02 October 2014

Could term limits empower Congress?

It's nothing new for George Will to advocate term limits for people in Congress. The columnist has long opposed the ascendancy of a careerist "political class" alleged to be interested only in expanding government for their own benefit. Term limits, Will hopes, would assure a steady rotation through the legislature of people with real careers -- people presumed familiar and sympathetic with the needs of the private sector upon which national prosperity depends. Whatever his biases, there are small-d democratic arguments for and against term limits. One argument against is that if the people are sovereign, they should be able to elect whom they will as often as they wish. On the other hand, if democracy means more than elections to you, you might grow suspicious of the masses' dependence upon a handful of great leaders, and you might believe that rotation in office, enforced through term limits, affirms the democratic idea that any educated person is capable of legislating. Advocates of limited government like Will advocate term limits, but that doesn't mean that term limits only serve to limit government.

This week, Will is concerned less with limiting government in general than with maintaining checks and balances. Like many observers on both right and left, he's concerned that Congress has grown too deferential toward the President, be he a Republican or a Democrat, on questions of airstrikes, troop deployments, etc. He worries that Congress is insufficiently jealous of its prerogatives when it comes to making war. His possibly paradoxical suggestion is that a Congress constrained by term limits would be more assertive of its rights against the other branches of government.

If anything, Will takes a more damning view than ever of the alleged political class. Promoting the views of Greg Weiner, a conservative constitutional scholar, Will argues that career politicians don't make a career of politics for the power as much as they do for the perks of office. In Weiner's words, "increasingly, there is evidence that members of Congress do seek office for something other than the power, for power is something with which they are not merely willing but often eager to part." This sounds more plausible when you think of war-powers issues than when you recall the determined obstructionism, often applauded by Will, of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But give both Weiner and Will credit if they're looking beyond the partisanship of the moment: congressional deference to the Commander-in-Chief on questions of war should be of concern to every citizen, regardless of party or ideology.

How would term limits reverse the trend? Here Will jumps from Weiner to James Madison, who wrote in the Federalist Papers that for checks and balances to work, "The interests of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place." Will's hope is that limiting the career incentive would leave candidates for Congress who are true believers above all in the rights and prerogatives of Congress. These worthies would be less interested in bringing the bacon home to their constituents than in keeping an eye on the other branches of government, the executive in particular, lest they overstep their constitutional bounds. Having done their round of vigilance, they would then return happily to private life.

It would be easy to caricature this proposal as an exchange of careerists for ideologues, but for the sake of argument let's entertain the premise that people who aren't motivated to run for office by the promise of perks are more likely to act on principle (if not ideology) when they're elected. If that's the case, why not go further than limiting terms and eliminate as many of the corrupt incentives that Washington offers as possible? Without going so far as to deter working-class people from running for office, we might expect our representatives to live as spartan a life in the capital as possible consistent with the dignity of their offices. Put them up in dorms if need be -- comfortable but no place you'd want to spend the next twenty years. At the back end, take even more steps to keep them from cashing out by taking jobs with lobbying firms or anyone whose promise of future wealth might corrupt a legislator today. Do everything that would filter out anyone interested in anything other than helping Congress play its appropriate constitutional role. Would that leave only Tea Partiers? There's no reason to think so. People still run for office to accomplish things, not just to guard against the Executive Branch. While there's been many a shameful example of Democratic congresspersons living large while playing champion of the little guy, it doesn't follow that liberals, much less leftists, go to Washington for the glitz or the glamor. Nor does it follow that any one person needs to stay in Congress for a lifetime to accomplish something for the little guy. Democrats and liberals routine argue against term limits mainly because, going back to the 1980s, they saw them as a sour-grapes Republican swipe at a then-entrenched Democratic majority in Congress. The fact that we see conservatives still calling for term limits after almost twenty years of GOP control of the House suggests that there's more than sour grapes involved. We need not agree with those conservatives about the necessity of term limits, but we might find them useful if not appropriate to our kind of democracy. In the end, however, it still comes down to what voters want from Congress, and in a democratic republic there are no term limits for the people.


Anonymous said...

I should think that pushing term limits would only serve to put more power into the hands of political parties. One could also argue that, through the vote, we already have term limits which are established by the voters. No, term limits - as with any other solution - will not work in the long run without a complete change in the American people to make them more able to think critically, to act/vote independently and to be more able to reason out who is the most fit candidate, rather than relying on a party to give them a roster of candidates to choose from and then tell them which one to vote for. If any intelligent person thinks logically and objectively, he or she will come to the same conclusion: the first step to creating a better government is to eliminate political parties.

Samuel Wilson said...

Term-limits advocates tend to dodge the question of parties. Republicans probably hope that with term limits, the right kind of people will take over the GOP and thus partisanship won't skew how Congress operates. But if the desire for re-election corrupts an individual it must corrupt an institution like a party as well. Whether the parties have anything to do with the too-easy deference to the President on military matters that bothers George Will and others across the ideological spectrum is a separate question.

Anonymous said...

My point being that a politician in a "red" or "blue" state with enough charisma or clout to keep getting reelected doesn't need the backing of his/her party to remain in power. But once you initiate term limits, the political parties will grab more power to keep red states red and blue states blue.

Consider how much power the two current parties have as it is over who gets to run for office. If you're a third party or independent candidate you have a much harder time and have to work much harder to even get on the ballot, let alone have a chance to win. Put in term limits and see just how much more political power those parties will grab.