Despite the gulf in political opinion in this country today, most of us can agree on one thing and that’s a shared dissatisfaction with how Congress does its job. The political system we now labor under feels broken and decrepit. It’s become a calcified scheme of special interest and brand building that has left service to the country as an afterthought.
What can be done?
The time for changes in small measure is past. We need to regain the citizen government that democracy is fed by and I can’t think of a more appropriate change to the current caste system than term limits for our members of Congress. This is not a new idea or even a controversial one for voters. A 2010 poll found that 78 percent of Americans favor term limits for our Congressional members.
Politics has become a career whose barrier to entry for those wanting to run is money. Entrenched career politicians have created a seniority system that feeds itself with the reward of inside influence built on time spent and favors promised.
Keep in mind that we re-elect our members of Congress at an increasing rate, now over 90 percent of the time. In the 2010 Congressional elections a whopping $1.27 billion was spent overall, but how those dollars were allocated is what’s most telling.
In that year, House incumbents spent on average $1 million while their challengers spent just $166,000. In the Senate, incumbents spent $9.4 million on average while their challengers averaged just $519,000 each. Did these incumbents raise this disproportionate amount because they were exceptional at their job or was it something else? Are we now voting for Congressional members based on how well they raise funds or their ability to lead?
I would argue that we should have a limit of two, four-year terms for both the House and the Senate. That House members today run every two years is pure foolishness. Once term limited out, our politicians would return to the real world of working men and women but could choose to run again after four or more years away.
Some suggest that term limits are antidemocratic. What’s more democratic than taking career longevity out of politics and opening the field to more who want to participate? Is it a bad thing to take our political leaders out of Washington and make them experience real life among their constituents?
Those against term limits also suggest that we will quickly “use up” the highly qualified candidates for public service and would be left with less than adequate candidates for office. Really? We can’t find enough able leaders among our churches, NGOs, for-profit business communities and state or local governments?
Another argument against term limits suggests that we would lose the expertise that seniority brings. If that were the case, why then would we term limit the most important job in our country, the presidency?
The reality is that seniority by definition corrupts by creating a conflict of interest among our public servants who vote now with re-election in mind rather than our common good. This is now a career path rather than a period of time in service to the country. The currency for winning our vote is the amount of federal dollars they can return to their constituency rather than their position on issues built on knowledge of the facts and an applied vision.
A seniority based system is as twisted and unhealthy to good governance as the teacher union’s argument that time spent on the job trumps performance for our teachers.
The open-ended beltway career that we call Congress is failing us. We have created a self-perpetuating money and influence structure that focuses on building political party brands at the expense of our future.
Asking our congressional delegates to vote to limit their own time on the job is a lost cause. If term limits is to become a reality it will have to be a groundswell built by we, the voting public, that overwhelms the resistance in Washington to performance over power.
Des FitzGerald is founder of Ducktrap River Fish Farms. He lives in Camden.