WASHINGTON, February 19, 2014 — Representative Henry Waxman’s recent announcement that he is stepping down from office after an astounding twenty terms, or forty years, illustrates the ridiculousness of lobby politics and the lack of term limits in American representative government.
The reality of a 20-term Congressman should never have been possible.
There was once an idea in American politics which stemmed from the English enlightenment, called “disinterestedness.” The idea was that a man amassed significant wealth in his time in private enterprise, and when he reached his forties or fifties and had attained his fortune, and when his sons and daughters were ready to assume the family duties, he entered politics. He would enter politics a rich individual, and as a result, he, as a man of honor, would govern detached from any potential monetary gain he could procure through legislative efforts.
Individuals seeking office would not make a career of it, and would only serve one or two terms in the fashion laid down by George Washington.
Politics was never supposed to be a career. Entering office and the government was a necessary evil, not a livelihood. It was for people who had already accomplished a great deal and who wanted to give back. They did not look to make money from the country or their positions. They sought to further their political ideals and give back to the nation.
Government was to be mistrusted, and these men were to safeguard the liberty of the people while they enjoyed what was basically retirement.
This concept has been obliterated. Completely destroyed.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the country was much smaller, and so was the government. But the government should be small; it is not supposed to be a leviathan capable of swallowing liberties whole and dragging us down to the depths of servitude.
Politics has become a career, and a lucrative one. Behind that there people who keep politicians in power and pull the strings when they sit in office. Our country is not led by the best and brightest; it is not governed by the most learned or the self-made. It is governed by the wink and the handout. It is led by the brightest smile instead of the brightest mind.
So how do we fix it?
We change everything. Here are a few ideas:
- President: one term at six years.
- Senator: one term at six years.
- Congressman: one term at four years.
- The leadership of each party is voted on before each Congressional session convenes, and speaker, whips, and House and Senate leaders hold those positions for a single session. After the session is over, they go around again.
- Make it easier to recall representatives and senators, and any elected officials who are not doing the jobs that their constituents elected them to do.
By setting term limits for elected officials, we would force politicians to confront the issues facing the people instead of the issues that would keep them in power. With strict term limits, politicians would not be slaves of popularity and fashion; they would be free to do what is right without concern for what is popular.
There are so many examples of politicians who stay in power for decades because they pander to their constituents and the nation as they push hot button issues. By taking that motivation away, it is possible to create a better dynamic in Congress.
But what about money? Dollars win elections.
The politicians who repeatedly get elected are the ones whose names are recognized beyond their states and districts. They head commissions and lead subcommittees because they are senior, and popular. They get more money from lobbies, PACs, unions, and special interests because they are more likely to get things done. But once they get into office, they are beholden to those special interest groups, to grant favors and lick boot. They are hamstrung when it comes to choosing between their constituents and their financial supporters.
Term limits would reduce the potency of money in the electoral process, but we can also tackle the role of money directly. Some possibilities are:
- Extreme campaign advertiser reform and strict enforcement on those laws.
- No more PACs, not more special interests, and no more lobbyists.
- Each candidate gets a block of television commercials that TV stations can then use as a tax write off, each commercial is played the same amount of times.
- To avoid station favoritism, the ad for one candidate will run right after the ad for the other, regardless of the time. A station cannot play one candidate’s ad without playing the other.
Filing forms to run for office would be free or reimbursable and collecting signatures would be done on the time of the candidate. Billboards and buses and other venues of political advertising would be split down the middle; where one candidate’s ad goes, so does his or her opponent’s. Each ad reaches the same people, and each ad has the same voice.
Ideally, whenever you see a Democratic candidate’s face, you would see the Republican candidate’s face, all paid for by tax write offs and election commissions. If we cut funds from useless government programs and outrageous federally funded studies, we will have more than enough money to implement these measures. Plus, with all of that special interest money gone companies and individuals are more than welcome to donate to whatever cause they want.
These measures are of course completely out of reach; no senator or representative is going to win office by using special interest dollars with a stated plan to tear down that system.
But imagine a Congress, a Senate, and a Presidency that are not bought and paid for by special interests and the mega-rich. Imagine a government of individuals who can actually lead the country instead of just do enough to stay in power. Imagine how much of the IRS could be dismantled with a simple election tax code that did not allow any direct donations to political candidates at all.
Imagine a Congress beholden to the people instead of to corporations.
Imagine a president who was free to govern without the fear of incurring the wrath of his financial backers: no bought and paid for political appointees, no bought and paid for ambassadors, just leaders and policies which reflect the will of the people and the best ideas of the time.
It is time to end the era of big money in politics, and usher in the era of big ideas.