“When plunder becomes a way of life, men create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” – Frederic Bastiat
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin routinely spoke of the importance of rotation in office to prevent abuse and corruption and to avoid the creation of a permanent political class. George Washington thought of himself first and foremost as a land surveyor, farmer, and soldier. He set the ultimate precedent by voluntarily surrendering power as he instinctively felt that changes in leadership were essential to a vibrant democratic republic taking root and was particularly keen on eliminating the concepts of nobles and peasants.
Too Much Power, Too Few Consequences
There is little doubt that these intellectually astute and elegantly articulate men, along with other Founding Fathers, would be distraught at the evolution of the professional politician and what this trend has wrought. With Senate and House incumbency re-election rates today standing at 93 percent and 97 percent, respectively (enough to make the Soviet Politburo blush), and with average service tenures showing relentless expansion for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, both chambers are riddled today with members who have become part of a tight-knit, inside-the-Beltway political class with multi-decade tenures who are, for the most part, divorced from the consequences of their lawmaking and day-to-day struggles of their constituents.
In fact, according to recent census data, seven of America’s ten richest counties are located in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, defying the years of stagnating income growth seen in the nation’s heartland. This can legitimately be viewed as a transfer payment from middle-class taxpayers to upper-class bureaucrats.
Adding insult to injury, when these denizens of Capitol Hill finally do decide that their constituents can do without them, they often jauntily skip over to K Street, with only cosmetic restrictions, and don their lobbyist caps to profit from the largesse of their former colleagues.
The Longer They Stay, the Worse They Get
Any lingering question as to whether term limits are needed only requires a quick glance at the recent $1.3 trillion, 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. The legislation continues what has become a sordid and habitual pattern of continuing resolutions over the last decade, meaning the abandonment of the proper appropriations protocol and, thus, a constitutionally sound budget.
There was a time in our history when blatant disregard for fiscal rectitude, not to mention the Constitution, were met with punitive consequences for the perpetrators. Alas, no more. They now operate in their bipartisan glory with impunity, their foibles many and accomplishments few. Examples abound in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle.
Thus, the exasperation should not be over why arguably the two most powerful members of Congress, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have been in Washington for a combined 64 years. It should revolve around why they continue to crave the Beltway and elective office.
Revealingly, a meaningful correlation exists between years in office and the propensity to support an ever-increasing level of government spending and borrowing, culminating in total government outlays now exceeding 40 percent of GDP. In fact, the national debt recently surpassed $21 trillion, surpassing 100 percent of our economy.
Ominously, with trillion-dollar annual deficits as far as the eye can see, these numbers are poised to continue their horrific glide path even higher. Thus, the concept of a debt crisis, fueled by non-discretionary spending and unfunded liabilities to the tune of over $80 trillion, cannot be casually dismissed.
Not Without Risks, but Necessary
While an arduous task, the best path forward to make the term limits concept a reality would be a Constitutional amendment emanating from a convention of the states, with ratification requiring the support of three-fourths of the states. The traditional amendment route through the U. S. Congress and then to the states would surely prove futile, as the foxes would never voluntarily agree to limit their ability to guard the henhouse. Importantly, Article 5 of the Constitution explicitly grants state legislators amendment powers, and a convention would materialize after the approval of two-thirds of state legislative bodies.
The amendment process is necessary as a result of the 1995 Supreme Court decision, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, where the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that neither states nor Congress could limit the number of terms that members of Congress could serve. The ruling brought to a halt what had become a popular nationwide movement and invalidated the term limit provisions that 23 states had placed on their national Congressional delegations.
While a convention of the states is a high-wire act fraught with risks, we have reached a point in our history where fundamental reforms on a variety of budgetary issues are imperative for the long-term survival of our republic. Nobody should be under the illusion that term limits are a panacea. However, returning our Congress to a citizen-legislator model that our Founders embraced is a critical first step; and for good measure, they could also throw in a balanced budget amendment with a strict tax limitation provision.
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