A popular tweet has the 19th century French visitor, Alexis DeTocqueville, musing that “the American republic will endure until Congress discovers it can bribe the public with the public’s money For, once a nation decides that some of its citizens have a right, not to go out and get, but to sit still and be given, it finds itself torn by two questions: who should be given and just how much should they get? There’s only one answer. Politics. So, as the demand for assistance rises, so will the supply. That’s politics. The inevitable result: rising taxes, chronic deficits and accumulating public debt.
Alarmed by the reality, strong conservative voices speak of the urgent need for political reform. Many believe the remedy lies in limiting the number of terms elected representatives can serve in congress. The founders, themselves, believed the preservation of republican liberty required a frequent “rotation in office. Politics was where a citizen went to serve the public for a while, before happily returning home to resume his life. And Power, the power of government to plunder the public to award special privileges, that was the danger to be carefully avoided. How? Limited terms and clear constitutional language would help. But, unwilling to rely on mere “parchment barriers,” the framers saw the need to separate power and erecting a complex web of checks and balances to forestall the capture of public power by private interests,
But, experience teaches that checks and balances break down when long-serving House and Senate leaders form symbiotic relations with those who run special interest groups or are employed by those interests as lawyers and lobbyists. Reduce the number of terms (i.e., the time) elected leaders can serve in public office, prevent the heady accretion of power and first-name friendships that naturally form, and this grotesque parody of democracy will be contained. Fairness can be restored and the people spared the great expense of having to finance so many schemes of enrichment.
Would that it would. But it won’t. The futility of fighting for term-limit laws is confirmed by seeing what has resulted from the perennial effort to enact stricter campaign finance laws, more broadly. For all the campaign finance reforms that have already been adopted (over the past century), the role of money in politics remains a vexing concern. The sad fact is that a self-serving office-holder will remain ever susceptible to the inducements lobbyists and special interests’ have to offer.
The basic problem isn’t time. It is greed, the ever-present proclivity to enlist public power for private, pecuniary gain. that starts the ball rolling and keeps it spinning. It began with the “counterfeit” capitalists, stalwart political entrepreneurs who preferred to purchase the assured benefits “their” representatives could bestow, rather than deal with the unavoidable risks associated with free-market enterprise. So from the republic’s earliest years (and with a public wholly uninterested in the topic), America’s special interests sought and routinely obtained protective tariffs, public contracts, commercial, industrial and agricultural subsidies, government-backed loans and other exemptions, immunities and privileges. The payouts and payoffs go by many names: “pork,” “bacon,” “earmarks,” “member items,” “constituent services,” “pay-to-play,” “too-big-to-fail” and an ever-wider range of so-called “entitlements.” These are not just corrupt practices, but time-honored “democratic” traditions. Reducing the number of terms an elected representative can serve in office will do nothing to reduce the practice or the peril it poses.
In fact, any public servant who would sell out the public trust has as much if not more reason to do so if given a shorter, rather than longer time to serve. Future prospects must then be an even more urgent consideration. So a public servant will pay closer heed to the interests of those who could offer a highly-coveted position in gratitude for “services” rendered. And there is an additional dimension. The short time available to learn congressional protocol and procedure, while raising truckloads of money for whatever re-election bid(s) remains, renders the short-stay office holders dependent on a more “experienced” staff. And, that unelected, unaccountable staff may wind up running the legislative roost.
The enduring fact is that any morally unsettled soul, anyone not firmly resolved to practice the principles of virtue and justice, will be susceptible to the happy range of inducements Washington’s “power players” have to offer. History shows that more will than will not succumb to power’s irresistible pull and sell both soul and office for the proverbial song.
But surely not every office-holder is as has been depicted above. No, in fact since the birth of the Tea Party in 2010, a long line of political candidates have presented themselves more as statesmen, public servants devoted to the virtuous restoration of liberty, than the usual run-of-the-mill establishment pols. Why deny those rare, worthy souls (think of Jefferson, Madison or Reagan) the time it will take to end the offending practices.
Finally, the fight for term limits is but an ill-timed distraction, for it deflects attention away from the deeper problem: congress’s capacity to help some by harming others. In fact, so many of today’s sure-fire nostrums share this same drawback. Thus, there is the campaign for “flat” tax or “fair” tax, reform, for a balanced-budget amendment that would “ban” deficit spending at some future date, a so-called “Penny Plan” that promises to cut one cent from each budgetary item (sequester in slow motion), and so forth. But, the fiscal responsibility such policy “fixes,” if they come at all, will come too late and accomplish too little. High taxes, chronic deficits and a rapidly accumulating public debt are symptoms, not underlying causes. There’s no safe way to pay for runaway government. It’s the spending, “stupid.” The only way to deal with the crisis at hand is to send an army of “Mr. Smiths” to Washington to reduce the size and expense of government, i.e., to cut actual programs and close actual agencies. To do that it will first be necessary to ask and answer the most basic of all political questions: What must government do for us, and what must we be expected to do for ourselves (and for one another)? What is government for, in the first place? And when must a people say to their elected leaders “this far and no farther?”