Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Effects of Unlimited Congressional Service

It is ironic that Franklin D. Roosevelt, after serving almost three full terms as President, was wise enough to realize that term limitations for the Presidency were necessary to prevent a popular President from becoming powerful enough to set in motion those things that would guarantee his reelection. Yet the Congress in session at that time was unable to realize that the same situation could and did exist among themselves. Limiting the Presidential term required a change to the Constitution, ratified by three fourths of the states within seven years, so there was ample time for the light to dawn on the Congress. I think the light did dawn, but Congress was, and still is, reluctant to place any limitations on itself. The lack of term limitations for members of Congress has caused three major problems with government today. These problems are that Congressional members have become politicians rather than statesmen, they have become too distant from those whom they represent, and they have become addicted to the power Congressional position provides.

The first problem is one best explained by definition. There is a subtle difference between a politician and a statesman. While both are involved in the business of government, a politician is described by Webster's Dictionary as "a person seeking or holding a political office with implications of seeking personal or partisan gain, scheming opportunism;" while a statesman is described as "a person who shows wisdom, skill, and vision in conducting state affairs and treating public issues." I think anyone in touch with national affairs is aware that the vast majority of Congressmen are not fit to wear the title of statesman. The daily news is rampant with petty partisan political battles being waged on the floor of the House and Senate while major issues like the annual budget, the budget deficit, and the current recession (with its resulting loss of jobs) await consideration. Congress cannot point fingers anywhere but at themselves since Congress, and Congress alone, controls the purse strings of this nation. It has been years since a budget was passed prior to the end of the fiscal year as required by law. The balanced budget law enacted by Congress itself is virtually ignored, and the first response by Congress to solve the problems facing this nation today is to throw more money at the problem. Politicians do not have the stomach for taking a public stand on sensitive issues that can affect their continued access to power and the public trough. Statesmen do have the wisdom and courage to make the hard decisions as they do not serve for personal gain and are not seeking reelection. The bottom line is that a politician is engaged in a profession and professionals seek personal gain, whether money or power or both. A statesman is engaged in a noble endeavor and seeks only that which is good and best for all. Governing this country is a responsibility to be shouldered, not a profession to be practiced. We have elected too few statesmen.

The second problem is that, by its very nature, Congressional service isolates its members from the everyday problems and struggles of the common people. After ten years of public service, it is easy to forget how difficult it is to earn a living in business, on the farm, or in the labor force. After fifteen or twenty years, it is impossible for that public official to be in close touch with the grass roots of our society. The common practice of visits to the big cities and speeches designed to ensure reelection have done absolutely nothing to re-acquaint Congressional members with the concerns and problems of their constituents. Even letters to members of Congress receive no personal attention. Replies are written by staff members many layers removed from the Congressional member. When is the last time you saw your Representative or Senator face-to-face? When was the last time they visited your town for an open forum on any issue? This was not so at the beginning of this nation. Members of the Continental Congress were engaged in private businesses and trades and were living at the grass-roots level accessible to those whom they represented. Our founding fathers did not intend that Congress be populated by professional representatives. They intended that the members would be from all walks of life and bring that aggregate knowledge and wisdom to bear in governing this nation. They did not foresee a Congress made up of so many from the same professional background and education. We, as a people, fear that government has gotten too big and too complex for the average person to be an effective legislator, or to even comprehend, for that matter. One of the most frequent charges leveled by an incumbent against an opponent is that he or she has no experience in government and will be eaten by the wolves. Perhaps it is so, but if it is, then the government is not as it should be and we must change it.

Last, there is a clause in the Declaration of Independence of which most Americans are unaware. That clause states, "and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." That is human nature, pure and simple. Our founding fathers knew about this human frailty, and you can rest assured that every member of Congress is well aware of it. Congressional members have become too comfortable and less responsive to the voters because they know that American voters are most likely to reelect someone they know, no matter what their track record is, rather than to elect someone they don't know. It should come as no surprise that recent newspaper articles and news commentaries on this subject report that 98% of Congressmen in office today are incumbents. Many are veterans of more than four terms and virtually unbeatable in their home states. They have become powerful and have set in motion those things that will assure reelection; they have made the deals that guarantee status-preservation. Congressional power is immense, awesome, and heady. It is also insidious since it induces a desire for more. It has rendered Congressmen and Congresswomen too vulnerable to the influence of political action committees. We have, by neglect, left good men too long in the corrupting embrace of power and many have become corrupted by it.

As you can see by the results, the lack of term limits for Congressional members detracts from the ability of the governed to govern and often subverts those we elect if left in office too long. A regular, periodic infusion of new members to Congress, fresh with new ideas and energy, can do much to resolve many of the thorny issues that plague this country. If limits are properly set, they will not permit enough time for a statesman to become a politician, nor will they permit the building of a power base. It will also eliminate the need to become part of the "good-old-boy" system to get things done and destroy the disproportionate power of some exceptionally well funded political action committees. Coming fresh from the real world, the new people will be in tune with the grass roots of society and have a better feel for the problems. As a final thought, it strikes me that the ultimate and most damaging effect of not limiting terms for members of Congress is that we have come to hold those members too much in awe and, as a result, have permitted ourselves to become servants of the government rather than the government servants to us.

No comments: