Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rush the Hill!

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. — Thomas Jefferson

Both sides of the Congressional aisle are deeply mistrusted. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 59% of voters would like to replace our entire Congress. Yet the reelection rate is alarmingly high, sometimes reaching 98% in the House. Senate seats also favor incumbents though not to the same degree. It is time for the patriots and tyrants in Congress to go.

Term limiting members of Congress is politically difficult because existing plans rely on the Constitutional Amendment process. That approach would require Congressional approval—members of Congress would have to vote against their own interest, against keeping their high-paying jobs indefinitely. Their entrenched power tugs against such reform. The following is an implementation strategy that leverages state interests to overcome this political barrier and create a new kind of term limit.

This new term limit is distinct from past proposals. Instead of limiting the number of years that a member of Congress may serve, I am proposing that members not serve consecutive terms. There are several benefits to this approach. First, members will not campaign for themselves while they are on the public's dime (unless they run for an executive office). Second, after serving they will likely leave Washington, DC, and reacquaint themselves with their constituency in anticipation of another race two years out. Third, members will enter office with the expectation that they will have to find a new job—at least for a little while—at the end of their term. Perhaps the most important reason for this reform is that lobbyists would no longer have the pretense of an up-coming election by which to rationalize their "contributions" to sitting legislators. This may make a ban of such donations politically possible.

The main incentive for this term limit proposal already exists. Each state house is filled with legislators eagerly awaiting the opportunity to serve their constituents on the national scene as either a representative or a senator. State legislators have a political and a financial interest to increase the competition for Congressional seats since they would be the chief beneficiary. This incentive can propel state-level constitutional amendments and/or ballot initiatives that prevent members of Congress from serving consecutive terms.

Each state that adopts a term limit law provides an experiment in legislative reform. Collectively, they compose the Laboratory of Democracy. While I prefer the term limit plan outlined above there are many variations on this simple idea. Some states may only want to term limit their US Representatives, while not so constraining their Senators. Other states may choose term limits that follow the traditional approach of restricting the number of years that Congressmen may hold office. Perhaps a few bold states would impose term limits on both their Congressional delegation and their state houses.

The Promised Land of legislative reform is a term limit amendment to the US Constitution. Such an amendment would represent a compromise informed by the experiments within our Laboratory of Democracy. I suspect that such an amendment would be structured to impose term limits on state legislatures as well. Once a sufficient number of states have adopted some form of Congressional term limit the tipping point will be reached for Congress to act on a Constitutional Amendment.

The Tenth Amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." It is time for the states and the people to refresh the tree of liberty.