March 17, 2009

Restore Power to the People and to the States

Recent decades have seen a dramatic increase in the tenure of US Senators. 3.5 years was the average tenure of US senators in the first decade of the senate. Since the 1970s the average is in excess of 14 years. Today US senators regularly spend 25 years or more in office. Several have remained in office 30 years or more and a few have remained in office more than 40 years. With an impressive term of 49 years in office, Robert Carlyle Byrd of West Virginia holds the record for the longest tenure in office.

One might ask if the founding fathers envisioned service in the US senate to be a life-long calling. Lincoln might also have been surprised by the amount of time spent in office in light of his words "government of the people, by the people, for the people" If you read the writings of the founders they clearly expected a rapid turnover of the representatives who served in congress and the senate.

It appears we have shifted from a culture of regular people serving for a term or two then returning to their private occupations, to a culture of government led by a special class professional politicians. One might further ask, what effect this has on the decisions that are made and the laws that are created by people who expect to retire in office, somewhat immune from the effects of the laws they make.

In response to this swelling number of years in office, many efforts have been made to limit the terms for elected officials. But the US Supreme Court has made it clear that the only constitutional way to enact federal term limits is through an amendment to the US Constitution. Current surveys show overwhelming support for term limits. One survey conducted in October 2008 by US Term Limits indicated 83% of voters were in favor of term limits. So where is the constitutional amendment?

With such strong support one would think that it would be on its way to ratification by two thirds of the states. But no, first an amendment to the US Constitution must be recommended by either the House or the Senate and then approved by a two thirds majority of the House and of the Senate. Well the likelihood of that happening is about zero. Since they all want to remain in office and in power as long as possible.

The 1994 Republican Contract with America included the passing of term limits, but even with a Republican and a supposedly, conservative congress, it never even came to a vote.

Fortunately the founding fathers of the US foresaw a time when it might become difficult for the states to check the power and influence of an ever growing federal government. For this reason they included in Article V of the Constitution the provision which allows the states to unite and call for a Constitutional Convention to amend the constitution.

At this point in history, considering the firm grasp of power by the federal government, the "Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States calling for a Convention for proposing Amendments" may be the only way to introduce term limits on congress.

Some may think that this is a long shot, however fifteen states have already established limits on their own state legislative offices. They are listed here. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota.

If you also include six states who have had state legislative term limits had them repealed you can add Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The count quickly gets to 21 states.

Again with national support for term limits at 83% getting another 13 states to get on board should not be too terribly difficult.

The best part of this story is that no US Constitutional amendment has ever been introduced through a constitutional convention. Historically every time several states begin requesting a convention to amend the constitution congress feels the pressure and approves the amendment and sends it to the states for ratification.

Some argue that if congressional term limits are implemented it will shift power to aids or even lobbyists who will continue to serve beyond the term of elected officials. This may be true, but only for a short period, until congress observes this trend and reclaims its elected powers by writing laws that strictly limit the influence of aids and lobbyists in the political system.

What a refreshing thought, to have elected officials in charge, but only for a short period, unhampered by overbearing lobbyists and aids, free to vote in ways that will be good for the society that they know THEY will have to live in once they leave public service in just a few years.

Best of all I believe that the larger population of former senators and representatives will provide a greater check point for those in office who might try to manipulate the system. Currently there are so few who actually leave office and return to their former professions that this check point is practically non-existent.

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