“Throw the bums out!”
That’s a popular sentiment expressed when folks are asked about our representatives in Congress and the state Legislature. The thing is, the folks calling for a house-cleaning of our elected officials rarely follow through at the ballot box, despite polls showing voters’ opinions of Congress are roughly akin to their feelings about proctological exams.
For as long as we can recall, the suggested alternative has been to impose term limits on lawmakers. The idea gained some traction in the mid-’90s with then House Speaker Newt Gingrich pressing his Contract with America proposals, term limits being among them. However, there wasn’t sufficient appetite among those in Congress to curtail their own tenures, and the idea has rarely bobbed above the surface in the years since.
But if our congressmen and women, and their counterparts in state government, really want to do something that would meet with public acclamation, from citizens of every political stripe, they would do well to enact term limits.
At least that’s the message in the results of a recent Gallup poll that found fully three-quarters of those surveyed want to limit the years of service of members of Congress. Breaking it down further, about two-thirds of Democrats polled are in favor of limits. The figure rises to about 80 percent among independents and Republicans. And Americans of every age group – from those eligible to vote for the first time to senior citizens – want to cap the number of years served by members of the House and Senate.
In the past, we have expressed the opinion that such legislation was not really necessary, because Americans already had the option to limit the terms of their representatives by going to the polls and voting them out. In reality, that rarely happens. To adapt an old phrase, voters seem to like the devil they know better than the devil they don’t know. Essentially, they believe that “their guy” is OK, but the rest of them need to be turned out. And the end result is that the odds of a congressional incumbent winning re-election is right up there with the chance of it being cold on a January day in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In last year’s elections, according to a recent piece in USA Today, voters re-elected 90 percent of incumbent House members and 91 percent of senators seeking new terms.
There are a couple of reasons why we now believe that consideration should be given to term limits. One is the easing of restrictions on money that is poured into elections. Most notable is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations and labor unions to make independent political expenditures without limit. In essence, they have been given the green light to spend whatever cash they think necessary to purchase an electoral victory for a chosen candidate. That corporate and union money often flows largely toward incumbents, turning what always has been an uphill climb for challengers into a Sisyphean task.
Another factor is the continuing gerrymandering of districts in order to create “safe seats” for incumbents of one party or the other. If, for example, a district is created to highly favor Democrats, an incumbent Democrat holding that seat would have to worry little about a challenge from a Republican and would have to be concerned only about keeping his party’s base happy to keep winning election after election after election.
If term limits do somehow receive serious consideration, that also would be an opportune time to change the term of House members from two years to four. With the current two-year terms, those lawmakers have barely been elected when they start running for re-election. The total length of time a House or Senate member could serve would have to be part of the larger debate.
Term limits aren’t the answer to all of the ills in Washington or Harrisburg, but they could at least create a situation in which a lawmaker, entering his or her final years in office, would feel free to cast votes or pursue legislative goals without the fear that their actions would come back to bite them at election time.