Rants & Raves
Fixing our Broken Political System
Part I: Term Limits
Let’s face it. Our political system is broken and possibly beyond repair. It could be fixed, and in this document, I’ll explain how to do it. But it won’t be fixed. We have allowed the media to turn politics into a spectator sport. If we fix it, it won’t be a spectator sport any longer. We’d have honest politicians and economic prosperity. Geez. Who’d want that? There’d be nothing to fight over. It would be like having all the professionals wrestlers become BFFs. There’d be no sport left. But in case you’d like to imagine a country of honest politicians and economic prosperity, here’s how to do it.
I’d start with term limits for Congress. Why don’t we have them? Two reasons. The Founding Fathers didn’t insert them into the original Constitution and no Congress is going to add them. They weren’t inserted into the original Constitution, because the Founding Fathers had no idea anyone would possibly want to make a career out of being a Congressman. The Founding Fathers anticipated a lot and the document they gave us, though decimated by a lot of stupid judicial decisions, has stood the test of time quite well. But they got this one wrong for sure. You see, when they were writing the document, the typical politician was a businessperson or farmer, who could afford to leave his career only for a while. Public service was indeed service, but no one could afford to do it forever. It didn’t pay well enough and frankly wasn’t very much fun. The Founding Fathers argued and fought much the same way Congress does today. Life was much better outside the nation’s capital and far more profitable. So how did they screw up when they wrote the Constitution? They didn’t realize that power was as valuable as money. A decent income combined with the ability to control the lives of thousands of other people and instant access to the media could be just as satisfactory as a high-income life outside of government.
Thus, the Founding Fathers failed to include term limits in the Constitution simply because it never occurred to them that anyone would want the job as a career. They would have laughed at the thought that someone would want the job for a career and if they found that someone did, they would have been aghast. Now, we obviously know people do want the job as a career. Robert Byrd spent 51 years in the Senate and Strom Thurmond was right behind with 48 years in the upper chamber. And the list of others who have devoted most of their adult lives to controlling ours is long and sad. The list of short-termers who served and voluntarily returned to their private lives, such as Bill Frist, is way too short.
And naturally this isn’t going to change. Why would they vote to force themselves out?
Opponents of term limits argue that experience is needed for effective government. The longer one has been in Congress, the more one knows about how to legislate effectively. Well, it should be obvious that this doesn’t work. People stay in office forever and the current mess is what we get. The longer people stay in office, the more they throw away our money, and the money of our children, our grandchildren, their grandchildren, etc. Legislators tossing expensive goodies out there to please one group or another and gain support for re-election is what politics is all about. In 1830 Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic work Democracy in America wrote that “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.” If that’s true, and I think it is, the American Republic died somewhere in the 19th century.
Opponents of term limits respond by saying that we get the government we elect. If we don’t like our Congressmen, we can vote them out of office. That’s technically true and you’d think we’d have nearly 100% turnover. Polls consistently show that public opinion of Congress is only slight higher than public opinion of registered sex offenders. So, if we despise Congress so much, why don’t we vote them out of office? It’s because those polls are misleading. When someone responds “no” to the poll question “Do you approve of the job Congress is doing?” in his mind, he’s really saying “I don’t approve of the job of 532 members of the House and Senate, but I do approve of the job being done by my representative in the House and my two Senators.” People will easily re-elect their own representatives and senators, because the seniority system is stacked in favor of re-election. Voters are told that they lose power, influence, and important committee memberships if they vote out the incumbent. Powerful state political parties and the national political party get behind the incumbent. That’s why more than 90% of a body that is approved by less than 20% of the population gets re-elected.
Arguments in favor of term limits are easy to make. Congressmen who aren’t obsessed with getting re-elected will spend more time making tough decisions and less time spending money that hasn’t been earned yet by people whose grandparents aren’t born yet. These short-termers will try to do the best they can in the time they have, knowing that they have to go back and live under the laws they created. (Oh and by the way, Congress often exempts itself from many of the laws it writes.)
I want to gag every time someone calls this “public service.” Politicians on both sides of the fence constantly talk about the nobleness of serving the public as an elected official. These people are handsomely rewarded, not with money, but with fame and power. And if they do choose to leave Congress, they can pursue lucrative careers consulting, speaking, book-writing, and providing commentary on FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, etc. The rewards for being in Congress are almost uncountable. But as I said before, even without leaving office, Congressmen get to revel in being big shots. They can engage in ugly public behavior, such as my own Senator Vitter’s actions at Dulles Airport and New York Senator Schumer’s mistreatment of a flight attendant just trying to enforce the rules. They cannot get speeding tickets and generally cannot be sued or charged with something unless it’s pretty egregious. If they want to be on television, one phone call will do it. In fact, the most dangerous place in America is between a television camera and a member of Congress. If they want to write an op-ed, they just start typing. Yes, sometimes members of Congress really screw up and gets their just due. Tweeting naked pictures of yourself to a young women will sometimes result in sufficient pressure to resign. But generally, speaking bad and sometimes illegal behavior can get you only a reprimand, as it did when an unnamed Congressman was caught paying for a prostitute, activity that is clearly illegal.
Ever since we realized that FDR was creating a constitutional monarchy, we have prohibited Presidents from serving more than two terms. In my opinion, this system works well. Evidence that it does is apparent in the fact that Presidents often disagree with their party. Presidents take responsibility for the country and know they have to make tough decisions. Sure, first-term Presidents are often obsessed with getting re-elected but at least in their second terms, they are free to make the tough decisions. First-term Presidents even admit that they’d rather be a successful one-term President than a failed two-term President. Congress can always hide from the President. They can, as Congress did, vote with the President and then back away and say that they were misinformed or that the President mishandled the authority Congress granted him. They can even call the President a liar.
The United States House of Representatives and Senate is arguably the most dysfunctional organization on the planet. If Al Qaeda worked this effectively, terrorism would not be a problem. The Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves, kicking themselves, saying “How did we screw up so badly? We knew legislating would be tough. We fought enough fights ourselves and could barely agree on anything. And we purposely designed the system so that changing it would be hard. How in the world did we fail to realize that public service would be replaced by insatiable thirst for power?” And this system is set up so that dysfunctionality perpetuates. If we want to fix it, a handful of members of this pathetic body are going to have to grow a pair and convince enough of their other colleagues that significant change is needed.
I would bet on the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1907 before I would expect this issue to get any serious discussion in Washington.
Return to Rants & Raves pageLast updated: May 27, 2012