We’re constantly hearing that our government is broken, a system that no longer works. Recently, I posted a review of Jay Cost’s book A Republic No More, the thesis of which was that the public interest had long ago ceased to be the chief goal of our officials. And, indeed, the evidence seems irrefutable. But if that’s true, what do we do about it?
Cost intentionally did not set himself the task of prescribing remedies, only of identifying the problem, which he did in a masterly fashion. So, again, what are we to do?
One thing that occurs to me as a step in the right direction is term limits. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never jumped on the bandwagon that periodically rolls around for this particular reform; besides, the constitutional amendment process takes years. Notwithstanding that, the idea has come to make sense.
Consider for a moment our current system and the enthusiasm every few years that greets a new candidate for the United States Senate—whether in your state or not. Candidate X appears a man of character and principle, articulate, and qualified, with a good chance of winning. If he’s running for the first time, he may very well seem and very likely even be idealistic, bold in the presentation of his plan to change things for the better. A familiar scenario? Of course, it is. And so we elect him along with, if we’re especially blessed, dozens of a similar stripe.
Three terms later, where is our principled statesman? If you’re a Republican, you may find Senator X, who had, let’s say, a ninety-six percent rating from the American Conservative Union in his first four to six years, with an eighty-five percent rating or lower after eighteen. Eighty-five ain’t bad, but it’s not entirely principled either. A little scrutiny of the senator’s record might reveal a tendency—just to take some current examples—to champion big expenditures for military bases in his home state even as he pleads helplessness in challenging government funding of Planned Parenthood or enforcing the laws on illegal immigration. All in all, it’s a pattern that’s too familiar.
In too many instances, the longer a member of the house or senate stays in office, the more likely he will learn the rules of the Beltway game, becoming a lobbyist’s tool whose principles are sacrificial victims to the requisites of power brokerage and pork distribution.
What to do? Well, as I’ve indicated, term limits. Place a cap on how long a politician can stay in Washington, and our government might begin to operate a little more as it was supposed to.
After imposing such limits—let’s say two terms for a senator—imagine again our Senator X who waves good-bye to his state as he heads off to begin his first term. To be sure, he probably knows a thing or two about politics already, but will he become as compromised in twelve years that he would in eighteen, twenty-four, or thirty under the current scheme? At the very least, he’ll do less damage, and the lobbyists, even if no reforms touch them, will be forced to start all over again after twelve years with a new senator whose ideals might withstand the common beltway temptations for at least one term.
It is almost unnecessary to add that what goes for one office would likely go for another. Might a president limited to one six-year term with re-election no longer an option curry favor from his congressional colleagues less than he does now? Might he act more like a president and less like a prime minister, more an executive and less a head of an entrenched faction otherwise known as his party?
The laments about cronyism, dishonesty, and hypocrisy are by now as familiar as taxes, though not quite as familiar as death. If we take the attitude that this is just the normal course of things and that effective reform is chimerical, we deserve what we get. But if there is even the smallest chance that a few vigilant men, which may be all even the best country has, might turn the course of events with what is really a fairly modest reform, should they not act?
No one realistically expects a man or woman to assume office and maintain his ideals without the slightest deviation; politics, by its very nature, requires the modification of ideals in light of prudential realities. But it doesn’t require the surrender of prudence to corruption.
The time is ripe to tell the men we elect to high office that they do not go to Washington to serve themselves or forward the interests of the few and the powerful. Term limits would signal that conviction perhaps better than any other practical change in our form of government. The time for those limits is now.