Bummer: Elected Office Seniority Not The Boon It Once Was


(The Hill) Seniority was once valued in politics, but this year, incumbents are having trouble convincing voters that politicians get better with age.

It’s an issue that was front and center last week in 76-year-old Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) primary runoff battle with state Sen. Chris McDaniel, and was a driving force in 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R-Texas) loss last month.

For both Hall and Cochran, it’s not just that their decades of service are seen as a detriment – questions about the effects of their age are popping up, too.

Much of the story centers on the Cochran/McDaniel race, but does briefly make note of the anti-incumbency and supposedly anti-government tendencies of the GOP primary voters. Let’s note that it isn’t “anti-government”, it’s about the size, scope, spending, and role of Government. We think there is way, way, way too much, especially at the federal level. As for incumbency, yes, there is a problem. More and more are thinking that term limits are A Good Idea. Many of these long term elected officials are quickly captured by the system, and so often do things counter to the reason they were elected. They are unresponsive to the system. Heck, many of those Republican’s voted in by the Tea Party in 2010 are becoming more Establishment. They listen more to the Big Donors and certain nationwide interest groups than their constituents. Look at what happened to Eric Cantor, who pretty much blew off his constituents till election time. He was only in Congress since 2001.

Edward H. Crane gave testimony to Congress in regards to term limits

I would make the point that the debate over three terms versus six terms is not mere quibbling over a technical issue. It is significant and substantive. It is a question of the people’s term limits versus the politicians disingenuous limits. The political energy behind the term limit movement is predicated on the need for a citizen legislature. Americans believe that career legislators and professional politicians have created a gaping chasm between themselves and their government. For democracy to work, it must be representative democracy – a government of, by, and for the people. That means a citizen legislature.

To achieve a citizen legislature it is imperative that our representatives in Congress – particularly in the House, which the Framers clearly intended to be the arm of government closest to the people – be not far removed from the private sector which, after all, they are elected to represent. As Rhode Island’s Roger Sherman wrote at the time of our nation’s founding, “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.” In the era of year-round legislative sessions, the only way to achieve that objective is through term limits.

Three terms for the House is preferable to six terms for a variety of reasons, which I will discuss below. The most important one, however, deals with the question of who seeks to become a member of Congress in the first place. The fact is that America is best served by a Congress populated with members who are there out of a sense of civic duty, but who would rather live their lives in the private sector, holding productive jobs in civil society, outside the governmental world of political society. Such individuals might be willing to spend two, four, or even six years in Washington, but not if the legislative agenda is being set by others, who’ve gained their authority through seniority. Twelve year “limits,” which these days amount to a mini-career, do little to remove this major obstacle to a more diverse and representative group of Americans seeking office.

Today’s elected officials have essentially created a permanent aristocracy. They do what they want. Remember Barbara Boxer’s little whine about calling her Senator, rather than ma’am? Then there was John Conyer’s being celebrated for taking his 25,000th vote. I could swear there was a GOP Senator who did the same, but can’t find who. Regardless, that many votes is anything but a reason to celebrate. It is a direct assault on our Democratic Republic. These elected officials are divorced from their constituents.

Furthermore, they pay more attention to national politics rather than what is going on in their own states and districts, which is a reason that the 17th Amendment needs to be repealed, doing away with direct election of Senators. The original system of letting the state general assemblies pick the Senators would do three things. First, it would mean that states have an ambassador to the federal government (actually, two). Second, it would mean Senators would be more beholden to their state, rather than the national party. Third, it would mean citizens would pay quite a bit more attention to what is going on in their state government, which might mean more power being returned to the States from Los Federales, where that power should reside. That’s a much longer discussion for another day.

Long term incumbents live in their own Inside The Beltline bubble world, and, like oil in a car, need to be replaced every once in awhile, as they get stagnant, old, and non-functioning. Personally, I would go for four terms for Representatives, rather than three. Another Edward, Edward E. Cronin, wrote that term limits are a check against a cult of personality. The Harvard Crimson notes that elected officials say we already have term limits, they’re called “elections”. Yet, we constantly see elected officials lasting for 20, 30, 40 years. Daniel K. Inouye served in the senate from 1963 till he passed on in 2012. Heritage noted all the way back in 1994

The only serious opponents of term limits are incumbent politicians and the special interests — particularly labor unions — that support them. The specter of term limits creates powerful emotional reactions in opponents, at least two elected legislators (one the chairman of the House Administration Subcommittee on elections) having publicly compared the term limits movement to Nazism. Such overheated rhetoric indicates both the threat that term limits poses to established special interests and the urgency of the battle for them.

Why would they oppose term limits? Power. Pure, naked, unadulterated power. This is the kind of post which could continue to grow and grow and grow in the discussion. I’ll leave it to you to read a bit about term limits. I’ll also recommend reading An Act Of Self Defense by Erne Lewis, which is all about the need for term limits. Yes, it’s a fiction novel, but it makes a serious case, and does a good job in avoiding political labels, and engaging the issue for both Left and Right.

Crossed at Pirate’s Cove. Follow me on Twitter @WilliamTeach.

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