At the moment, sixteen members of Congress have served more than 36 years each in office. Combined, these sixteen politicians have over 603 years of service between them. Depending on your point of view, that is either a sad indictment of a flawed system or a celebration for participatory government.
On June 8th of this year, Congressman John Dingle (D-MI) surpassed the late Senator Robert Byrd as the longest serving member of Congress. Congressman Dingle first took office on January 3rd 1955, following the death (in office) of his father, Congressman John Dingle Sr. Amazingly, there has been a Dingle occupying that same Congressional seat for 80 years — a Dingle has served in that Congressional seat for more than a third of our Nation’s history!
The Articles of Confederation required that delegates – annually appointed by their state legislature – serve no more than three years in any six year period. While this produced a constant flux of new and inexperienced members, no doubt contributing in part to the Confederation Congress’ “do nothing” caricature, it also exposed a larger number of citizens to the experience of governing than might have occurred otherwise.
The Constitution’s Framers, of course, debated the idea of term limits and decided that none were appropriate. James Madison (writing in Federalist 53) even thought it advantageous that representatives would become, as he put it, “masters of the public business” through “frequent re-elections.” However, the Framers assumed that men of virtue and integrity would seek and be elected to high office; and that thus endowed, these men would know when it was time to step aside and let others serve. It was not until FDR died in office during his third Presidential term (with an announced intention to run for a fourth), that the 22nd Amendment finally restricted the President, and only the President, to two terms.
Recent Gallup polls show that 75% of the American public support Congressional term limits. With the overall approval rating of Congress hovering somewhere around 15%, it is clear that the American people, as a whole, would seem to be ready to support this change.
From time to time, amendments to enact term limits are actually introduced in Congress, but they never garner sufficient support to pass and be sent to the states for ratification – go figure. In May of this year, Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) introduced the first bipartisan Congressional term limits legislation in more than a decade (House Joint Resolution 45). Bridenstine’s proposal is also somewhat unique in that it would not impose term limits by itself but would merely authorize Congress to pass laws to limit the number of terms that a Representative or Senator may serve (laws that of course could be easily repealed by a later Congress). How about the States taking action? The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 (U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton) that states may not individually enact term limits for their members of Congress. The consistent failure of Congress to pass a term limits amendment has even contributed to calls for a potentially dangerous Constitutional Convention.
But weren’t many of the Founders themselves “career politicians?” Many of the Founders did indeed spend the majority of their adult lives in the service of their country. Madison, for instance, spent 40+ years in public service, but he spent those many years as a Virginia House of Delegates member (on two occasions), a Confederation Congress delegate, a Virginia Ratifying Convention Delegate, then as a Delegate to the 1st Congress, as Secretary of State, and, finally, as President for two terms. With all due respect to John Dingle, who may indeed be a fine person, I prefer this model of a “career politician.”
“We’re happy with our Senator/Representative, it’s all those other [men and women] who are the problem,” goes the cry.
How well do we really know our representatives? Are they really the best we can find? An email that seems to make the rounds at least once a year claims that many in Congress have criminal records or have been accused of crimes such as spousal abuse, fraud, assault, shoplifting, drug-related charges, etc. It seems unlikely that the email’s claims could be current, but if even a portion of the claims are true, it is reason for concern. In 1981, U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings was impeached for accepting a bribe in exchange for a defendant’s lenient sentence. He was convicted and removed from the bench, whereby the citizens of Florida’s 23rd District sent him to Congress as their Representative!
Where is the real problem – in our representatives or in the electorate?
In my view, a Term Limits Amendment isn’t needed for the same reason a Balanced Budget Amendment isn’t needed. The fact that we are considering either is more an indictment on us than our system. The solution to both problems is at hand every time we step into the voting booth: putting in office better men and women, and removing them when they fail us.
If you are not yet convinced, and would like to get involved in the term limits issue, there are several websites you should visit, chief among them being: http://termlimits.org/ and http://goooh.com/Home.aspx.