Saturday, March 16, 2013

Roadblocks to Effective Government

Citizens of the United States often complain that their Congressional representatives and senators focus on ensuring continual reelection over effectively governing the nation.  Desire to maintain political power discourages members of Congress from tackling politically sensitive and often times vitally important issues, resulting in the crippling gridlock we have experienced over the past decade.  While it seems like an easy fix to this problem is to create term limits for representatives and senators, effecting change in this area is not as easy as it sounds.

            One proposed solution to the problem is a constitutional amendment limiting the amount of time individuals can serve in the House and in the Senate.  Jim DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina and a prominent figure in the Tea Party movement, proposed an amendment in 2009 which would limit representatives to three terms (six years) and senators to two terms (twelve years).  The proposed amendment went to the Senate Judiciary committee where, to the surprise of nobody, it never saw the light of day.
            Article V of the Constitution outlines two possible ways for the nation to amend the document.  Supposing it had made it through the committee, these two methods pose the primary stumbling block for DeMint’s plan.  The first requires two-thirds of both the House (291 representatives) and the Senate (67 senators) to approve the proposed amendment, which then goes out to the states, three-fourths (38 states) of which must approve it.  The other method bypasses Congress all together by allowing for two-thirds (34 states) of the states to call for a constitutional convention to propose new amendments.  The states, however, have never employed the latter method.

            The na├»ve may think that members of Congress would support Senator DeMint’s amendment because it would allow them to focus on governing instead of constantly worrying about making a mistake which would result in the death of their political career; such a thought, however, ignores a defining characteristic of humanity.  To paraphrase Aung San Suu Kyi, it is not the possession of power but the fear of losing power which corrupts people.  A quick examination of the initial actions of usurpers throughout history, from Caesar to Hitler, confirms this sentiment.  Once these despots obtained supreme power, their first acts were not to shower themselves with wealth, but to centralize power and weaken institutions which could threaten their iron grip on society.

            With a federal solution unlikely, many states have attempted to take it upon themselves to fix the problem.  This avenue has been unsuccessful as well, but for a different reason.  In the early 1990s, activists across the nation urged states to pass laws which limited the amount of terms its representatives and senators could serve in Washington.  Most of these laws came in the form of blocking ballot access to individuals who had already served a certain number of years in the House or Senate, although the candidate could continue to receive votes via write-ins.  After these laws passed in twenty-three states, politicians, lead by then-Arkansas Representative Ray Thornton, brought a challenge against them to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, the Court ruled the laws unconstitutional.  It is worth noting that the justices who struck the term limit laws are the typically liberal justices, proving that neither judicial ideology is always in the right.

            The challenge to the laws came out of Article I of the Constitution which outlines the formation and powers of Congress.  Sections 2 and 3 of the article discuss the composition of the House and the Senate, including the requirements representatives and senators must meet.  According to the Section 2, a representative must be over the age of twenty-five, a citizen for at least seven years, and must live in the state which elected him or her.  Section 3 states that a senator must be at least thirty years old, a citizen for nine years, and an inhabitant of the state which he or she serves.  In Thornton the Court firmly established that these requirements are the only permissible restrictions on the eligibility of Americans to serve in Congress.   

            While it is not completely clear how much impact the lack of term limits has had upon the gridlock evident in Congress over the past few years, it is a possibility that they could help grease the gears of governance.  An aspect of contemporary politics which stands in the way of efficient and effective government is the increasing polarization of both parties.  As Democrats become more liberal and Republicans become more conservative, their ability to reach compromises decreases.  Term limits, however, could mitigate this polarization.  Limits would maintain a steady rotation of representatives and senators, possibly reducing the grip highly partisan figures maintain over their fellow party members.

Despite the lack of success the movement for term limits has had the past two decades, term limit activists must continue to fight the ability for individuals to maintain offices on Independence Avenue and Constitution Avenue for decades.  When the same representatives and senators continually win reelection while accomplishing no substantial legislative innovations or breakthroughs they have less incentive to work for hard goals.  

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