My Turn: Setting term limits is the key to building a better government

Last modified: 11/10/2014 12:14:49 AM
How many times have you wanted to make a point and something happens at just the right time that does it for you?

Today we have one of those moments that more or less makes my case.

Remember when you were in grade school and, at about 10:30 in the morning, a bell would ring, the doors would open and everyone would be shooed outside for recess? I don’t know about you, but recess was the highlight of my day.

We now have a Congress that feels the same way.

On Thursday, Sept. 18, Congress flew out of the Capital and will not return until Wednesday. From the end of July until mid-November, Congress will have been in session for a total of eight days.

And what about issues such as the economy, jobs, ISIL, immigration, Ebola, broken government, health care costs, health care accessibility, poverty, infrastructure and federal debt? Forget it, Congress is out to recess. They rushed home because there was a major issue on their radar and it wasn’t about national security or Ebola or health care, it was totally about re-election.

Virtually all studies that measure approval of Congress conclude that it is at an all time low, and it is not something that just happened. Americans loathe Congress.

According to one study, its favorability ratings rank lower than: cockroaches, traffic jams or colonoscopies. Today the approval rate of Congress is 8 percent! There is no research to back this up, but many believe that the No. 1 item on the agenda of any member of Congress is not how can I get a bigger salary, or health care or a life-long pension? The single most important item on all congressional agendas is how can I get re-elected?

Re-election – that is the time bomb in our current system.

That political necessity trumps everything else on the agenda of Congress. Re-election concerns skew decision-making and invite poorly thought out legislation. Re-election antics encumber government with layer upon layer of needless programs and the new bureaucracy to administer them. Re-election breeds bogus hearings and assorted congressional theater that accomplishes nothing but costs plenty. And the re-election drive consumes a huge amount of the congressman’s time.

It is estimated that members of Congress spend 65 to 75 percent of their time raising money in order to get re-elected. We have an ISIS crisis, an immigration mess and dozens of other front-burner issues, and the people who should be making decisions are not in the schoolhouse – they are on recess and won’t return to class until after elections! For 65 to 75 percent of the time they are doing nothing for the country, they are doing nothing for their constituents and they are totally disengaged from everything that they are there to address. They are dialing for dollars while everything else is pushed into the background.

The urgent need now is to get the money out of the system, and the way you do that is to take away any opportunity to get re-elected. If you can’t run for re-election, then you don’t need to bother raising money.

Here’s the plan.

∎ One three-year term for a House member – turn over one-third of the House every year.

∎ One six-year term for a senator – turn over one-third of the Senate every two years.

∎ One six-year term for a president and vice president.

Some term limit sites talk about just two or three terms. That accomplishes nothing except to eliminate a person. For many, the idea of federal term limits is solely viewed as a way to get rid of members of Congress. While that is certainly an outcome, and in many cases a welcome outcome, the larger benefit of term limits will be the significant extraction of money out of the process. The problem today isn’t so much the people as the money that purchased them.

If someone can stay for two terms, then there is a re-election dance, and that cotillion is paid for by the special interests. The result is layer upon layer of payoff, or feel-good legislation that is costly, cumbersome and pure nonsense. No one gives a hoot about the effect on the bureaucracy, how it will be paid for or how it will be monitored. All they need is that bullet on their political resume so they have something to smooth the path toward re-election.

And here are a few other pieces of the term limit rule just to nail down the escape routes.

No running for another office until you have been out of office for a period of four years. This four-year prohibition keeps the members from daisy chaining from one office to another.

And you can never return to the same office regardless of how many years you have been gone.

With this one-term restriction, re-election is off the table and that immediately kills the need to raise any funds.

If a person can’t run for office for second term:

∎ The decision-making becomes more focused, more real, more commonsense and conscience-driven.

∎ Legislation that is absurd and poorly thought out is put aside.

∎ Unnecessary and wasteful government spending declines because members are freer to allow common sense and conscience to enter into the decision-making process.

∎ Time that was previously spent dialing for dollars can now be utilized to research key issues, talk with experts, talk with constituents and arrive at a vote based on combining all those ingredients and not a vote predicated on the expectation of some donor.

Term limits is the only foolproof method to vacuum out the money.

Without term limits, we are continuing to allow members to run for re-election and, if they are running to get re-elected, they are looking for money. And that money is coming from special interests on both the right and the left.

A successful term limit plan must take the ability to run for re-election out of the equation. Any term limit effort that allows for re-election, even for a small number of terms, is only going to periodically replace personnel, but the money is still 100 percent in play.

With term limits in place, we will have representatives and senators who are not focused on re-election because they can’t run for re-election.

If Congress people can’t run for re-election, why do they need lobbyists’ money? They don’t.

So what will lobbyists do? Some of the K Street crowd will probably try to fund the first and only election of members-to-be. But the member-to-be, once sworn in, doesn’t need that lobbyist any more. So it will no longer be a slam-dunk for the money merchants. Also, other members of the body will know that this member was “sponsored,” – bought and paid for – so they will dismiss him as a pawn, an errand boy for the special interests.

Campaign finance reform isn’t leakproof

I’m not a believer in campaign finance reform legislation because I have never seen it work. How many times do we need to run headlong into a brick wall? History has shown us that there is always some group that finds a loophole, a way around the campaign finance legislation. Campaign money is like water, it always finds an outlet.

Remember your history: The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as McCain/Feingold, was intended to close the “soft money” loophole for political parties. So money was then diverted into issue ads and so-called 527 groups. Now the 527s have been displaced by super PACs and 501(c)(4)s.

And when a loophole is found, what’s to keep a politicized Supreme Court from blessing that loophole? But there is no need for a Supreme Court opinion on this: three years = 3 years; six years = 6 years.

Some lobbyists will try to funnel money to sitting members – it’s called a bribe. But we have some pretty stiff laws for that, and it is doubtful many members will play that game.

And without the need to get re-elected, most members should buckle down and do the job they were elected to do. Common sense should return to the decision-making process. Members can no longer hide from their constituencies because, guess what – they have to go home after that one term. And that reality could put the brakes on much of the inane activity that often flows out of Congress.

Yes, some may show up in Congress with hard-core agendas, but without the ongoing “good-ole-boy club” – the multi-decade seniority pyramid – they are going to have a difficult time pushing through some pet project. Other members will look at such attempts and say, “You’re out of your mind.” I also think you will get a better caliber of candidate because some people who have a lot to offer may say, “It’s only X number of years. I don’t have to raise money to run again. I’ll give it a shot.”

There may be some people who will try to use the platform of being a “former member of Congress” to propel them into some future position, but that concern is trivial when measured against the mess we are dealing with today.

With term limits, some may be concerned about having the government at risk of being under control of unelected bureaucrats. At first glance, that seems to be a valid concern. But with a more intelligent group in Congress, members who aren’t dancing to the tune of their donors, that concern fades. Members can get off the phones and begin the job of supervising that bureaucracy as they are supposed to do.

There are almost limitless resources to which members of Congress can turn with which to address, research and acquaint themselves with a given issue.

Members of Congress have a personal staff of 19 people. Committees of Congress average 68 people per committee. And the number of people making up all congressional support services numbers over 30,000. There is plenty of help if members will do the job they were sent there to do instead of wasting 65 to 75 percent of their time raising money for the next election.

People tend to put their legislators on pedestals. To think that legislators read every bit of legislation is ludicrous. Instead, like all legislatures, they rely on various committees to do the necessary leg work and research crafting a solid piece of legislation.

Being a member of Congress is a job, and you should do it the best you can. You don’t need experience to know that it will be helpful to round up as much information as you can in order to arrive at a conclusion or perhaps a vote. But you can’t do that job when 65 to 75 percent of your time is spent running for re-election. The obsession with re-election has led Congress into the swamp of dereliction.

Yes, with a less “experienced” Congress, some things will slip through, but they do today.

And let’s define experience – bigger office, status committee assignments, cozying up to leadership, adding more fat cats to your speed dial.

People should be assigned to, and lead, committees where they have some life experience, some know-how, instead of being rewarded on the basis of how long they’ve been hanging around the club house.

Many assume that their elected officials are all knowing, that they are conversant with the thousands of items that come before their respective assembly. They aren’t – they can’t be – so they rely heavily on their staff. There is an ample supply of highly qualified people in Washington ready to assist Congress in doing its job.

And, by staggering the influx of new legislators, there is a built-in experience, or continuity factor.

Incumbents will argue vehemently that their experience is vital to the survival of the nation.

I don’t buy it.

Experience is helpful, but a thoughtful look at today’s Congress will lead to the conclusion that the “experience” is primarily built up in gaming the system, currying favor with leadership, finding more donors and, hopefully, being re-elected. A couple of junkets to Afghanistan does not an expert make. A new member can garner that same “experience” inside of a month! But along the way, while acquiring that self-preservation experience, common sense and the ability to do what is right have been tossed out the window.

In today’s Congress, an in-depth knowledge of many issues is, more often than not, just as deep as the sheet of talking points sitting on the lectern.

Lobbyists on K Street will go ballistic because their quid pro quo brand of law making will basically come to a screeching halt.

This is where the heavy money to defeat term limits will come from because term limits will dramatically alter the entire paradigm for K Street. Lobbyists will still be present, but they won’t be passing out the re-election dollars.

Organizations that today are known to be buying Congress will go all out to make sure that term limits never happen because a straight up, level congressional playing field doesn’t work for them.

Can term limits happen?

The objection that we hear most often is: Congress won’t vote to throw themselves out of office! Of course they won’t, but they may vote to let the voters decide this issue if they are given a reasonable amount of time to let the process play out.

And the process would require a constitutional amendment and those take time.

First of all, Congress, or the states, must propose an amendment to the Constitution. All 27 amendments have come from the Congress.

Both Houses of Congress must propose the amendment with a two-thirds vote and that will take time, time for incumbents to continue their tenure.

The proposed amendment then goes to the states for ratification. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that ratification must happen within “some reasonable time after the proposal.” Since the 18th Amendment, Congress has set an unofficial period of seven years for ratification. That seven plus years, in addition to the time it took to propose the amendment, allows several last gasps for current members of Congress to continue their tenure – incumbent self-preservation.

Using this time line, an incumbent House member who voted for the amendment would still be looking at the possibility of three to four more terms before the whole process played itself out and the Constitution was amended. So they are not immediately voting themselves out of office.

For an incumbent Senator, there could be two additional terms out there before all ratification is completed.

People are disgusted with our current system, and term limits might be in play. But it will only happen if the voters demand it of the elected Congress. The current system is totally broken.

Take away the obsession, lust and opportunity to get re-elected, and maybe members of Congress will start doing what in their hearts and minds they know is right.

The new legislators would come out of the gate and go around the track – just once – so the special interest folks don’t have an opportunity to build the usual long-term relationship where demands are made of the legislator in exchange for help with his or her re-election.

People are almost always for term limits until they recognize that this is going to cost them their favorite congressperson.

Think about it this way, if you are one of those who feels really passionate about an incumbent, then it’s a sure thing that you have an equal amount of disdain for other incumbents. So look at it as a trade.

So we have to ask Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz to please board departure vessel one. And in the next boat we will have Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen and so forth for 96 others in the Senate, 435 in the House and two in the White House. They are all taking huge money from special interests and yes, it is affecting how they vote. They are not breaking the law in accepting that money; it is the key to their political survival, the funds needed to get re-elected.

For those who want to believe that their representative or senator is pure as the driven snow, go to opensecrets.org and have a look around.

And relax. We are a nation of 316 million people. Don’t elevate congresspeople to some sort of pedestal. We can find tens of thousands people who will do just as good a job as any current member in Congress. Common sense, decency and the knowledge to know and do what is right is not something that is rarely found.

Most of us have those qualities within us, and there are ample well-qualified people in this country to populate the 535 seats in Congress and the two seats in the executive branch.

This is not a war with Sanders, Cruz, Ayotte or Shaheen; this is a recognition that our federal law-making process is for sale and the special interests know it. With term limits, you have extracted the money from the system that flows into re-election campaigns for members of Congress because there are not going to be re-election campaigns.

We can no longer accept the reality that policy is being made in exchange for money to get re-elected. With term limits, you have paved the way for intelligence, conscience and common sense to return to the decision-making process.



(Ted Leach of Hancock is the former publisher of the “Nantucket Beacon,” “Monadnock Ledger” and the “McCormick Messenger” in South Carolina. He served in the New Hampshire Legislature from 2000-2004.)


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