It is with an odd sense of fate that I begin this post. I scheduled weeks ago to write today regarding the need for term limits in both the U.S House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate. I had no way of knowing the Senator Kennedy would pass away this week and give me a perfect example of why term limits are needed.
The point of this post isn't to discuss Sen. Kennedy's politics. I instead want to focus on the length of his career. Ted Kennedy first entered the Senate in 1962 as the winner of a special election to replace his older brother John F Kennedy. When John Kennedy became President, he resigned his seat. A place holder was selected to replace President Kennedy and serve his term until 1) a special election could be held and 2) Ted Kennedy would be old enough to serve in office. That election occurred in November of 1962, and Ted Kennedy would hold that office until his death this past week. At the time of his death, Kennedy was the third longest serving Senator in the history of the U.S. Senate, serving a continuous 46, almost 47 years. For those trivia fans out there, Robert Byrd (D-WV) is the longest serving Senator in the History of the United States at over 50 years and counting. These careers can be measured in decades and that is a problem.
The U.S. Constitution does not include any limit on the number of terms a Senator or Representative can serve. Originally, there was no term limits for the President either. However, after FDR won four terms, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, limiting the President to two terms, or ten years. There is no cap to how long a Representative or Senator can serve, as shown with Senators Kennedy and Byrd.
There are a number of groups and individuals out there looking to change this. Allowing Senators and Representatives to serve what can be life long careers in Congress can carry a number of disadvantages. First, the primary reason there are earmarks in congress is to provide incumbents with campaign items. A Senator can campaign in his home state saying, "Look at the money I brought back to this district from Washington." Second, one of the most heinous practices is gerrymandering voting districts. The only reason this is done is to guarantee that incumbents get reelected. Both parties practice this, and it could be done away with if representatives could only spend a certain number of terms in office. Many of the career representatives have begun to look at their position in Congress as "their seat" and not the property of the voters. Senator Kennedy's attempt to dictate who would replace him is a good example of this mentality.
Writing about the need for term limits, the Heritage Foundation noted a number of years ago:
"Term limits are needed at all levels of government. However, because of the large electoral advantages wielded by incumbents, the historically low rate of turnover, the greater threat from special interests, and the unique power that federal legislators hold, it is especially important to apply term limits to Congress."
While elected representatives will avoid passing term limits on their own, they have shown their hand before. Congress has instituted term limits on both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Why would they institute term limits on this committee? Our elected officials are worried that spending too long on these committees might cause the members to become more loyal to the committee and the intelligence bureaucracy and might lose their ability to exercise independent judgment on the committee. Couldn't we apply the same logic to Congress in general? If a Senator is in office for 40 years, does he still put the voters needs first?
Finally, in today's world, incumbents have some advantages that are very hard for a challenger to overcome that have nothing to do with policy and issues. Elected Senators and Representatives can campaign while continuing to draw their salary. Most challengers have to quit their job and campaign full time. Any speech or press release an incumbent issue gets covered in the media. A challenger has to spend money buying media time, which Congress has made more difficult for challengers through Campaign Finance Reform like McCain-Feingold. McCain-Feingold is much more about protecting incumbents than getting "the money out of politics". Like gerrymandering, this is an example of elected officials protecting their jobs, and not doing what is best for the voters.
I want to end this discussion with one final question. I mentioned earlier that the 22nd Amendment was passed after FDR won his fourth term as President. He didn't serve out all four terms and was only actually in office for a little over twelve years. If Congress thinks it's a bad idea for one individual to serve 12 years as President, why is it a good idea for one individual to serve as Senator for 46 to 50 years?