One of my friends has been trying to persuade me that every elected office in this country’s government needs term limits comparable to those of the US presidency. I have disagreed with him every day since he started pressing me on it, more than a decade ago (has it really been so long?). But now, I’m not so sure.
My objection has always been that the decision must always rest with the people. If the constituents are not satisfied with the performance of their representative, they will vote him out of office. But now, the odds are against even that. Between the years of refined gerrymandering and the newly enforceable Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA, commonly known as McCain-Feingold), the newcomer and the voter don’t stand a chance against the status quo of the incumbent.
This has created an unfortunate effect that politicians now believe, more than ever, they are above the common man, above the laws and rules of the common man, and may therefore take as they please.
It’s not just about the most recent internet sex scandal, either, although that’s a serious problem, and it is not limited to only Mr. Foley. Two members of the Federal Legislature in the past -- Republican Dan Crane and Democrat Gerry Studds -- actually slept with underage Congressional pages. Studds was reelected afterwards, with much help from the Democratic machine. And the Lord knows how many elected officials have shtupped interns.
It’s about legislators from both parties taking money from famous criminal lobbyists, from foreign interests, from who-knows-where to cast votes against the public interest.
It’s about the whole of the BCRA. Senate and House both decided that they were above the Constitution, passing a law restricting the one form of speech the Founding Fathers most cherished, that of politics. When the Constitution states “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” it means that Congress can’t tell you what you can and can’t say in a political campaign ad. And, yet, the BCRA , a Congressional act, disallows political action groups from advertising, directly and by name, against an incumbent during the final six weeks before an election. Now the only way to get a message out about an incumbent’s poor performance is to catch the so-and-so in a scandal which will make the evening news. And, so far, the media have shown themselves to be insufficient to the nonpartisan task, either by ignorance or by deliberate, malign neglect.
All this puts more power in the hands of adults who behave like spoiled children. If two Kennedys can be repeatedly given a pass for public, chemically-altered misconduct, if Mr. Byrd can proudly continue without declaring remorse for his years as a high-ranking Klansman, if Mike Foley can spend term after term chasing teens around the Capitol building, if William Jefferson can continue to sit and vote on our issues while all the evidence says he’s a crook, if Dennis Hastert can stand and object to investigations into criminal actions on the part of his colleagues, and not one of them has managed to get government spending any more under control than they have control over their own personal behavior... the entire lot of them should be tossed out.
The idea of term limits has finally found a home in my heart -- not in absolute terms, though. We still need to be able to reelect an official who has stood us in very good stead. Pretend we have another Senator Abraham Lincoln from Illinois, and he’s even better, for both Illinois and the nation, than his namesake. We need him to go back for a third term as senator, but the law says “no office for more than two terms.” When we draft that term limit law, we need to keep Mr. Lincoln in mind. If, indeed, we provide term limits, we ought to also provide for petitions, and a special election override of, say, a landslide popular vote -- two-thirds sounds fair, don’t you think? If he can muster 66 per cent of the popular vote, and he’s not Honest Abe, but Huey Long, at least the people will know he was their choice. If he can’t sway that many of his constituents, it’s the next guy’s turn at unselfishly serving the people.
Isn’t that what the job is supposed to be about -- unselfishly serving America’s public?