Washington watch: Term limits aren’t the answer

Republicans who voted to end the government shutdown are being threatened from the far right by challengers who say they aren’t doctrinaire enough.

October 30, 2013 22:39
113th Congress in Washington

113th Congress in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)

With public disgust for Congress at record levels, some members of that esteemed body are once again calling for term limits as a way to toss out the some of their fellow bums and clean up the mess they’ve helped create.

Don’t you believe it. If they’re serious about the need for high turnover, they can practice what they preach and term-limit themselves by resigning today and looking for another job.

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High turnover isn’t what’s needed to repair what’s wrong with Congress, though admittedly it will help in some cases. The real problem with term limiting is that mandatory short tenure makes it very tempting for politicians to use their time in Congress to prepare for lucrative positions on the private sector payrolls by helping those who can help them the most, not the folks back home who sent them to Washington.

Who benefits from term limits? It’s not just the lawmaker who can look forward to a hefty boost in pay to use what he learned and the contacts he made to better serve his new employer. It’s also the executive branch, which can flummox the uninitiated lawmakers, and the lobbyists who will move in quickly to “help and advise” the newcomers learn the ropes (and dangle future jobs before their eyes).

The problem isn’t turnover, it’s rollover. It’s time to remove the incentives to cash in on congressional service, starting with extending the length of time before lawmakers can lobby their former colleagues (supposedly two years) or even advise clients on how to deal with Congress (about 10 minutes).

Also remove their privileges giving them access where we poor mortals cannot venture, including the House floor and the gym.

And don’t let them use their former titles for any business-related activities.

And while we’re at it, let’s restrict the lobbying by spouses and other close relatives going to the private sector and cashing in on the incumbent’s status. Ending that form of nepotism should open up a lot of jobs for real estate agents and lobbyists with no family connections.

California voters last year eased their stringent term limits law because it had “produced a Statehouse filled with inexperienced legislators looking over the horizon to the next election,” reported Politico.

Legislative term limits is a deeply flawed – and grossly misrepresented – theory that doesn’t work.

It is an arbitrary policy that is tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It could – but not necessarily – get rid of some dead wood, but would probably toss out more good guys than bad guys.

It’s been tried, with poor results.

In 1995 the Supreme Court ruled term limit laws for members of Congress are unconstitutional, and repeated attempts to amend the Constitution have been unsuccessful.

A new USA Today poll suggests voters may be preparing to term limit a number of lawmakers next year without any constitutional amendments or new laws.

2014 could be another throwthe- bums-out year, like 1994 and 2006, when control of the House shifted because the public was fed up with the incumbents. In the year leading up to each of those years, the number of unhappy voters was less than it is today.

The USA Today survey found only four percent of respondents felt Congress would be worse off if nearly all members were replaced next year, and 47% said that would be an improvement.

One of Congress’s most important – and often neglected – roles is that of quality control. It is supposed to oversee the functioning of the executive branch, to make sure it is doing its job, spending taxpayer’s money efficiently, and so on.

Trouble is, in recent years that has been greatly neglected, especially when the president and congress are of different parties.

That’s when oversight devolves to a mean-spirited game of gotcha.

Taxpayers would lose a lot of accumulated expertise that only comes with experience, and empower people who have demonstrated they really don’t care about the effective functioning of government or the public interest as they advance their extremist ideology at their edges of the political spectrum.

Removing that experience (and the staff expertise that goes with it) puts the people’s branch at a distinct disadvantage.

It also would weaken the influence of the Jewish community, which has depended on building long-term relationships, starting at the local level, to educate politicians on important issues like funding for social services, education and other domestic programs as well as being the front line in Israel’s defense.

If the would-be reformers really want to fix a broken system, they should focus on the electoral system.

Not the phony efforts by Republicans in the name of fighting election fraud that are just a cover for keeping the poor and other minorities away from the polls.

A good start would be to end the partisan gerrymandering by both sides that have left more than 80% of congressional districts solid red or solid blue. A return to competitive districts may require establishing non-partisan commissions to draw congressional districts.

As it is, the partisan gerrymandering has meant the real competition comes between extremists in party primaries; next year it is shaping up on the Republican side, but Democrats do the same thing.

Republicans who voted to end the government shutdown are being threatened from the far right by challengers who say they aren’t doctrinaire enough.

And the malaise that has gridlocked government in Washington is unlikely to lessen until there are serious campaign finance reforms. With members of Congress spending a huge percentage of their time raising the prodigious amounts of money it takes to win elections these days – and with the soaring political clout of big donors buying influence to protect their special interests – our lax campaign finance laws are a huge part of the depressing legislative gridlock.

As for term limits, we already have them – they’re called elections.

And if you don’t vote – and that means primaries, too – then you surrender your right to kvetch.

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