Trump’s Promise, Congress’ Duty

Monday, December 5th, 2016 @ 12:00PM

Ask nearly any representative or senator serving in the U.S. Congress his or her opinion of term limits and you will most likely get the same response: “Term limits aren’t necessary. It’s up to the voters to decide how long a person serves in office.” Ah, if it were only that simple.

President-elect Donald Trump, in his Contract With The American Voter, pledged that on his first day in office, he would propose a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress. What a fantastic idea. And long overdue. The problem, of course, is getting such an amendment ratified.

On the surface, the knee-jerk response of these politicians that term limits aren’t necessary because “it’s up to the voters” sounds reasonable. After all, here in America – the world’s preeminent “democracy” (actually, a representative republic) – U.S. citizens of legal age have the right to vote and in exercising that right, decide collectively who they wish to represent them at all levels of government. So, from an intuitive perspective, there is nothing wrong with sending the same politician back to Congress term after term if that is the electorate’s will. The problem, of course, is that what is intuitive doesn’t always match what is reality.

Many members of Congress have a knack for getting elected and not much else. Most often these are the glad-handers – affectionately or derisively known as the “good-ole boys” (and girls). Armed with a permanent smile and an effervescent “never met a stranger” personality, these politicians win re-election cycle after cycle, not because of their legislative talents, but rather because of their singular ability to get people to like them and, therefore, to vote for them. As most voting is emotion-based, it is a reliable formula.

Once in office, there is the power of incumbency which, in a nutshell, is based in the fact that voters like to vote for a winner and having already won at least one election, the incumbent is most often viewed as just that, a winner. Of course, there is from time to time a wave of anti-incumbency, however, most congressional incumbents are able to schmooze their way through this occasional annoyance only to win re-election again, and again, until, ultimately, they become that dirtiest of all four-letter words – a career politician.

The problem with this system, which appears democratic on the surface, is that it tends ultimately – in the case of career politicians at least – to be anything but democratic. Why? One simple reason – the accumulation of power.

The longer a member of Congress stays in office, generally speaking, the more difficult it is for a newcomer to defeat him or her due to the simple fact of the power of incumbency. Further, the longer a member of Congress stays in office, in most cases, the larger his or her war chest becomes with regard to campaign finances. Of course, money isn’t everything in politics, just almost everything. Anyone who knows anything about campaigning knows that the person with the most money to spend has the best chance of winning, all other things being equal. Still further, the longer a member of Congress stays in office, the more likely he or she is to earn a powerful legislative position which tends to further insulate him or her from an effective challenge.

If the point of a democracy (or, rather, a representative republic) is to empower the voters, then such self-sustaining concentrations of power are antithetical to the essence of the “one person, one vote” concept of fair and effective self-government. Even Congress, itself, along with most state legislatures once realized the folly of allowing certain politicians to become entrenched in government by proposing and ratifying the 22nd Amendment limiting the president to two terms – this after President Franklin Roosevelt appeared determined to remain president forever or, well, at least until he died (which, of course, he managed to do).

If President-elect Trump keeps his promise to the American people to propose, on his first day in office, an amendment instituting term limits on members of Congress, he will have done something truly historic. If members of Congress support ratification of the amendment by the state legislatures, they will have done something beyond historic – they will have done their duty.

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