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Term Limits For Congress – Is it possible?

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The purity and effectiveness of a Congressman diminishes with time.

I believe introducing a bill to advance term limits into law is almost an impossible task. I think of it this way; all of them are up there in Washington riding the gravy train. Why would any of them want to essentially vote themselves out of office?

Don’t get me wrong. There was a time when I did not believe in term limits. Instead, I believed in our ability to get off our collective a**es and go out and vote every two fricking years. When I finally got a clue that America doesn’t care (i.e. Kennedy, the lifer ilk, et. al.), I woke up to the fact term limits are going to be the only way to save America. After all, the voters won’t.

Look at the current occupant in the White House.

Sen. Jim DeMint says Washington politicians are like fruit on the vine: the longer they hang around, the more rotten they get.

On November 10, 2009, the South Carolina Republican introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would limit Senate members to three six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms. His motive is to fix the corrupting influence of “permanent politicians“.

“As long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buy off special interests, covering over corruption in the bureaucracy, fundraising, relationship building among lobbyists, and trading favors for pork – in short, amassing their own power.” – Senator DeMint

In a grotesque way of proving his point, Senator DeMint is also running for a second term next year. History may also be working on his side. Although changes in the nation’s political mood can bring changes to Congress, incumbent senators have a high probability of reelection. One such example was seen during the opening years of the Reagan era in 1980. However, changes of this scale are very rare.

For U.S. Representatives, the rate of reelection is even better. In the preceding 22 years from 2008, an incumbent representative had a better than 90% chance for reelection for 17 of those years. With large cash reserves and name recognition, they are almost guaranteed reelection.

With the continuous reelection of the majority of incumbents, Congress has become stagnant. In the 2000 Congressional Elections, out of the 435 Congressional districts in which there were elections, 359 were considered to be able to remain holding their seats. Historically, congressional elections shift very few seats from one party to another.

The Role of Soft Money and Issue Advocacy Ads
Enacted March 27, 2002, Congressional legislators passed into law the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to combat the growing stagnation of Congress, claiming that it would revitalize elections. The law is an ammedment to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 which regulates the financing of political campaigns.

The Act attempts to address two issues:

  • The increased role of soft money in campaign financing, by prohibiting national political party committees from raising or spending any funds not subject to federal limits, even for state and local races or issue discussion;
  • The proliferation of issue advocacy ads, by defining as “electioneering communications” broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election, and prohibiting any such ad paid for by a corporation (including non-profit issue organizations such as Right to Life or the Environmental Defense Fund) or paid for by an unincorporated entity using any corporate or union funds.

“Soft money” refers to contributions made to political parties for purposes of party building and other activities not directly related to the election of specific candidates. It also refers to unlimited contributions to organizations and committees other than candidate campaigns and political parties. The Act prohibits soft money contributions to national party committees.

“Issue Advocacy Ads” are a type of advertisement that is used in political campaigns. These advertisements get their funding from soft money.

Corruption Can Undermine Incumbency Financial Advantages
With a 22:1 financial advantage over his Republican challenger Michael Flanagan, 18 term incumbent Congressman Dan Rostenkowski was defeated by 52-46 percent.
Rostenkowski spent close to $2.5 million on the election compared to the $133,000 spent by his Republican opponent. The advantage that opponent Michael Flanagan had over Rostenkowski in this case was that Flanagan wasn’t involved in a 17-count federal investigation in “misuse of personal and congressional funds, extortion of gifts and cash, and obstruction of justice.”

This example serves to show that financial advantages aren’t always related to guaranteeing reelection. It also serves to suggest that the longer a Congressman is in office the great the chance there is of becoming corrupted. Sometimes, it only takes a few years to succumb to corrupt ways.

From Hero to Convict
After Randy “Duke” Cunningham enlisted into the U.S. Navy in 1967, Cunningham and his Radar Intercept Officer, (RIO) “Irish” Driscoll became the only Navy aces in the Vietnam War, flying an F-4 Phantom from aboard aircraft carriers, and recording five confirmed kills. He was one of the early graduates of the Navy’s TOPGUN school that taught dogfighting techniques to F-4 Phantom pilots and RIOs.

Cunningham downed a MiG-17 which was supposedly piloted by North Vietnam Air Force fighter ace Col. Nguyen Toon, aka, “Colonel Tomb”. Although “Colonel Toon” was an American-manufactured myth, a North Vietnamese Air Force pilot from the 921st Fighter Regiment named Nguyen Van Coc. “Colonel Toon” was not only skilled but unorthodox, as Cunningham found out, when the Navy pilot made an elementary tactical error engaging him. The resulting dogfight became extended. Cunningham climbed steeply, and the MiG pilot surprised Cunningham by climbing as well. Remembering his TOPGUN training, Cunningham finally forced the MiG out ahead of him and destroyed it with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile.

In 1990, Cunningham ran for the office of U.S. Representative in 44th District, one of four that divided San Diego. The district had been held for eight years by Democrat Jim Bates, and was considered the most Democratic district in the San Diego area.

Bates had held the office since 1980 and was bogged down in a scandal involving charges of sexual harassment. Cunningham won the Republican nomination in 1990 and hammered Bates about the scandal, promising to be “a congressman we can be proud of.” He won by just one percentage point, meaning that the San Diego area was represented entirely by Republicans for only the second time since the city was split into two districts after the 1960 census.

Not immune from corruption and abuses himself, Cunningham resigned from the House on November 28, 2005, after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and under-reporting his income for 2004. He pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. On March 3, 2006, he received a sentence of eight years and four months in prison and an order to pay $1.8 million in restitution.

Congressional ethics laws prohibit members from accepting any largess over $100 per year from any one source, and only $50 at one time. Sometimes the rules are subtly skirted.

“I think the only defense he could possibly have is stupidity,” said Samuel L. Popkin, a professor of political science at University of California at San Diego, who has followed Cunningham’s career. “But he’s smart enough to know the rules — which he thinks don’t apply to him.”

A friend had another explanation: “I know what happened, and I know how it happened,” Nesby said. “It’s really very simple. In the political arena, what at first seems abnormal becomes normal. . . . It’s very easy in this environment for one to lose their moral compass.”

Weak Support For Term Limits
Obviously, to combat congressional stagnation, we cannot simply wait for a congressman to become corrupt, as inevitable as it may seem.

Term limits can be a useful tool for weeding out corrupt politicians. Judicial Watch does a great job of identifying and publishing a “top 10” list. Their list for 2008 can be seen here.

Applying term limits to Congressmen was proposed in the “Citizen Legislature Act” (H.J.Res.73) during the 104th Congress as an amendment to the Constitution that would limit Congressmen to 6 two-year terms. This act was defeated in the House by a 227-204 margin (the 227 votes in favor were insufficient, as a proposed Constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority of 290 votes to be passed).

Washington watchdogs said DeMint’s bill has a zero chance of becoming law, mostly because of a general lack of interest and the high hurdles to amending the Constitution.

“It’s a great issue to talk about, but it’s not going to happen,” – Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic majority’s second-highest ranking leader.

Term limit proposals have seen little support on Capitol Hill since the issue was featured in the “Contract with America” that helped the Republican Party win control of Congress in 1994. House Republicans brought three versions of constitutional amendments for term limits to the floor in 1995 and each failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), disagrees with Mr. DeMint’s premise that politicians get more corrupt the longer they serve.

“There are plenty of bad members who have been there a short time and plenty of bad members who have been there a long time. Length of service just isn’t telling enough. It doesn’t make a great member or a terrible member.” – Melanie Sloan, executive director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics

Mrs. Sloan, a Democrat, said the amendment appeared to be more about Mr. DeMint making a statement than about changing the Constitution.

DeMint's Case For Term Limits

However, DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said the bill will succeed if the American public get behind it and force lawmakers to put it to a vote.

To pass a constitutional amendment, it takes a two-thirds vote of approval in both chambers of Congress. Then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The last one to succeed – the 27th Amendment that delays pay raises for members of Congress until after the next election – was proposed in 1789 as part of the Bill of Rights but was not ratified by the states until 1992.

Mr. DeMint’s bill is cosponsored by two Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is running for a second term next year and has pledged to not seek a third, and Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, who is in her third full term.

It would appear history is not on their side.

Written by Ben

December 1, 2009 at 10:45 am