Term Limits And A Complacent Congress

There was an editorial in the Wall Street Journal taking Republicans in Congress to task for putting politics over principle. Here’s an excerpt that will give you the gist of it:

“The real House GOP problem isn’t about lobbyists so much as it is the atrophying of its principles. As their years in power have stretched on, House Republicans have become more passionate about retaining power than in using that power to change or limit the federal government. Gathering votes for serious policy is difficult and tends to divide a majority. Re-election unites them, however, so the leadership has gradually settled for raising money on K Street and satisfying Beltway interest groups to sustain their incumbency.

This strategy has maintained a narrow majority, but at the cost of doing anything substantial. The last year in particular was an historic lost opportunity. House Republicans were also the main culprit in watering down Medicare reform, while Ohio’s Mike Oxley has run the Financial Services Committee more or less as liberal Barney Frank would. Beyond welfare reform and tax cuts (and perhaps health-savings accounts), the GOP has achieved little in the last decade that will outlast the next Democratic majority.

Meanwhile, the most talented and policy-driven Members have continued to leave Congress for other opportunities. Chris Cox now runs the SEC, Rob Portman is the U.S. trade rep, J.C. Watts is in the private sector, and others are running for Governor or the Senate. The leaders who remain have become ever more preoccupied with process, money and incumbency. Ideas are an afterthought, when they aren’t an inconvenience.”

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So what have we seen in Washington over the last decade or so?

We had Democrats, who were primarily concerned with keeping their cushy jobs, replaced by fiery Republican reformers. Then, over time, some of the more principled Republican pols left and some of them got too comfortable in Washington and what-do-you-know, we’re right back to where we started with politicians in love with their cushy jobs, except this time they’re Republicans.

The problem here is not the people involved, it’s institutional. Because of gerrymandering, a seat in the House is almost as good as a lifetime appointment for 80%-90% of people who win. Although it’s not that bad in the Senate, the incumbents have such an enormous advantage over their challengers that probably only 25% of them will ever have to seriously worry about losing their jobs.

And the job is certainly intoxicating. A Congressman is one of the most powerful people in the United States. They’re wined and dined by lobbyists, have vast staffs that cater to their needs, have sweetheart business deals offered to them, are treated like VIPs wherever they go, and have their every utterance covered by the press. Given all that, should we really be surprised that we have a Congress full of people more concerned with staying in Washington than doing the right thing? No, of course not.

That’s why implementing term limits is so important: because cycling in fresh blood to Congress helps keep our representatives focused on doing the people’s business instead of their own. Until that happens, the people and the parties in power may change, but the temptations of the system will continue to compromise members of Congress in a myriad of ways, great and small.

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