When the Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, America was coming out of both a war with the most powerful empire in the world and a federal government which, under the Articles of Confederation, was too weak to sustain itself. The Federalist delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized the need for a more powerful central government while the Anti-Federalists aspired to keep power in the hands of the people. For this reason the factions compromised to form a three branch government in which the legislative branch would most closely represent the will of the people, and no branch was bound by term limits.
Although included in the Articles of Confederation, the Founders felt it unnecessary to mandate term limits for congressmen in the Constitution. They fully expected that congressmen would serve only six months, then return home to their professions. They were not meant to live off of what they made. Rather, they were meant to serve out of love for country.
Since then, Congressional sessions have increased to eleven months and Congressional salaries have increased from $1,500 current dollars per annum on average to $174,000. As Congress has voted themselves higher salaries and Congressional session lengths have nearly doubled, Congressional approval ratings have plummeted to the lowest in history. All the while, Congress has maintained a 90 percent incumbency rate.
These numbers are symptoms of an ailment, and the remedy is congressional term limits. Little did most of the Founders know, but their desire for conciseness would ultimately become a thorn in America’s side.
Yet even then, visionaries such as George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and Mercy Otis Warren recognized this flaw and predicted its effect. “Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation,” said Mason when speaking on term limits. Warren elaborated, saying, “there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably be done.”
John Dingell, Jr., a Democrat Representative for Michigan’s 12th District, is a perfect example of this professional politicking: Dingell has served almost 58 years, and is the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. (His father, the senior John Dingell, served in the House a mere 23 years.)
The “people’s branch” has become “a few people’s branch,” wherein the same 90 percent of politicians are continuously elected. The longer running a Congressman’s career, the easier it is for him to skate by to reelection. Not only do these careerists create relationships with lobbyists, allowing them more funds for reelection, but they benefit from name recognition and other valuable perks of office.
In order to protect against career politicians, those who hold office must, in a sense, vote themselves out of office. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) proposed an amendment earlier this year to do just that. While the amendment did not get far, it takes a certain amount of principle to propose such a measure. Hopefully, future congressmen will remember what their job was initially meant for, to serve the people, and make the same sacrifice Vitter attempted.
—Samuel Kirk Glaze is a freshman studying political science
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