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THE CASE FOR TERM LIMITS
There are those that claim that elections are the most effective method of holding legislators accountable for their actions. In a truly democratic system this might be possible but unfortunately ours is not such a system as experience tells us. It is necessary to understand how our legislatures work. Early in the political game legislators learned quickly how to establish operational rules to work to the favor of the incumbents. Due to these rules, a new legislator hasn't got a chance to advance his cause unless he plays ball with the respective leaders of the two houses. Concessions in return for a specific committee appointment are routine. A bill has to have committee approval before a floor vote can be taken on it. Those with seniority, having been reelected several times, control the committees and the legislative process. For instance, it is only the voters of the districts in which the chairmen of the important House of Representatives committees reside that have that opportunity to elect that person. Yet they have a great deal of control over what legislation ever reaches the full house for consideration.
It is common knowledge the Committee Chairmen, with their power, are expected to bring large amounts of pork back home to their own respective states and district. Senator Robert Byrd, as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee brought home things such as renovation of the Keith-Albee movie house, the Coast Guard’s National Computer Operations Center, the NASA research center, the FBI Identification Unit and close to a majority of amount of the national funding for federal highways during his tenure. He was tagged with the name “Prince of Pork”.
Although we live under a democratic form of government, in actuality the Congress is not truly democratic in the manner in which legislation is allowed to reach the floor, of either house, for consideration by all the respective legislative members. It is reasonable to consider what may possibly be done to make the process to some degree more democratic and to diminish power bases established by incumbents. In the latter part of the 20th century there was a nationwide outcry for term limits and some states passed legislation placing term limits on federal legislators holding seats in the House and Senate. However, the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional. To placate the electorate the Congress, in the early 1990’s, voted to rotate the chairmen of the various committees however, of late, there has been disgruntlement among ensconced chairmen who were reluctant to give up their chairs. We can expect a behind the scenes movement back to the previous system now that public pressure has eased for reform.
Term limit referendums have passed in some states and been held constitutional. For instance, the State of California has had term limits in effect for some time and apparently has diminished the power bases that were in place before the its enactment. For instance, Willy Brown who had tremendous control over the legislation that was enacted by the legislature was forced to give up his seat and is now the Mayor of San Francisco.
There are other arguments made against term limits. The most fallacious one is that it takes away the right of voters to select the person they want to represent them. The fact is that districts have been regularly "gerrymandered" to insure that the party in power has sufficient voters carrying their label in specified districts so that their candidate will easily be elected. To explain more clearly let us go back to 1980 when the Democrats had control of both the Legislature and Governorship in California. As an example, take two adjacent districts; No. 1 had 80% democratic registration and No. 2 had 60% republican registration. In their redistricting plan the logical thing for them to do was to draw new lines so that they put enough democrats in the no. two district lowering the republican registration down to say 40%. They could do this and still have 60% in district no. one. This would assure them of winning both districts easily without a fight.
Since the Supreme Court has ruled against state mandated term limits for legislators holding federal office, the enactment of term limits has to occur by federal legislation or by an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is unlikely that congressmen will limit their own terms unless there is a continued outcry by the voting public to do so. There is the possibility that two thirds of the State Legislatures could make an application to call a Convention for proposing such an Amendment. Such an Amendment would then have to be approved by three fourths of the State Legislatures.
It is difficult to now predict what method to enact term limits would have a greater chance of success, if any. However, the more the voting public becomes aware of the need to control the unbridled use of power by legislators and a way to do so, the more likely that action may be taken to do so in the future.
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