No, Term Limits is Not a Fool's Errand
by Mark Tapscott, Editorial Page Editor, November 10, 2009
Somewhere in the liberal print and broadcast media today very important people are using the words “DeMint” and “Coburn” in the same sentence with words like “fools,” “doomed,” or ‘hopeless.” And, as usual, these very important people are wrong.
Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, of course, are the Republican senators from South Carolina and Oklahoma, who today introduced a constitutional amendment providing for a maximum of two six-year terms for members of the Senate and three two-year terms for representatives. Co-sponsors include senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas.
DeMint-Coburn is, uniquely, one of the most radical proposed changes in American politics in decades, and the reestablishment of one of the oldest conservative traditions of the American political culture, with roots deep in the colonial era.
They called it “rotation in office” in colonial days. It was so widely held that nobody batted an eye when Thomas Jefferson proposed term limiting members of the Continental Congress. The limits were needed, Jefferson said, “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress."
Americans continued to view rotation in office as self-evidently necessary after the Constitution was adopted, even though the exalted document lacked a term limits provision. Rotation was such a given that it was a commonplace before the Civil War for most members of a new Congress to be freshmen.
No wonder novelist James Fennimore Cooper observed in 1828 that most office-holders held the view that "contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed."
It was not until the New Deal era and thereafter that it became routine for congressmen to stay in Washington year after year after year. Today, the re-election rate for the U.S. Congress is typically 90 percent or more, with only a few dozen competitive seats “up” in an election.
Call it what you will, though, term-limiting federal senators and representatives, just as presidents, many state legislators, and city councilmen are, would have a profound effect on American politics. As DeMint said:
"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.”
The power of congressional incumbency must be broken. If it’s not, there will be no changing the culture of corruption and hypocrisy epitomized by earmarks, Charlie Rangel, trillions in deficits as far as the eye can see, and members voting on 2,000-plus page bills they haven’t read.
That is the reality Tea Party protesters must confront if they want permanent change in America. A 1994 Supreme Court decision saying voters cannot be prevented from voting for whomever they please for Congress has been widely viewed as the final word on term limits.
But it doesn’t have to be the last word. A momentous change has occurred in public opinion in the nearly 10 months since President Obama took office. Obama and Democratic congressional leaders have seriously over-played their hand, thereby inciting a conservative renaissance and a seismic shift to the right among independents.
Hotline editor Amy Walter points to the fact Obama carried independents in Virginia by one point in 2008. A year later, Republican Bob McDonnell carried the same voters by 33 points. In New Jersey, Obama’s four-point margin in 2008 became a 30-point margin for Republican Chris Christie.
There is a growing “throw all the bums out” feeling in this country that threatens career politicians in both parties. The rotting fruits of their tenure are only beginning to stink up the place, and they don’t know how to do anything but make it worse.
Change is coming, and, unlike 1995 and the Contract with America failure, I’m willing to bet that this time around term limits won’t be denied.
Mark Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner and proprietor of Tapscott’s Copy Desk blog on washingtonexaminer.com