Sunday, January 8, 2017

Term Limits are Not the Answer

US Senator Ted Cruz and House Representative Ron DeSantis proposed an amendment to the constitution, once again, creating term limits on members of both houses of Congress. This idea often gets traction because the idea that there should be no professional politicians and that in the past this didn't happen.  In fact there were members of the first Congress in 1789 who served more than 40 years.  The current incoming Congress has an average in the House of service of 9.4 years and the Senate is 10.1 years.  Less than 5 terms in the House and 2 terms in the Senate.  This is actually a slight uptick from the 114th Congress, and ends a string of declining averages over the last several election cycles.  While many incumbents who run get re-elected at an alarming rate, and the number who run again and again is up significantly there still is an ongoing turnover that takes place every election cycle.  This year there are about 55 new members of the House or about 12% which is about average for turnover in most industries.  The problem that we see is that there are people in the Congress that many people don't like and yet they get re-elected over and over again. But I would argue that whether it is a Congressional district or a Senator in a state I don't live it, it should not be up to me to decide who cannot represent the people who do live there.  But there are two major problem that come up with how the system works that makes beating an incumbent who wants to hold onto a seat difficult.  

The first is simple gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is a old concept that dates back to 1812 and redistricting in Massachusetts by then Governor Elbridge Gerry.  A political cartoon likened the shape of a state district to a salamander and called it a Gerry-mander.  The name stuck. Today both parties have worked to draw bizarrely shaped districts to encompass pockets of party loyal constituents.  In recent years the rise of local Republican parties in many states have led to some bullet proof districts for both parties, also the concentration of parties into a handful of places in any state leads to states like Virginia which cast many more votes for Democratic candidates but still the Republicans won a majority of the seats.  There have been times when the opposite has occurred.  Gerrymandering is a political perk of winning at the state level and is difficult to attack in court.  There are times that it has been challenged and things have changed but it is not an easy task.  North Carolina is facing a challenge right now, but the problem has existed for several election cycles.  In 2010, under boundaries drawn by Democrats, Republicans won 54 percent of the congressional vote but ended up with one fewer member of Congress than Democrats. By 2012, new districts drawn by Republicans flipped the numbers and while more than 2 million votes for Congress were cast for the Democratic candidates the results was a delegation made up of 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats.  This party specific district drawing will lead to the party's choice becoming the the winner before the actual election and in about 7% of the Congressional elections there are unopposed candidates.  When the election is set it is harder to challenge someone and often results in more hardcore elected officials.  

The other problem is laziness.  We have term limits and they are called elections.  If we truly wanted to drain the swamp or throw the bums out, a phrase we often hear, we would vote.  But alas we don't.  In the 2016 election less than 60% of the country's eligible voters voted and in the off year of 2014 when our Congressional representatives were all up for re-election and a third of the Senate only 36% of the those eligible voted. Someone tried to argue with me we need term limits because in Kentucky Mitch McConnell was re-elected but no one in Kentucky likes him.  He won with 56% of the vote in 2014.  However, while his approval rating was low he led every poll in his primary (which had 5 other candidates) and won the general.  The problem of the 3.5 million registered voters in Kentucky that year, only 1.4 million bothered to cast a ballot.  So people seem to dislike him but not enough to go and actually vote.  

There are clearly other reasons that incumbency is beneficial.  There is power of the office to reach constituents through media and the use of office to inform people what you are doing for them in Washington.  Money that comes into the campaigns from lobbyists as tenure gives one more power in crafting legislation.  I could probably list dozens of things.  But none of those would be solved in any real way by term limits.  The only thing the term limit would do is shift the power to lobbyists and bureaucrats who will remain and centralize their power when a congressional member leaves town.  So what can we do.  

For one end political redistricting.  Use computer algorithms to determine districts based on population and geography connectivity.  There are plenty of places in the country that have community symbiosis that should be represented by the same person.  After that just carve out based on the number of people living there.  A district shouldn't swirl around, geographically speaking, four other districts so that it creates a population that benefits one party while at the same time breaking up other populations in several districts that would vote for the opposing party.  This is happening today.  

Also there has to be a way to get more people involved in the elections. In recent years Republicans have passed laws that make it harder to vote in many places, often targeting Democratic areas.  Voter ID laws that are clearly designed to stop certain groups from voting are passed under the guise of stopping voter fraud. A fraud that doesn't exist.  We should be making it easier to vote than harder.  We should be making the act of voting not a nuisance but something to celebrate.  Who voted are part of public records, maybe there can be a fine for not voting without an excuse.  

We are living in the greatest Western Democracy, (yes I know we are a Republic so before you say it google the term Western Democracy) on paper and one that functionally is off the rails.  When about half of those people who can vote don't and when a majority of voters want one kind of candidate and yet get another, then something is wrong.  Very wrong.  

Perhaps this election will be an eye opener.  As the new President takes office in 12 days we all must look at ourselves and seek an answer to Washington failures but Term Limits on Congress are not the answer and frankly are not an answer.  It is up to us to be more engaged and engage our friends.  The Constitution limits the scope of government and gives much power to the people.  The most important one is the right to choose who is going to create the rules we live by and within the Constitution move the country forward on a domestic level and as a world power.  When we don't vote, when we allow political wonks to decide the choices we have then we fail.  If the Michigan 13th wants to continue to make John Conyers the longest serving member that is none of my business.  If they create a way to make opposing him improbable than it is.  If Kentucky wants Mitch McConnell to serve as their Senator for the next 3 terms, mazel tov, but if they don't and yet won't vote him they deserve him.  We can't decide for other people who they want to hire to be their voice in Washington.  So let's give them other voices to choose from.  Be informed, inform others, challenge the way districts are drawn, question where the money comes from to help incumbents run and in the end, Vote.  Vote in primaries and vote in general elections.  Vote the off years and in special elections.  Vote every time you can. Ask elected officials to make voting easier.  Early voting, mail, and eventually internet voting all have to become part of our experience with the process.  Hold media accountable when they decide to ignore candidates for whatever reason or promote one over others because he is entertaining.  Be part of the process.  

Term limits are a bad idea because the solve nothing except to make it easier for us to be lazy.  Let's stop being lazy and make some real change.  

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