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take the steps required to balance the budget, but that we don't use them. They remind us that the problem is really one of a lack of political will and courage. But
political courage means different things to different people. I would argue that Republicans have the political will to cut spending to the bone. And I believe that the Democrats have the political will to raise taxes sky-high. But neither side can impose their political will without the cooperation of the other. So the question becomes: How do we break the logjam and get Congress and the White House to do
what is right?
Members of Congress will, no doubt, take a constitutional duty much more
seriously than a statutory one. Further, by making it a constitutional requirement, the
budget will receive more media scrutiny and the public will become more attentive
and more involved. And if a balanced budget amendment does nothing but lead to a
serious, honest, national debate on spending and taxes
a debate I know my side
then it will have been worth it. In short, a constitutional amendment
ups the political ante.
As Social Security is in the news again, let me add something else here. It is worth noting that in the past debate, seniors groups worked their constituencies into a frenzy, touting the fallacy that a balanced budget amendment would result in a raid on Social Security and Medicare. This was, of course, nothing but a scare tactic used by opponents of the amendment to defeat it. Social Security would be no more
vulnerable under a constitutional amendment than it is now. In fact, I believe Social
Security is less safe without the amendment. If Congress wants to raid Social Security, they will do it anyway. The single biggest threat to the trust fund is our mounting federal deficit. (Social Security is already treated as a cash cow for underfunded programs.) Under the prescribed procedure of a constitutional amendment, Congress would be forced to prioritize items such as Social Security
COLAs, and budget for them accordingly.
A balanced budget amendment would conform to the basic historical
proposition of no taxation without representation. In this case, that means the current generation has no right to saddle future generations the unrepresented -- with a mounting pile of debt taxation. Thomas Jefferson made precisely this same point in recommending such a constitutional procedure over 200 years ago. If it was good enough for Tom, it should be good enough for all of us.
Limiting Terms for Members of Congress This brings me to my third and most important proposal, the one to limit terms for senators and representatives. The voters' disenchantment with Congress provided for a lively election cycle in 1992, as many incumbents had to fight for their political
lives against little-known, and inexperienced challengers. Still, even in this
atmosphere of reform, sitting members of Congress proved surprisingly resilient of 26 senators lost their jobs, meaning 88.5 percent of those incumbents up for
reelection won. And a mere 24 of 348 House incumbents were defeated, translating
into a 93 percent reelection rate. This is not much better than the 96 percent rate
achieved in 1990.
Yet in the same year, state term limit initiatives enjoyed incredible popular support nationwide, prevailing in all 14 states where they made the ballot. The fact is, the relatively recent trend toward "professional legislators" is generally recognized as a disturbing turn for representative government. Voters feel increasingly isolated from their elected officials, and they are yearning for a solution to the entrenched bureaucracy which has created the sort of policy gridlock referred to so often during the campaign. The answer you hear more and more is term limits.
Of the various proposals currently discussed, I think my legislation provides
the best formula. H.J.Res 21 is a proposed amendment to the Constitution which would limit representatives to six consecutive terms, and senators to two. Former members of Congress could return to office only after an intervening idle term, but with a full loss of seniority. (My resolution, H.Res. 15 would change House rules to
do the same.) This addresses, I think, both the concerns of those who want to limit
terms, as well as those who say term limits restrict voters' choice.
Limiting service in government would have an enormous effect on Congress. Mark Liedl of the Heritage Foundation, in a paper supporting term limits, drew upon the work of liberal political scientist Morris Fiorina to describe how since the time of the Great Society, members of Congress have transformed their roles from national policy-makers to constituent ombudsmen. He points out that in an incredible perversion of the role of government, because more and more congressmen prefer ombudsmanship to policy-making -- ombudsmanship gets them reelected -- Congress now has an incentive to further feed the inefficient bureaucracy so that they can get credit for guiding their helpless constituents through the huge morass that is our federal government. All of this comes at the expense of sound policy. Liedl concludes that term limits would force congressmen to focus more on national policy, rather than casework, and would therefore help to break the so-called "iron triangle"
relationship between Congress, interest groups and the federal bureaucracy. This
point should not be lost on this important debate.
A congressional seat is, effectively, a safe job that consequently engenders a ruling class attitude in those who hold it. With a job for life, most members of Congress stop making the tough, sometimes politically unpopular decisions, and adopt a "go along, get along" stance. The result is a Congress that embraces old ideas for new problems, which only leads to bad public policy. Congress now responds more readily to inside-the-beltway special interest groups than it does to the will of the
American people. It puts the political interests of its members above the public good.
Term limits, however, would break down this ruling class attitude.
So the primary benefit to Congress from term limits would come in the form of a fresh wave of innovation in the hands of new members, resulting from more
competitive elections offering a greater choice of candidates. Of course, one of the
most strident arguments against term limits is that they restrict voter choice by taking a qualified, popular legislator out of the running. But my legislation would allow
retired members to run again after an intervening election cycle. So in this case the
argument is really nothing more than thinly veiled arrogance. First, it assumes that voters already have a choice at the ballot box a quick check of the incumbency rate will tell you otherwise. And it implies that the best person for the job is already
in the seat, and replacing him would really be a disservice to the constituency. This
This argument is based primarily on the imperious belief that the current make
up of Congress is already the best it can be. Opponents of term limits claim that they would throw good legislators out of office. But this disregards the thousands of
capable men and women who, without term limits, might never have the opportunity
to serve. The House of Representatives was never intended to be nor is it now
And a further word on voter choice. Those who advance this argument do not mention that voters are already limited in their ability to choose their leaders, thanks
to the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to two terms. This amendment has
effectively skewed the original balance of power between the legislative and the
executive branch in favor of Congress. As Pat Buchanan put it, "If eight years is enough for a great president, it's more than enough for a mediocre congressman."
So unless those who stand against term limits are ready to embrace repeal of the 22nd
Amendment, term limits for representatives and senators may be the only solution to
restoring parity is to elective government.
Opponents also contend that an inexperienced membership would necessarily
rely too heavily upon a professional congressional staff which would become the most
powerful group of players on Capitol Hill. As a long-time member of this body,
however, I can tell you that the members who rely the heaviest upon Congress'
professional staff are those who have served the longest, not the inexperienced new
members. And besides, any such situation could be handled by simply putting restrictions on the staff, as well as the members. (Apparently, we are to believe that
now it is only the most senior members of Congress who keep a check on this renegade staff.)
And a final word must be said on the question of the unconstitutionality of term limits. I believe that just the opposite is true. The founding fathers placed
certain limitations of federal office holders as deemed necessary
such as age.
Indeed, the two-year term for representatives mandated in the Constitution was meant
to ensure high turnover. This is no longer the case.
Thomas Jefferson referred to "rotation in office" as a way to achieve a truly
representative citizen legislature. And fellow founder Robert Sherman advised that members of the legislature "ought to return home and mix with the people." Otherwise, "they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents." Undoubtedly, the founders would be amazed to see the current