In 1992, columnist George Will wrote a book entitled “Restoration.” It was and is a forceful argument for term limits.
His first proposition is generic. He argues that Congress has a bad image and that term limits would make it more popular. That may be true to an extent. Congress doesn’t want term limits and if the public somehow rises up and forces them to accept term limits, there would surely be, for a while at least, a general public sentiment that the tiger has been tamed and the miscreants brought to account.
But what really would be changed?
A principal complaint against career politicians is that they get too cozy with lobbyists. The fact is that political campaigns cost money. Lots of money. Members of Congress are continually in fund raising mode. The people who are most likely to support an incumbent financially are those whose economic interests are affected by what the member does or does not do.
The plain truth is that there is a river of dollars flowing from K Street, where many lobbyists have their offices, to the nation’s capital. The plain truth is that the longer a Member serves, the more seniority he or she has, the greater their ‘clout’ and the easier it is to raise money.
That river, and the corruption of representative government it carries, is a very real failing of our current system. Its tributaries feed the spirit of partisanship, foster the expansion of bureaucracy, and irrigate a vast field of omnibus legislation replete with subsidies, exemptions, and exclusions that are the price of campaign support.
But I would like to ask George Will this question: What will Congressional term limits do about it? Obviously, a term limited Congressman will not be raising money for reelection during his last term; but he or she may very well be raising money to run for another office, so the K Street River may well continue to flow into his campaign fund.
Certainly the term limited politician will have to be looking for a safe harbor somewhere. Will he or she apply to corporations that have been benefitted by their efforts in Congress? When you are looking for a job, it’s nice to have friends.
And what exactly do you suppose the corporate interests will do about the Congressional seat that is about to be vacated due to term limits? Obviously, they will be looking for a replacement, who, having been recruited and financed by the client, will happily take over just where their predecessor left off.
And then what? The new term limited Member immediately begins paddling down the K Street River. Nothing has changed. The new office holder will immediately begin raising money for his or her re-election.
The fact that term limits force a turn over in Congressional office is undeniable and is generally a good thing. But I have compared it to taking cough drops to treat lung cancer.
The real cause of the K Street River is the size of the Congressional districts. The Constitution provides that Representatives shall be apportioned among the States according to their respective numbers. The Founders expected that the House of Representatives would grow with the country. It hasn’t.
The Congress has frozen the size of the House at 435 people. The result is that every ten years the constituencies get larger. Members of Congress now represent an average of nearly a million people. Which is why campaigns are expensive. Which is why challengers have so much difficulty unseating incumbents.
Nothing is more preposterous or indefensible than the idea that the number of representatives to which the American people are entitled is limited by the size of the chamber or the number of desks we have. Modern technology makes communication simple. There is no reason why representatives have to gather in one room.
More than term limits, we need a bigger House of Representatives.