According to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week, 60 percent of Americans would like to play the role of Donald Trump, wagging his finger and sending the entire Congress packing. This is a record high.
The poll is an understandable gut-level response to the intransigence and partisanship that led to the recent government shutdown, but it points to a thoughtful reform that directly addresses both the sentiment and the underlying problem: term limits.
The behavior of the Congress at any given time is a function of its current membership, with all their particular relationships, grudges, political debts, fixations, egos, convictions and vices.
When Congress becomes dysfunctional or unrepresentative, it stays so. Over 90 percent of incumbents running for their own seats have won since 1970.
Term limits hit the reset button. Over six years, assuming a six-year term limit in the House, a new set of Congress members are chosen by the people, representing their current thinking.
The political fiefdoms and quid pro quos constructed over the years leave office with them. Change becomes a built-in part of the system, not just a vacuous campaign slogan.
Today’s lopsided elections cannot restore the rotation in office that our Founders believed crucial for representative democracy to function.
With the growth of the size and scope of government, and the vast amount of money spent to influence it, the advantages of incumbency have grown effectively insurmountable. This changes the nature of our elections.
Typically, in each election cycle, dozens of House seats go unopposed and no elections are held at all. In 2012, this included the seat of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
But even in nominally contested seats, the probability of defeating an incumbent is so low that qualified, goal-oriented people are discouraged from running.
Generally, the Don Quixotes who take on such a contest cannot raise sufficient money to be taken seriously and the election results are lopsided and unmeaningful. They certainly do not represent a real choice for voters.
Real change occurs in open seats where there is no incumbent. This is where competitive elections occur and the current sentiments of the people can sneak into the Congress.
Term limits periodically mandate open seat elections in every district and make meaningful, competitive elections possible.
In addition, term limits would bring new ideas to Congress, broaden the range of experience of our representatives, improve citizen access to public office, reduce the power of seniority and sever the comfortable relationships that naturally grow between the decision-makers and the special interests.
As Thomas Jefferson summed it up, “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.”
Constitutional amendments empowering citizens in this manner have been introduced by Rep. Matt Salmon in the House and Sens. David Vitter and Rand Paul in the Senate. All call for a limit of three terms in the House and two in the Senate.
In spite of the fact that a January Gallup Poll shows that 75 percent of the people — including large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents — support this reform, the bills are languishing on the Hill.
However, in a “Sense of the Senate” vote called by then-Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in 2012, 75 percent of the Senate voted down a broad resolution that congressional terms should be limited.
Can there be any clearer example of how unrepresentative Congress has become?
The shutdown is a wake-up call that Congress is not doing the business of the people. And, as the people are ostensibly the employers, it is time for them to say, “You’re fired!” in a responsible way, by calling for a congressional term limits amendment.Philip Blumel is president of U.S. Term Limits, a single-issue advocacy group based in Fairfax, Va.