money; thereby making officeholders beholden to benefactors. It has always been so, but it has become more pronounced. There are those who look at the spending and say we need campaign finance reform. We do, but imposing money limits on a nation represented by creative, but often slippery, lawyers will never work. Just look at McCain-Feingold. What we can do is demand more transparency. Sunshine is an effective disinfectant for money and politics. The Left blames Citizen United, but the better answer is to require that individual names be disclosed for any gift in excess of $1000 from individuals, partnerships, unions or corporations, no matter whether the gift goes to a candidate, Party or PAC. But, we can also limit the number of terms anyone may serve in Congress; thereby neutering the potential for corruption.

According to a recent MSNBC report, the cost of waging a successful Senatorial campaign in 2012 was $10.5 million, with newly elected Elizabeth Warren the queen of spenders, laying out $42.5 million! The cost of a House seat was $1.7 million. In 2008, the respective comparisons were $6.5 million and $1.1 million, reflecting increases far in excess of inflation. Regardless of the fact that more money is being spent on campaigns, incumbency has been increasing. According to a 2011 study by Congressional Research Service, the trend in average service tenures for both Senators and Representatives has been increasing since the end of World War II.

In the 104th Congress (1995-1996), 14% of Senators had served more than 16 years. By the 111th Congress (2009-2011) 18% had served more than 16 years.

Tenure has bred hubris. The arrogance of Congress can be seen in many ways and it knows no party affiliation. The discovery of a few years ago that members of Congress were largely exempt from insider trading rules led to the work on legislation (STOCK – Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act) subjecting them to the same rules as their constituents. But the legislation signed by the President last week exempted the President, Vice President, members of the Cabinet and other appointed officials, members of Congress, as well as candidates for President and Congress. Apparently the National Academy of Public Interest found that the Act would create “unwarranted risk to national security and law enforcement.” In other words, it is perfectly correct for them to dig into our personal files, but not okay for us to know what they are doing, and they obviously have access to inside information.

When Democrats passed Obamacare in 2009 they tried repeatedly to exempt themselves and their key assistants. It was deemed “heretical,” according to the Wall Street Journal, when Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) suggested politicians should obey the laws they write. In the past month, Politico broke the story that Senator leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Stanley Hoyer (D-MD) were in hush-hush talks to exempt themselves and their staff from Obamacare. Caught, the talks came to naught. Mr. Reid and Mr. Hoyer now claim they just wanted their staffs to be ensured of receiving the generous subsidies of current plans. So would we all.

Our society has a tendency to honor those who have served long terms in Congress. For some reason we equate greatness with length of service. The next sentence in the Lord Acton quote is: “Great men are almost always bad men.” That may be an exaggeration. But there is no question that power is an aphrodisiac. Purists may argue, like my libertarian friend, that people should have the right to elect anyone they choose. In an ideal world that may be right, but in an environment in which cronyism has replaced the concept of service, Congress has abrogated that right. Too many of them look upon their jobs as entitlements and see them as a means for self-enrichment.

It is beyond shocking, for example, that someone like Anthony Weiner, a pervert of the first magnitude, could be taken seriously as a candidate for Mayor of New York. As a man who was once close to the puppeteers in Washington, he has cashed in on his connections. He claims to be making more money than he ever did. He concludes: “I am a good capitalist.” His very statement is indicative of how distant Washington has become from the real world. A good capitalist is an entrepreneur who starts with an idea that emerges into a thriving business, one that hires people, pays taxes and contributes to society. Weiner has been a taker, trading on the names in his Rolodex. He is neither an entrepreneur nor a capitalist. He is a blood sucker.

One can argue that in politics we get what we deserve. As a compassionate people, we are quick to forgive transgressions. But we should all understand that no politician is entitled to office because of his years in office, his name, or fortune. We have created a class of professional politicians who have become immensely wealthy on the basis of cronyism. Name recognition has allowed sons and daughters to effectively inherit seats. Congressional compensation is not designed to make a member wealthy. According to the Congressional Research Service, Senators and Representatives are paid $174,000 – not enough to keep them in the Armani suits so many wear. Their benefits, however, are very generous. Each Congressman is provided a Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA) that pays for staffing and other expenses. For Representatives that averaged $1,353,205 in 2012, while for Senators the average was $3,209,103. And we all know that lobbyists and various PACs offset other expenses. To pick on Harry Reid once again, the Senate Majority leader has spent all but two of the last 47 years in public office, yet he has a net worth estimated to be about $5 million. Either he is the thriftiest man alive, or he has developed a symbiotic relationship with cronies in Nevada.

The interim Senatorial election in Massachusetts shows a sharp demarcation between two different types and perhaps an indication of the direction the country is headed. After almost forty years in the House, sixty-six year old Democrat Edward Markey wants to top off his first career with a second in the Senate. Opposing him is forty-seven year old Republican Gabriel Gomez. Mr. Gomez is a Harvard MBA, private equity executive and former U.S. Navy Seal, with no previous political experience. He has endorsed term limits. There is little question that tens of millions will be spent determining Massachusetts’ next Senator, with most of it being spent by Mr. Markey.

In a perfect world, term limits would not be the preferred path, but enough is enough. Something must be done to return decency, integrity and civility to politics – to move us away from a cronyism that threatens to snuff out democracy. Limits of six terms in the House and two in the Senate would better serve the American public. Twelve years is roughly a quarter of an adult’s working career, meaning that candidates would more often come from the real world, not the place of fairy tales that sits alongside the Potomac. More people would serve in public office. There would be less time to develop unhealthy relationships that too often breed cronyism. The sense of entitlement that envelops so many in Washington would dissipate.

“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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