Career Politicians

I just finished watching President Obama and Speaker Boehner give back-to-back speeches.  To some extent, it was shocking.  With the clock ticking, I would have never expected two such partisan speeches.  There’s not enough time to resolve this partisanship and we made things worse tonight.  It’s all related to today’s blog…

Ultimately, the debt ceiling isn’t the real issue.  Raising the amount we can borrow doesn’t solve our debt problem.  It’s simply like getting our credit limit raised on our credit card.  Most importantly, while I constantly discuss our debt problem as our biggest problem, I don’t even think that’s true.    Our biggest problem is our political system.  This debt ceiling issue has made this even more apparent.  We have politicians who are incapable of compromise and fixing our problem.  This is a structural problem.

It seems obvious that we need term limits.  I would argue that we need extreme term limits – “one and done.”  No more career politicians.  It’s our only hope.

Today’s blog has two parts:

(1) some statistics on the 112th Congress (from “Membership of the 112th Congress: A Profile” by Jennifer E. Manning – here’s the link for the pdf of this paper); and

(2) a summary of arguments about term limits that come from an old (1994) white paper, “Term Limits: The Only Way to Clean Up Congress,” by Dan Greenberg.  Here’s the link.

The 112th Congress

I pulled some relevant statistics below.  One thing should jump out at you – that we have career politicians.  This is what they do.  Do you believe that career politicians will solve our problems or do you believe that they ARE the problem?

1. Age – average Representative was 56.7 years old and average Senator was 62.2 years old (at the start of the 112th Congress).

2. Tenure – the average Congressman had been in Congress for 9.8 years; the average Senator had served 11.4 years.  (The committee chairmen, speaker, majority leader and whip normally have MUCH more tenure.  In other words, those who have been in Congress the longest tend to have the most power.)

3. Prior service – 49 Senators had previously served in the House – adding to the time that they were politicians.

4. There are 39 former mayors (29 in the House and 10 in the Senate).

5. There are 11 State Governors (all in the Senate).

6. There are nine Lieutenant Governors (three in the Senate and six in the House).

7. There are 263 State legislators (222 in the House and 41 in the Senate).

8. There are at least 105 former Congressional staffers (21 in the Senate and 84 in the House).

Arguments in Favor of Term Limits

(NOTE: these ideas are lifted straight from Dan Greenberg’s paper (cited above) and some sentences are lifted directly.)

1. Bring new perspectives to Congress.  Over the long-term, the turnover rate for House incumbents who attempt re-election is near 10%.

2. Term limits would reduce the power of lobbyists and special interest groups.  These parties have made long-term investments in politicians.  As a result, these are the people who oppose term limits.

3. Term limits would end entrenchment.  Incumbents have a huge advantage in getting re-elected.  They get free mail, staff salaries, office and travel expenses and continue to receive their salary while campaigning.  They also have name recognition, media access and higher political contributions.

4. Long-serving Congressmen can become enmeshed in a culture that is over familiar with the federal government and insulated from the communities they ostensibly represent.

5. Term limits would result in less pork-barrel spending.  Often, this spending is designed to boost re-election hopes, but it does no good for the country.

6. Term limits end the conflict of voters – where they know the incumbent will have more power in Congress, so they vote for him.

7. Term limits would reduce the disrespect that Americans have for Congress.

8. Term limits would effectively shut down the seniority system.  Committee assignments would be by merit.  As a result, small states would not feel as if they are at a disadvantage (where they need to re-elect the incumbent to maintain power).

9. While some argue that we need “experienced legislators”, this simply speaks to the idea that our system is too complex.  Ultimately, many of us will be willing to make the trade and take “less experience” in the place of the status quo of selling votes to lobbyists.

10. Congressmen would use their staff more efficiently – rather than using them to help ensure re-election.

11. Term limits would cause elected officials to feel time pressure to get to DC, make changes and create their legacy.

A few final thoughts: 

1. Yes, there are plenty of problems with term limits.  But I believe the benefits outweigh the costs.

2. Every time I hear a politician say that something is “politically infeasible,” they are basically saying “we put our re-election ahead of the interests of the nation.”

3. I understand that our current system has lasted 235 years.  While I’ve only been around for 20% of that time, I’m pretty sure that things have changed.  If you were starting a company today, would you expect it to be governed in the same way for the next 235 years?  Do you really think we benefit from career politicians?