ATLANTA – Do we need term limits? Would you be surprised to know the average length of time a U.S. senator serves is 12.9 years? Or the average term served by a U.S. representative is 11 years? But too many of them seem to have been there forever. Those numbers are averages from the Congressional Research Service at the Library Of Congress.
The entire House is running for re-election this Fall and one-third of the Senate. Some people say their senators or congressmen are all right. “Good old what’s-his-name is OK.” All the others are political hacks.
Once upon a time, term limits didn’t seem necessary to your writer. Elections were enough to ensure a little sanity might prevail in the ensuing two years, but I came to see this as a flawed premise.
I’m still of the opinion the framers of our government were smart enough to account for many things in future centuries. What they could not know was the extent to which powerful interests and the money they wield can sway lawmakers. Efforts to stanch the growth of the special interests seem to go nowhere.
We need term limits. The President can serve only two terms, as set out in the 22nd Amendment. Some governors are limited to two terms. Why not limit U.S. senators to two terms, or 12 years, and congressmen to six terms, or 12 years? That’s enough time to show up for work on purpose, get the job done and move on to something else, probably as a lobbyist.
Politics used to be an amateur sport, of sorts, but somewhere along the way we handed this over to the professionals who know the blush that comes with election and the power it brings. Some early members of Congress were wealthy enough that they could serve for a period. Ego was part of propelling the ambitious to run, but terms were served then members went home.
The founding fathers were prescient when crafting the final form of the Constitution with all members of the House running for re-election every two years. Later, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution meant direct election of senators rather than election by state legislatures. There would thus be a holdover of two-thirds of the senators every two years.
Fast forward to the present.
Just like the TV news business with its crop of consultants, the political consultants seem to do the only important advising and consenting to which the elected servant listens. The senate gives advice and consents to some presidential actions. Senate and House staff members do much more behind the scenes than we’d believe, but we hear about almost none of that.
The Center for Responsive Politics says the 2008 campaigns cost $5.3 billion, with $8.5 million having been spent to win the senate seat in Minnesota. Norm Coleman spent $20 million contesting the election count and lost anyway. The average senate candidate had to raise $3,881/day for each day of the six-year term.
Raising that money means there are a lot of promises to be made. Compromise can be hard and is sometimes impossible. A newcomer to, say, the Senate, has to make a lot of bargains before he or she even gets to Washington. Then, it’s payback time and taxpayers wind up doing the paying while “Good old what’s-his-name” stays in office.
Goodnow was recruited by CNN in 1982 as an anchor/editor at the new Headline News channel and left the network in 2000. He began work as a journalist some decades ago. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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