It’s hard to remember a time when Congress was less popular or respected among the American people than it is now. When the October shutdown ended, it had featured national parks closing, barricading of the World War II memorial and other open-air memorial sites, and a stunning demonstration of bureaucratic ineptitude in the denial of bereavement benefits to the families of five U.S. military members killed in Afghanistan. No wonder the public approval rating for Congress is in the single digits.
Members of neither of the two major political parties have any reason to think themselves exempt from the near-unanimous public disapprobation. Democrats control the Senate that refused until the last possible minute to negotiate with the Republicans who control the House of Representatives. In the final analysis, it doesn’t make any difference who “caused the shutdown” because both parties were obligated to keep the government functioning.
Both parties failed in the weeks before and during the shutdown because more than 90 percent of the senators and representatives are regularly re-elected. The rules of campaign finance — written by those in office — make it prohibitively expensive for challengers to gather adequate resources to compete credibly. And it’s no coincidence that so many members see exponential growth in their personal wealth while drawing salaries that pale in comparison to those of Fortune 500 CEOs.
The result is a Congress with less frequent turnover in its membership than the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. For most of American history, senators and representatives served much shorter tenures in Congress. Prior to the Civil War, most members of each new Congress were freshmen because public service was viewed as a noble obligation and an opportunity to contribute to the community, not as a chance to cash in on position and access. It was not uncommon in the early part of the 19th century for three-fourths of the members of the House to be in their first or second terms.
The constitutional convention did not include a term limit for either the president or congressmen for the simple reason they didn’t expect it be necessary, thanks to the profoundly different outlook that prevailed in that time about public service. But some of the founders were less sanguine. As Term Limits President Philip Blumel points out in an op-ed elsewhere on this site, Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, said this: “To prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom from continuing too long in office, it is earnestly recommended that we set an obligation on the holder of that office to go out after a certain period.”
It is said that term limits cannot be brought about, either because of federal court decisions on Clinton-era legislation or because the power of incumbency is so great no Congress of the present character would ever allow it. But states can propose constitutional amendments, which seems somehow more salient now than ever.