As I write this, the newly sworn 116th Congress of the United States is about a week old. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will continue in his role as majority leader in the Senate, and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California has been elected to take the gavel in the House as speaker. She is third in line of succession to the presidency.
In my nearly 30 years of covering an assortment of metalworking industries, I have been a frequent observer of Congressional activity. I have not written much on this subject, but I have often felt that a particular Congressional member had been in the job too long or that Congress itself is its own best argument for term limits.
I believe that the term-limit debate is not in the least a partisan issue, but it is certainly a Constitutional one. It so happens that the longest-ever-serving members of both houses of Congress have been Democrats. The late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia served for a little more than 51 years until 2010. On the House side, Representative John Dingell Jr. served for 60 years from 1955 until 2015. The service of both these men is laudatory, to be sure, but I leave it up to my readers to decide whether either, or both, served too long.
The founding fathers of our country gave due consideration to the term-limit concept. James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 53, rejected term limits. His argument is summarized in his own words: “[A] few of the members of Congress will possess superior talents; will by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members of Congress, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they be to fall into the snares that may be laid before them.”
The 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets precise term limits for the executive branch of our government. This amendment was passed by Congress in 1947 (and ratified by the states in 1951) after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 during his fourth term as president. It states, in part: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.”
Although Congress was quick to act in recognizing the potential for tyranny in the executive branch, it is much shyer about imposing term limits on itself. Members know a good ride when they’re on one. Despite numerous Congressional proposals to limit their own terms, not one has ever passed. Those arguing against term limits say they already exist –
they’re called elections. Those arguing for term limits suggest that some long-standing members grow to wield too much power; that legislating should be more an elective honor than a career choice.
The power of the House traditionally derives from the populace; the power of the Senate traditionally derives from the states; the power of Congress “derives from the consent of the governed.” As one of the governed, my opinion favors liberal term limits – that members of both houses should be required to step aside after, say, 30 years in the same elected seat.
The American electorate deserves better than to be the curators of Congressional seats held for too long by legislative museum pieces. It needs a more flexible and dynamic Congress. Although I respect the service and knowledge of these legislative sages, with a Congress whose performance ratings are lower than the limbo bar at the Cirque du Soleil company picnic, the halls of the Capitol have lately rung more hollow than hallowed.
I hope that changes soon.