Last week I turned on C-SPAN. I planned to watch the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the FISA Amendments Act of 2007, which contained the issue of telecom company immunity.
On my TV appeared the usual suspects - current Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT), former Committee Chair and current ranking member Arlen Specter (R-PA), and former two time Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Their faces were all too familiar, and their seats were all too owned.
Between Leahy, who took office in 1974, Hatch, who took office in 1976, and Specter, who took office in 1980, and who's served on the Judiciary Committee since day one, I was staring at a cumulative 91 years on the job.
Damn that's a lot of years! - 33 for Leahy, 31 for Hatch, and 27 for Specter.
Observing the behaviors of Hatch and Specter - Specter to be sure - their veneers of self-importance were customarily there.
But Leahy, I must disclose, is a great favorite of mine. I developed a deep affection toward him for the way he supported young American human rights activist Marla Ruzicka's independent work in Afghanistan and Iraq. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marla_Ruzicka
When Marla was killed in Iraq on April 16, 2005 at just 29 years of age, Leahy was deeply affected. He delivered an impassioned speech in her honor on the Senate floor - as did Senator Boxer. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan of the good Senator Leahy. (Scroll down for Leahy's and others' tributes to Marla - double click on the videos to view them on youtube): http://www.uykucu.org/searchpage/marla-ruzicka/1.aspx
Being a fan of Senators Leahy, Boxer, Kennedy, Feingold and Dodd, and Representatives Kucinich, Woolsey, Waters and Barbara Lee, I understand that considering term limits for the Senate and House would limit the years of service for great public servants like these, just as it would for those of lesser distinction. In fact, should the maximum twelve years in office that I'm proposing be retroactive, only Barbara Lee would remain, since the others have served more than twelve years.
But they are patriots! And what I've come to understand about patriots from the legions of non-electeds who work tirelessly for causes every day, is that they needn't hold elected office to successfully serve their nation. In fact, the hardest workers for America and for the planet that I know don't hold public office at all, and frequently work for free. It's their love of nation, the Constitution, and humanity that drives them. Not personal wealth, power and prestige.
Yet it would surely be nice to see some non-elected patriots, who have volunteered countless hours on behalf of their nation, who've studied the machinations of the political system, and mastered the laws set forth by the Constitution, be elected to replace those who term out. In exchange, those who term out would have the same opportunity to serve their nation and their planet outside of office, with the advantage of greater leverage.
Paid lobbying is NOT an option!
Odd to think I would take up the same cause that Newt Gingrich launched twelve years ago. But with an ineffectual Legislative Branch, led by ineffectual leaders on both sides of the aisle, there seems to be no other way to clean House(s). Yes, there is THE VOTE. But due to ear-mark awards and familiarity with incumbents, constituents usually favor their prior-electeds and are reluctant to vote them out. Some even view it as a breach of loyalty. Others just don't know any better. The more astute constituents who scrutinize electeds' voting records, and monitor their donors, aren't quite as willing to keep voting them in.
In 1995, in keeping with his Contract With America, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich brought forth a House vote for a Constitutional Amendment (H.J. Res 73 - 104th Congress) that would restrict members of the U.S. Congress to a maximum of twelve years in office. http://www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/text/hjr73.txt
The Amendment lost by a 227 - 204 vote (189 Republicans and 38 Democrats voted for the Amendment, while 40 Republicans, 163 Democrats and 1 Independent voted against it). A two-thirds majority is required to pass a Constitutional Amendment. Here are the recorded results, by member, of the votes for H.J. Res 73 of the 104th Congress: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/1995/roll277.xml
As of now, there are at least 25 members of the Senate and House who have served 30 or more years in office - which is NOT what the Founders divined.
Term limits have always been controversial. Opponents fear they'd bring in less capable legislators. Some fear they'd increase the influence of lobbyists. Others fear the loss of legislative seniority and beloved leaders they don't want to see go.
But there is much to be said for the rotation of leadership in maintaining a democracy. After all, it's term limits that will ultimately save us from George W. Bush. I have eternal gratitude for the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution which limits the President of the United States to a total of two terms.
As for the concerns over a legislature of neophytes brought about by term limits, twelve years in office is sufficient time to maintain a cadre of seasoned lawmakers. Substantial experience can be gained in the first two to four years in office if capable leaders are elected. Senators will have gained legislative experience in the first third of their first six-year term, which can translate to competent leadership if re-elected to their second six-year term. Similarly, Congressmembers will have gained legislative experience in their first and second two-year terms, which can translate to competent leadership if re-elected to their remaining four terms.
As for lame ducks in line to be termed out, one would hope they were committed enough to their jobs and to their personal legacies to work hard until the end. Of course, there's no way to be sure.
What Senators and Representatives won't be subjected to if term limits are established is the pomposity of the likes of Arlen Specter, Orrin Hatch, Ted Stevens, James Sensenbrenner and the overwhelming bevy of demagogues who populate the Legislatures now. New electeds won't have to experience condescension by those who have held their seats for decades and who've enriched themselves and their constituencies in questionable ways. There is no lack of duplicity in the Legislative Branch today.
But there is one critical necessity if term limits are installed. They must be no less than twelve years. Members of the Legislative Branch MUST have the ability to serve longer than the President of the United States to ensure a strong legislature and provide a check on Executive power.
As for the increased influence of lobbyists - in states where term limits are in place for local legislators, there has been no evidence of such an increase. I tend to believe that relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers gain strength over time, and are weakened when the duration of time of influence is shortened.
Bottom line... I'm tired of hearing activists and non-activists lament the unending terms of legislators. I'm sick of hearing, "Oh, s/he'll be in that office forever." With the favorability rating of the House and Senate at an all time low, most people believe it's time to clean House(s). But with incumbents who are hard to dethrone, elections don't provide the solution.
Obviously Speaker Pelosi, who abandoned the Constitution when she took "impeachment off the table," is not likely to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to term-limit herself and her colleagues. Nonetheless, as Americans seeking an end to a pompous non-representative government, we must consider every option to regain control of our nation, and apply every pressure possible to do so. It is possible that a twelve-year limit in office could offer an alternative to unrestrained power and permanent incumbency.
And while we're at it, let's further acknowledge that the lifetime appointments of Supreme Court Justices must also be curtailed. After all, it was the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore that inaugurated the demise of this nation.
Let the discussion begin!
Note: For the complete list of U.S. Congress members who served 30 years or more (last updated January '06), please visit: http://opencrs.cdt.org/document/RL30370
A personal note: This article will publish on November 24th, which would have been the 88th birthday of much beloved progressive, Teddi Winograd, who passed away on August 21st. Happy Birthday, Teddi!! We miss you and vow to work for peace!!