This is a bad time to read the oath that House and Senate members take when they are sworn into office. Lawmakers vow to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;” a laughable compact between legislators and the American people, considering that Congress has turned into our greatest adversary, obstacle to progress, and defiler of the public trust.
Legislators have proved time and again that they won’t do anything until faced with certain disaster. What happens when decisions are put on hold during careers that can span decades? Republican Congressman Reid Ribble, who proposed a congressional term limits bill in 2012 that would limit senators and representatives to 12 years of service, seems to have figured it out:
I term-limited myself to eight years because I wanted to make sure that when I got to Washington I used my time as effectively and efficiently as possible.¹
His bill went to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, where we can expect it to remain.
Career lawmakers are too good at what they do.
The Affordable Care Act was foisted on the country in the name of the common good. Some of us are certain to pay more and some might pay less, but Obamacare was sold as health care for everyone. Democrats were quick to try to wrangle a few extra perks for constituents and special interest supporters. The president tried to finesse his Cadillac tax dodge for unions. The health care bill’s history also included Chris Dodd’s $100 million hospital earmark and Patrick Leahy’s impressive $600 million Medicaid deal (see: H.R. 3590: the Health Care Bill and the Giveaways No One is Talking About.). Leahy joined the Senate in 1975. Dodd’s reign lasted from 1981 – 2011.
Term limits go in the wrong direction?
If H.J.RES.24 had won approval, Barack Obama might still be in office at the end of the decade. In a perverse take on the meaning of American democracy, four Democrats and one lone Republican introduced a resolution in 2005 to allow presidents to serve more than two terms in office. The sponsor, Democrat Steny Hoyer, claimed that his joint resolution would “Restore Power to the People”² and tried to justify longer presidencies as an expression of the public will:
The 22nd Amendment reflects a fundamental distrust of the judgment of the American people. However, trust of the good sense of the people is one of the cornerstones of democracy.³
Trusting the American people is not what most of us are worried about.
How much public trust is left for Congress to violate?
When it comes to politicking on Capitol Hill there is no public trust and the common good was long ago subverted by earmarks, pork barrel bills, catering to lobbyists, and pandering to special interests. Republicans renewed their House ban on earmarks for the new 113th Congress. An equivalent ban proved troublesome for both parties in the Senate last year.
Lawmakers did not ban insider trading until 2012, an ethical lapse that gave Harry Reid occasion to resurrect the public trust because the opportunity for shamefully unethical behavior finally came under too much scrutiny to ignore:
This bipartisan legislation will ensure that members of Congress will be prosecuted if they abuse the public trust to gain financial advantage.4
So how do we make careers in Washington more about the common good and less about personal and career enrichment?
No congressional term limits means no public trust and no common good.
Serious attempts at congressional term limits have been all but absent, no surprise given that the lack of a cap on the length of public service drives lawmakers to put reelection before the common good. Harry Reid said it all while speaking to his home state’s legislature about Nevada’s term limits:
These restrictions don’t limit terms; they limit our ability to move forward.5
Reid employed the same reasoning used in Hoyer’s promotion of his no presidential term limits resolution:
We don’t need artificial term limits. After all, we already have natural ones. They’re called elections. Anyone serving today should be able to serve at the will of the voters – the people of Nevada.6
The will of the voters only has an impact on what happens in Washington if their elected representatives can bring home the bacon. The grand irony is that as much as it hurts us, the fact that we don’t have congressional term limits is our own fault. Voters have no reason to look at the larger picture and realize that favors done for their state may not be in the interest of residents four states away. Here is where the common good hits a roadblock and gives lawmakers a chance to embrace the public trust and take the higher road they talk about but never venture down. Passing a term limits bill may seem inimical to the common good, but only because Congress’s vision for lawmakers has become so wracked with self-interest and opportunism that the common good is irrelevant.