I never supported mandatory term limits. I am well aware that the vast majority of those who hold elected office could better serve their constituents by taking a long stroll off of an appropriately short pier (unless they’re Kennedys). I am also aware that many of us live with precisely the government we earned at the ballot box. To put a fine point on it: We already have term limits. Every election represents the potential end of the term of the corrupt, the incompetent and/or the just plain undeserving.
Unfortunately, far too few of my fellow Americans share my attitude; especially when it comes to accomplishing more at the ballot box than picking up one of those fun little “I voted” stickers. Far too many of our Senators, Congressmen, commissioners, mayors, aldermen and such hold their positions for far too long. The re-election rate in the U.S. House of Representatives in the sea change year of 2010 still hit 85 percent, tying 1970 for the lowest mark in half a century. Your Congressmen managed to best their beleaguered Senate colleagues by a whole percentage point, with Senators returning to their taxpayer-funded digs to the maudlin tune of 84 percent.
Last Tuesday, the county I live in offered a ballot initiative to eliminate the current two-term limit on the position of Chairman of the County Commission. Although the current chairman is a nice enough old fellow, the initiative suddenly appeared in the final weeks before municipal election day, engendering fair questions about the timing and intent of the ballot measure. Despite my long-held view that political longevity should be bestowed by the voters alone, I voted “no.” I have concluded, after a couple of decades of soul-searching, that we in the electorate simply can’t be trusted with the task of keeping our elected officials honest.
Look again at the re-election rate for incumbents at the Federal level. Those rates change at the State and local levels only in those places that have instituted term limits as a matter of law. Elsewhere, taxpayers lay prostrate under the thumbs of the same wire-pullers and career loafers who gave birth to the exact disenchantment we’re discussing here today — and almost exclusively by their own hands.
Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has served in the U.S. Senate since 1963. Inouye became the longest-serving current U.S. Senator 17 months ago, when Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) died. Representatives John Dingell and John Conyers, both Democrats from Michigan, have dishonored their constituents for more than a century combined. Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) left office in 2003 at the age of 100. He was the oldest-serving Senator and, until Byrd beat his record, he was the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history.
For those who muse that mandating term limits might discourage the best and brightest from running for office, the five aforementioned gentlemen serve as warning enough. The best and brightest among us want nothing to do with the electoral process, primarily because they might have to contend with petrified remnants like the five men mentioned, among others.
Some people worry term limits will drive out the few politicians who actually serve their constituents. Granted, mandated term limits would send Ron Paul for the exit, but Congressman Paul respects the voters enough to have abandoned a re-election bid in order to focus on his Presidential aspirations. As my grandfather might have said: “Ya gotta admire that kind of moxie.” And people like Paul find ways to contribute to their fellow man, Congress or not. The problem is that for every Paul, there’s an Alcee Hastings, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Henry Waxman, Sheila Jackson Lee, Zoe Lofgren, etc.
Of course we can do better at the polls. We can elect thoughtful people who will pursue a course of action purely out of a sense of dedication to their Nation and its people. But we don’t do that. Time after time, offered the opportunity to improve our lot through intelligent balloting, we re-elect Charles Rangel.
Our Republic is slipping away from us. Term limits would hardly solve the problem. But they would be a start.