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Pure Onsense

If We Have Reached Our Limit, Why Hasn't Congress?

Scott Zuke

(3/2010) Some wonderful things, for whatever reasons, have yet to catch on in America: the metric system, the afternoon siesta, curling, to name a few. One idea that seems conspicuously absent from political discourse in recent months is that of constitutionally mandated term limits for elected officials.

For many years confidence in Congress has been bottomed out due to the stultifying effects of partisan politics, where lines are not drawn in the sand but carved in stone, and even honest attempts at compromise are answered with sharp criticism or outright dismissal.

The strongest condemnation of Congress in recent weeks came from one of its own members, as Illinois Senator Evan Bayh announced he would not seek reelection. In an op-ed for the New York Times he laid out a daunting list of dysfunctions with D.C. politics, from a broken campaign finance system to overuse of the filibuster.

The bottom line, in his words: "Congress must be reformed." He goes on to discuss a few proposed changes, but one wonders how his decision to abandon the Senate fits into any of them.

Any means of dislodging this status quo are certainly worthy of renewed discussion, but perhaps the most effective reform is one that may be deduced from his actions rather than his words. Having been in office for over a decade he has chosen to voluntarily limit his term, a welcome decision, but not one that we can typically count on politicians to self-impose (for example, consider Rep. Roscoe Bartlett [MD-06], who advocated for constitutionally mandated term limits in his 1992).

The main argument against term limitation is that voters should retain the right to vote for whomever they wish to represent them, especially since an incumbent is often the most qualified candidate in an election. Voters are rightly concerned about any limitation upon their most basic political power, but the system as it is now is, in its own way, even more restrictive. While it is often said by critics of that voters should be allowed to enforce term limits at the ballot box, there is no incentive for constituents to put forward an inexperienced representative while other states retain their seasoned and well-connected career politicians.

If the idea of term limits is to be considered at all, it has to be done across the board as a constitutional amendment. Such a move is not unprecedented. We already limit the presidency to two terms with the twenty-second amendment, but even looking further back we see examples of democracies and republics in which measures were in place to defend against the rise of overly-influential career politicians.

In the Roman republic a consul, the highest executive officer, was elected for a term of one year, and could not be reelected to that office until another ten years had passed. In the more chaotic 5th century Athenian democracy, the citizens could vote to "ostracize," or banish a rising political figure from the city for a period of ten years. This was not done on any charge of wrongdoing, but often because the politician was too popular, and thus a potential threat of someday becoming a tyrant. Themistocles, whose military strategy single-handedly saved Athens and its democracy from the invading Persians, was exiled in this way.

Even with our constitution's innovations in checks and balances, the lesson we can learn from the past is that it is surprisingly easy for voters to willingly elect their own tyrants, and thus there are many good reasons to place certain restrictions on who is eligible to run for office, and for how long.

In a column in last month's issue ("How come you got us into this mess?" p.9), Lindsay Coker cited Mikhail Gorbachev's distinction between a statesman and a politician: "A statesman does what he believes is best for his country, a politician does what best gets him reelected." Cicero also put it well when he wrote, "So the aim of our ideal statesman is the citizens' happy life--that is, a life secure in wealth, rich in resources, abundant in renown, and honourable in its moral character." The best way to ensure that the statesman's understanding of what is good for his country is as accurate as possible is to ensure that he has spent enough time as a private citizen under its laws, and that he is aware that he will be returning to that roll very soon. Ideally, "politician" would become only a brief bullet-point on a citizen's curriculum vitae.

Rather than calling forth charismatic and well-connected rising politicians, a primary goal in enforcing strict term limits is that it would create a demand for new public servants to be drawn from the ranks of ordinary, good citizens--those who may very well be charismatic and well-connected, but aren't seen or seeking to be seen as modern day aristocracy. While some professions do indeed require special education and are best left to highly-trained professionals (law enforcement, military service, and climate research, to name a few), our political system of representative governance is designed to be accessible to ordinary citizens.

Aristotle said, "A good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to be ruled and to rule," and this is a major reason we should mourn the loss of civics courses in public education. Increasingly it seems that politicians are viewed as an exclusive class, a select group of individuals solely imbued with the skills and institutional knowledge needed to govern. This severely limits the good citizen's chances of participating in the political process, and this is only a psychological consequence, to say nothing of the more tangible obstacles that a challenger faces when campaigning against an entrenched incumbent.

While voters on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for mandatory term limits (the Republicans have repeatedly turned to it as a campaign ploy, at least as recently as last year), CNN contributor Jack Cafferty's observation that "It's an idea that's long past due and it will probably never happen" appears likely to hold true for the foreseeable future. The same might be said for American adoption of the metric system and, sadly, the siesta. I'm holding out a little more hope for curling.

Read other article by Scott Zuke