Congressional Term Limits Could Save Democracy and the Planet

06/15/2010 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I once believed that national campaign finance reform was the "Mother of All Issues." If special interest money and influence were removed from politics, the playing field would be leveled, elected officials would serve the public versus corporations who elected them, and major problems would be solved. Yet in spite of passage of the McCain Feingold Campaign Finance Bill, Congress and their well financed special interest enablers found creative ways to gut the intent of the legislation. Hence the majority of members of Congress continue to be more concerned with protecting their corporate contributions and self preservation than the public health, safety and service.

To paraphrase Will Rogers; Washington politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often and for the same reason.

The Office of the President and many state Governorships and Legislatures are subject to term limits and so should the US Congress. It's the only way to stop the influence peddling, corruption and dysfunction that has reached epic proportions in Washington and puts our future and hard fought democracy in jeopardy.

Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set a "maximum service" limit of "four years in seven" in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Thomas Jefferson urged limitation of tenure "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress." The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) stated that "no person shall be capable of being a delegate to the Continental Congress for more than three years in any term of six years." Both Jefferson and George Mason urged term limits on reelection because as Mason stated, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as periodic rotation." Rotation in public office came to mean taking turns in the distribution of "political prizes" and prizes became a key element of payoffs to the party faithful. In short, rotation of nominations in the US House of Representatives was intertwined with the "spoils system" and was deemed important in order to avoid political corruption.

More recently in the early 1990's, referendums requiring congressional term limits were on the ballot in 23 states and voters overwhelmingly approved them in every one of those states. The Republican Contract with America in 1994 prominently featured term limits for members of the Senate to two-six year terms and members of the House to six-two year terms. Not surprisingly, the majority of career politicians in Congress did not vote to limit "their" terms and the corrupt "spoils system" continues.

As we cope with the ongoing Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well disaster, look no further than the millions in special interest oil industry campaign contributions to explain the lack of adequate federal oversight and regulation that should have prevented what oil technocrats and their shills in Congress say couldn't happen. Further, as members of Congress play lip service to the free market system with no limit on corporate profits, they generously provide caps on risk and liability for companies like BP, Exxon Mobil as well as others including the nuclear and gun industries that provide enormous "spoils" that fund their campaigns and keep them in office. In fact, the nuclear power industry that literally poses unfathomable risk to all life on this planet has been lavished with Congressional special treatment including massive subsidies, $58 billion in new loan guarantees and the Price Anderson Act, which indemnifies the nuclear industry in the event of an accident placing all risk on the taxpayer.

Perhaps the most blatant and outrageous example of how Congress has been corrupted by special interests involves national gun policy. US gun laws allow anyone to buy an unlimited number of guns without a criminal background check or even proof of ID from "private dealers" in 33 states and at thousands of annual gun shows. It is well documented that criminals and foreign terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels, buy high powered weapons in the United States to arm their jihads against US soldiers and others without detection. When confronted with this failed national policy, members of Congress have told me that they won't close this dangerous loophole or even hold a hearing on the need for mandatory criminal background checks for fear of gun lobby retaliation. As a gun owner myself, I'm sure the Founders never intended the Second Amendment to protect the rights of criminals and terrorists.

The rapid destruction of our increasingly small and polluted planet combined with the corruption of our fragile democracy by special interest groups is simply not sustainable. There are far more of us than them, and term limits for Congress will give us a fighting chance to save our democracy and protect our children's future!