The failure of Congress to address the shortcomings of the ACA and the carnage that is nearly certain to occur with efforts to reform taxes, immigration law and trade agreements should remind us that very little progress will ever be made until the swamp is truly drained.
It is ironic that the most notable current politician to initially decry the existence of a swamp in Washington, D.C., and plead for it to be drained, former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D) (10/6/06 speech to Democratic caucus), could very well be the most reptilian of all. At best, her efforts resulted only in swapping alligators for crocodiles. Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in Congress has not done any better. Both have failed to implement meaningful reform despite political rhetoric by each promising to do otherwise.
The creation of a political swamp requires two things: an unrestrained flow of money from sources that want to unduly control our political process, with the sources oftentimes unknown, and a congregation of incumbent politicians who are more interested in their own political careers and continued accumulation of power than the interests of their constituents or the country as a whole. You take away one, and the swamp necessarily begins to drain. You take away both, and a golden field of hay grows from the peat moss below.
Because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, the ability to restrain the free flow of money to incumbent politicians is effectively precluded under First Amendment guaranteed speech. However, the ability to rid the swamp of dreaded reptiles that feed off the flow of money remains securely and steadfastly in the hands of voters. We simply need to recognize this ability and remain true to the goal of draining the swamp regardless of whether the reptile is a Republican or a Democrat. Simply stated, the only real way to drain the swamp is for Republicans, Democrats and Independents to forcibly impose term limitations on our elected federal officials at the ballot box this next election.
The framers of our constitution were fully aware of the dangers to democracy whenever power is accumulated in individuals or a branch of government. These men were as brilliant and aspirational as they were pragmatic and realistic. They structured our government with an overarching purpose of restraining power. Whether the restraint involved checking the power of one branch of the federal government with another branch, the power or the collective will over individual liberties or the power of the federal government vis-à-vis the states, restraint of power was first and foremost in their deliberations. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1775, “a fondness for power is implanted in most men, and it is natural to abuse it when acquired. This maxim, drawn from the experience of all ages, makes it the height of folly to entrust any set of men with power which is not under every possible control.”
The one aspect of restraining power not considered by the framers was the abuse of power when an elected official remains in office too long. This is understandable, because the framers never conceived an incumbent serving more than one to three terms at the most. The role of an elected official was to perform a selfless civic duty for a short period of time and then return to life outside his elected position. This proved true during the 19th century when the average tenure of incumbents in the House of Representatives was three years. During the 16th Congress (1819-1821) only 5 percent of incumbents in the House served more than eight years. In contrast, during the most recent 115th Congress (2017-2019) more than 39 percent served more than eight years, with 20 percent serving more than twenty years.
Term limits eliminate the favorite target of lobbyists and special interests, namely, long-term incumbent federal elected officials. The reason why incumbents, particularly those in office for more than a decade, are paid hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions is to ensure unbridled influence over those incumbents who have grown more dependent on their money after each election cycle. The quid pro quo of contributions in exchange for direct access initially and near complete control eventually takes multiple election cycles to play out. Because long-term incumbents are nearly always re-elected, the payoff for these lobbyists and special interests is almost guaranteed.
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Efforts to set term limits on elected federal officials has been met with little success to date. The lack of success is due primarily to incumbents’ unwillingness to do what is right, to put the nation’s interests above their own. Amending the Constitution through a constitutional convention or by a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures is not likely to happen, because this would require legislative leaders, most of whom are also long-term incumbents, to allow the legislation to be brought up for a vote. This would be like pharmaceutical companies funding a study on the value of generic drugs to reduce our health costs; it is just never going to happen.
There remains only one way to limit the corruptive accumulation of power in long-term incumbents and that is to require across the board that every candidate for federal office in 2018 promise voters in writing three things: First, they will not run for re-election after serving ten years, known as the “Ten and Out” promise. Second, they will not vote into a leadership position any member of the House or Senate who has already been in the office for more than ten and twelve years, respectively. Finally, they promise to vote for any constitutional amendment limiting the tenure of federal elected officials to five terms in the House and two terms in the Senate.
I can already hear the gasps of long-term incumbents and the saber-rattling of lobbyists and special interests in response to the “Ten and Out” promise. An argument often made is that the role of Congress will be lessened by limiting the terms of its members. There is no factual basis for this argument; the argument is based on self-serving speculation and involves nothing more than hyperbole. In reality, limiting future years in Congress will make newly elected members know that the time to lead Congress toward solutions is now, not five to ten years later when the established party leadership says so.
Arguments that more time is needed in office to learn how to be an effective member of Congress is similarly unfounded. Most workers in America receive a training or probation period of ninety days or less. Even if we assume that some federal elected officials may not be as “quick learners” compared to other American workers, after six months’ training on the job, these already highly educated members of Congress will still have almost a decade to hopefully become competent at what they do. There also exists thousands of experienced staff people walking the halls of Congress with resumes in hand who can help elected officials climb the learning curve, which is probably less steep than what elected officials would want you to think.
Congress is dysfunctional and has completely failed to address the problems facing this country; however, before we can find working solutions to these problems, we must have members of Congress who are looking out for others rather than themselves. Term limitations are the only way to preserve and strengthen our democracy. Iowa proudly proclaims to be “first in the nation” politically and must, once again, take the lead by following, without exception, voter-imposed term limits on our candidates in 2018. This means that with a unified voice, we must tell Congressmen Dave Loebsack (D) and Steve King (R) that their time is up, thank you for your service, but Iowa needs for you to go back to your day job. For those who replace them and those seeking re-election elsewhere with less than ten years under your belt, your written promise mandates that you vote against Nancy Pelosi (D), Paul Ryan (R), John Dingell (D), Kevin McCarthy (R) or any other reptiles long in the tooth for leadership positions in the House. Similarly, send Mitch McConnell (R), Diane Feinstein (D), Lindsay Graham (R), Patrick Leehy (D) and other three-peat offenders in the Senate the same message, that the gravy train has ended, and the swamp will be drained. Just think of a Congress without this cast of supposed leaders who have contributed more than most to an institutional morass, unprecedented political party bickering and have failed to achieve any effective solution to the many serious problems facing this county. Now, quit smiling and start telling your fellow Iowa voters to demand the “Ten and Out” promise from candidates in 2018.
• Chris Scheldrup, of North Liberty, is the father of six children, an educator, an entrepreneur, a lawyer and a former Legislative Director of the Republican Party of Iowa.