Break up Congress!

James K. Coyne

August 27, 1991|By James K. Coyne

THE AMERICAN public consistently displays tremendous support for the concept of limiting congressional terms -- nearly 70 percent in the most recent polls. Nevertheless, most members of Congress adamantly oppose the concept. They can't help themselves, because they are addicted to re-election at all costs.

The Federalist Papers, written 200 years ago, predicted our modern dilemma: ". . . it is a cause for just uneasiness when we see a legislature legislating for their own interest in opposition to those of the people."

Term limitation has several goals. One is to promote change in Congress. Despite a lot of talk and some hopeful signs back in the early 1980s, Congress has become ossified. It no longer reflects American creativity and energy.

The second goal is competition. We know from our own experience that nothing improves an organization, an individual or an entity like competition. Third, control must be restored to the electorate. The people who control Congress today are the members of Congress, and they are effectively unaccountable.

We must return to a government of limits: Good government is limited, and a good Congress is one with limited terms.

There are simple numerical reasons for term limitations. For example, only 28.6 percent of all voting-age people regularly vote in congressional elections -- an unbelievable disgrace. It is not that Americans are undemocratic, shy or afraid that they will be called to jury duty. They don't vote because they know it doesn't make any difference.

More than 99 percent of the incumbent federal and state legislators across the country -- who have not been charged with a crime -- were re-elected during the last decade. Look at our major corporations -- they're laying off people, chief executives are changing and there are all sorts of organizational changes throughout the economy. Yet somehow, through it all, our legislative bureaucracy is secure.

For 37 years, the Democratic Party has controlled the U.S. House of Representatives. During that same period, the British House of Commons has changed hands four times, the French Chamber of Deputies has changed hands three times, the West German Bundestag has changed hands five times, the Canadian House of Commons has changed hands five times and even many communist legislatures have effectively changed hands.

A final figure: The number of staff in Congress has hit 37,388. Who asked for all that staff? The senior members of Congress, for they are the ones who are tired of the real job of being a member of Congress.

One of the arguments against limiting congressional terms is that we have a turnover in Congress. True, people do leave Congress, but usually for the wrong reason.

There are several reasons why members of Congress leave office: They voluntarily retire, they run for a higher office, they die, they are reapportioned (by district) out of office, they are convicted of a crime (hardly a rare occurrence) and they are defeated in a competitive election.

The last reason has been the least likely because members of Congress have learned that if they buy more television time than their opponent, they will, in almost every case, win re-election. It's almost as simple as that.

Clearly we have to fight against this system, and Congress isn't going to help us out. Fortunately, our founders allowed for two ways to amend the Constitution: the congressional route and the state legislature route.

That's why my organization is working to see each state pass a call for a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms to six years. The other approach is for individual states to limit the terms of their own federal legislators -- as Colorado did last year.

Eventually, term limits will be the law of the land. Until then, we'll have to suffer, but, please, not in silence.

James K. Coyne, chairman of Americans to Limit Congressional Terms, is a former congressman from Pennsylvania.

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