Is that 'clout' boon or boondoggle?

Steven Schwalm

October 21, 1992|By Steven Schwalm

ONE of the most self-serving arguments against congressional term limits -- usually advanced by long-standing members -- is that it will end the careers of the lawmakers with the most clout: those who know best how to "get things done" for their constituents. Accepting that argument is a costly mistake.

As James Payne demonstrates in "The Culture of Spending," what incumbents do best is spend money. Indeed, the longer members remain in Congress, the more inclined they are to support increased federal spending. Instead of helping voters, this is what is hurting them.

Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., recently confessed that as Congress spends the government further into debt, more of the taxes we pay are used to pay interest on that debt. As a result, there is less money available for welfare, Social Security, Medicare and other federal programs.

In 1990, for example, Washington spent $75 billion less on federal programs than taxpayers sent to the Treasury in taxes. This amounts to more than $300 from every American -- $1,200 for a family of four.

What this means is that those same incumbents who claim to be so effective at delivering benefits back home are actually shortchanging the taxpayers of their states.

From 1988 to 1990, the difference between what Californians sent in taxes to the federal government and what they got in return was nearly $22 billion, an average annual loss of more than $7.3 billion. Illinois taxpayers were shortchanged $13.3 billion per year over the same period, and the biggest losers, the citizens of New York and New Jersey, each lost about $15 billion per year.

In a recent article, lobbyist Victor Kamber argued that term limits would rob Ohio voters of the representatives best able to deliver to the state "its fair share of federal dollars and resources." Yet from 1988 to '90, Ohio's "fair share" from the federal government averaged $1.5 billion less annually than state taxpayers sent in taxes -- ranking it an anemic 36th among all states for return on its tax dollars.

Perhaps what Mr. Kamber means is that by getting rid of the most experienced lawmakers, states won't be able to get the wasteful pork-barrel projects for which Congress has become famous. If that is true, then fresh blood might not be such a bad deal.

The fact is that some of the most powerful members of Congress "represent" states whose citizens are getting the least benefit from their investment in federal programs. Two such members of the House -- Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee -- represent states that in 1991 ranked 47th and 44th, respectively.

Even Washington state, with the most powerful member of Congress, House Speaker Thomas Foley, ranked a lowly 32nd in 1991, sending $189 million more to the feds than it got back.

By contrast, New Mexico -- which received $4.7 billion more from the federal government than state taxpayers paid in 1991 -- doesn't have a single committee chairman in either the House or Senate, and only one ranking member, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of the Budget Committee.

These facts show that whatever long-tenured members of Congress may be doing with their clout, it isn't necessarily helping their home states in the long run. Term limits would clear NTC Congress of a lot of clout -- and it looks like that's just what we need.

Steven Schwalm is a congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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