New Term-Limit Group Explains Its Stand
The writer speaks for the Alliance for Bonded Term Limits, a recently formed organization based in Pinehurst.
Two important principles have defined social mankind since humans first gathered into tribes to work for collective survival. One is that each person has a natural instinct to promote his or her self-interest. The second is that agreements between and among individuals or groups normally result in some form of compromise.
These principles generally apply to individuals and groups having common interests. Let's explore the concepts of both self-interest and compromise and discuss their respective relationships to the concept of political term limits.
A term limit is a legal restriction on the number of terms a person may serve in a particular elected office. Laws that mandate term limits have been enacted since ancient Greece. The United States, one of the first countries of the modern era to have elected political offices, established a limit of two terms on its presidency when it adopted the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1951.
There are no term limits for the vice president or members of Congress, although recommendations have been made for establishing term limits for those offices. State laws that placed term limit restrictions on federal offices have been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sporadic efforts to amend the Constitution to provide for congressional term limits have also been unsuccessful-- probably because their passage would have required the affirmative vote from those whose terms were to be affected.
Voluntary campaign promises to limit the number of terms of public service are seldom kept once the aspiring candidate reaches Washington. This change in attitude is nearly universal among freshman legislators of both parties, and one has to conclude that self-interest and the trappings of power drive the psyche of the new officeholders.
In his book "Breach of Trust," Republican Sen. Tom A. Coburn of Oklahoma details the conflict between the freshman Republicans of the Class of '94 and the professional politicians of their own party. Gingrich Republicans ran on a platform detailed in the "Contract with America." They were swept into control by dissatisfied voters.
Some things promised by the Contract were accomplished -- rotating committee chairs, for example. Budget restraints did not work over time because of the need to purchase votes with "pork" spending. A term-limit pledge in the GOP's Contract was swept into the wastebasket of disingenuous promises. Professional politicians of both parties had won, and Washington went back to the primary task of retaining power and business as usual.
"If getting elected is the most important thing on a politician's radar screen," Coburn writes, "then our children, our future, and our nation are not the most important things on his or her radar screen. The consequence of this pursuit places our nation at extreme risk."
The American two-party system has seemingly more merit than other democratic systems that have evolved with multiple splinter parties -- forced to compromise to accomplish the process of governing. Such systems with many political parties have shown a higher degree of instability. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the two-party system does work as well as any other.
But the reality is that a politician's need for outside financing for re-election gives each party's fundraising apparatus a significant amount of control over the elected representative's ultimate positions, since it can supply the much-coveted campaign cash -- irrespective of previous promises. Thus the classic compromise of commitment is followed by the ever-so-obvious political spin and concluded with the inevitable "irrational outcome."
Not as obvious to constituents is that the business of the House of Representatives is controlled by a system of committees. The chairman of each committee, who achieves his status by seniority, possesses the administrative power to shape the way a bill is managed -- and, more important, how the vote-buying "pork" is allocated.
Quite often, bills or amendments, supported by the minority party, are never even permitted out of committee for consideration by the full House. Currently the Democratic Party is firmly in control of all House Committees, and committee chairmanships are entwined with longevity in office. When Republicans regain control, there will be a similar rewarding of key chairs to those members long entrenched in the system.
Sign a Formal Contact
A revolutionary technique has emerged that just might make office seekers and representatives actually true to their word. A bonded term limit is a promise -- a commitment by the candidate that he or she will retire from the office after a specified (and limited) number of terms.
Such a commitment would be a formal contract signed by the candidate. And this commitment would be secured by a financial pledge, supported by the candidate's personal assets, which are forfeited to charity if the commitment is broken.
A financially secured term limit commitment that just might provide the gateway for fresh blood to the Congress -- fresh blood unencumbered by the need to compromise on seemingly rational campaign promises, in exchange for irrational outcomes and lifetime tenure, fresh blood which acknowledges that buying votes with spending is not a commonsense solution for which candidates were elected.
For the first time, a commitment will provide the office seeker a new and more significant tool in the uphill battle against entrenched power. For the first time, a representative's constituency could actually believe that he or she had provided a personal and meaningful accountability for what he or she says. It's the one promise a politician can actually keep.
Plenty of Good Candidates
Could a bonded term limit work? That is up to candidates to make the commitment, and to the voters to insist they do.
Our recently formed organization, the Alliance for Bonded Term Limits, has incorporated and made application for recognition as a 501(c)(3) tax-advantaged entity. It has established offices in Pinehurst in the Theater Building in downtown Pinehurst. It is our mission to pursue research based on facts without respect to political party and without influence by special interests. ABTL will report information without bias on the results of this research and let readers determine the impact on public policy.
ABTL will especially focus upon those enticing benefits that are available to members of Congress and not generally available to the voting public. We will look into family connections and inside opportunities resulting from high office. We will explore the direct and indirect perks of public office. There is much to examine.
If voters respond to ABTL's data and research as part of pre-election homework, then we will have contributed to a better election process. It is a complex arena with many dynamics, but those of us associated with this effort have great faith in the American voter. We especially admire the thought process of the so-called "swing voter" who makes a real effort to become educated and who votes without emotion.
Some people oppose term limits on the grounds that they take away the people's right to keep leadership that they like. That is a fair point, but what are the pitfalls of endless incumbency in the same office? The obvious pitfalls of entrenched, status quo leadership more than outweigh the loss of the occasional political leader who happens to put the country's interest above his own re election.
ABTL believes that there is an abundance of good candidates available to provide competent, fresh and commonsense leadership for America -- candidates committed to engage in real public service, not self-service. ABTL believes that the current system of government at most levels promotes and ensures the status quo, while simultaneously fostering irrational outcomes to obviously soluble problems.
It is the legacy of incumbency to please all divergent constituencies. Government is generally reactive rather than proactive, primarily as a mechanism to impress a voter base. The root cause of stagnant and irrational policy is the failure to allow commonsense solutions from participants not impaired by the threat of a limited tenure in office.
A first-term elected representative enters the legislative house at the hierarchical bottom of the barrel. This diminished status is reflected in everything from an office at the end of the hall to committee assignments that have only marginal impact on policy.
"Learn the ropes," the newcomer is told by those who have already created personal fiefdoms and who have attained power by longevity. In other words, "Sit down, shut up, and do as we tell you." With the people's money at hand, the newcomer sits down and shuts up. He does not rock the boat and just waits his turn. The loss of the party's support for re-election is simply too great a threat to live up to one's campaign promises.
Unfortunately, government is a non-risk-taker, only a consumer not a creator of wealth. Yet elected officials are able to place themselves at the very top of society's wealth pyramid simply as a result of being able to make the rules.
Politicians achieve no status at the top of the pyramid by creating jobs or economic growth. They are simply placed there by themselves only from their power to do so, in a system that they themselves have closed to practical solutions and common sense in order to remain.
Change to this system must necessarily be brought about from the outside when elected representatives actually take personal responsibility for commonsense policy.
They will make and keep promises that are first and foremost supposed to be for of the good of America and not for their own preservation.
That level of responsibility, which is desperately needed in our society today, is evidenced by a bonded term limit.
John Neff and John Skvarla contributed to this piece. The Alliance for Bonded Term Limits can be reached at (910) 420-2753.
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