Term limits and human nature

    I was taking questions from an audience last night at Gwynned-Mercy College, after speechifying about the current state of play in national politics, when a tea-party citizen rose from his seat to assert that lawmakers on Capitol Hill should be required to quit their jobs after serving a fixed number of terms.
    He argued, with considerable passion, that career politicians are bad for America, that there comes a time when old blood should make way for the new.

    All of which left me with a feeling of deja vu.

    A number of tea-party senatorial candidates this year – including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Ken Buck in Colorado – have been hawking the idea of capping congressional tenures. And support for term limits may well be bipartisan; a Fox News poll earlier this month found that 78 percent of Americans favor the concept – a 10-point increase since it asked the same question in 2005.

    I guess everything old is new again. Check out these passages from a newspaper story: “Voters this year, fed up with government and politics as usual, are in a surly mood…The idea is to force Congress to amend the Constitution, and force all its members to head for home…A recent Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of Americans wanted to limit congressional terms.”

    That story ran nearly 20 years ago, in October of 1990. I wrote it.

    Perhaps it’s sheer coincidence, but the issue back then was also driven by Republican conservative activists – most prominently, by a GOP strategist named Eddie Mahe. He told me that he was focused solely on the merits of the issue, that his interest had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the GOP – as the “out” party on Capitol Hill – was looking for new ways to defeat entrenched Democratic incumbents.

    Here’s what happened: The Republicans talked up term limits for the next four years – and listed the issue as a priority in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America- but once he and his conservative followers got the power, they basically dropped the issue. There were several failed attempts to codify term limits by amending the Constitution, but by early 1997, the movement was dead. A lot of Republican candidates who had promised to cap their tenures suddenly argued, once in office, that term limits were actually bad, and that seasoned politicians were good.

    Today I’m hearing the same pitch for term limits that I heard 20 years ago: The Founding Fathers envisioned that citizens would be called to legislative service and then go home, that government experience is a pejorative. And again, activists within the “out” party are dominating the dialogue. But we’ll see how long this lasts. If the Republicans retake the House in the November elections (as conventional wisdom decrees), tea-partiers may quickly discover the universal truth about politicians – that, regardless of their ideological bent, most of them tend not to look kindly upon rules that would encumber their careers.

    And, sure enough, Republican congressional leaders are reportedly writing a new “Contract With America” that will differ from the ’94 documents in at least one key respect: This time, there will be no mention of term limits.

    But to best understand the impulse of self-protection, let us turn back the clock to March 1, 1784. Ah, Philadelphia politics.

    Members of the Continental Congress were actually required to serve limited terms; Roger Sherman of Rhode Island said, “Representatives ought to return home…By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.” But when the leaders actually tried to enforce this rule for the first time, bedlam broke out on the floor. The incumbents who had overstayed their statutory welcome made such a stink that the leaders wound up dropping the rule.

    As James Monroe, a member and future president, would later remark, “I never saw more indecent conduct in any assembly before.”

    “Indecent conduct?” Let’s just call it human nature – and not even the Founding Fathers were immune.

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    Wise Thought of the Week, courtesy of Oliver Stone: “I might as well be myself. Everyone else is taken.”

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