Ted Stevens – Poster Boy for Term Limits
Again this week we have seen why term limiting could make America a stronger country, and how allowing endless legislative terms continues to blunt our democracy.
In Washington (that’s right, it is just a bit south of Alaska) we had our own example in Tom Foley. Foley served numerous consecutive terms as Representative from Washington’s 5th District (Spokane). In his 30 years in the House of Representatives, Foley amassed tons of seniority and grabbed every personal perquisite he could find.
In 1992, Washington voters passed a term limit initiative which allowed generous service in each legislative and gubernatorial office before requiring that an elected official step aside for another to take her place. The initiative passed with 60% of Washington’s voters in favor. It simply limited House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.
Did Tom Foley listen to the voters, his own constituents, or the rest of the Washington’s voters? No, of course he did not. Tom Foley was Mr. Big-and-Important, stuffed to the (fat) neck with pompous self-indulgence and bloated ego. (Kind of like…well, Senator Ted Stevens, right?)
Foley pursued his legal challenge to the will of Washington voters all the way to the Supreme Court, which found (5-4) that only the legislative bodies themselves had the right—despite the overwhelming will of Foley’s constituents and fellow citizens—to determine who could run again and again and again for Congress.
Mr. Foley’s constituents emphatically re-affirmed their feelings at their next opportunity when, in 1994, they soundly defeated Foley’s regal pretentions, making him the first sitting Speaker of the House since 1860 to be turned out of office. Foley’s defeat was by George Nethercutt, a man new to Congressional candidacy at the time.
Six years later, George Nethercutt (R-WA 05) destroyed his own credibility by attempting to renege on his commitment to term limits and run for a fourth term. ZAP!! The voters said “No, thanks, George.” In Colorado, Nethercutt’s House colleague, Scott McInnis, met a similar fate. Who says voters don’t want some sort of moderating force in place?
What do we get for this continued voter indulgence of legislative hubris? We get Senator Byrd of West Virginia, 89 years old, 54 years in the Senate, too feeble to walk without assistance, considered unfit by his peers to chair his Appropriations Committee, yet still tottering about in the Senate, oblivious to the snickers which echo in the halls around him. This diminished figure is the third official in presidential succession in the event of a tragedy such as we saw in Dallas, Texas, November, 1963.
We also get dino Senators James Eastland, Jesse Helms, John Stennis, Trent Lott, and all their rancid colleagues—rabid racists with minds formed in the benighted 19th century, yet still able—through the seniority system—to resist any legislative initiatives toward legal equality for all Americans over literally decades of filibusters and derailed civil rights legislation. Shamefully, not until 1964 would their collective influence be overturned so that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts could be passed.
What advantages do we get from unlimited legislative service? We actually get very few admirable assets among our senior Senators and Representatives (I’m trying really hard to think of even one) and a distinct majority of heavy liabilities (Lieberman, Hoyer, ….) when we permit legislators to reign, like kings, over their Congressional committees.
We get the senior Congressional Representative from California, Speaker Pelosi, too senior (Representative since 1987, 21 years in the House) for Cindy Sheehan to challenge successfully, yet too ineffective to bring even the most obvious charges against George W. Bush for a trial—an impeachment—in the House.
Was there ever such an egregious prima facie case as Bush’s public, videotaped admission that he had violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and would do so again with impunity? This candid admission of guilt would result in a directed verdict (“Guilty”) in most U.S. courtrooms, yet the go-along get-along 11-term Nancy Pelosi has steadfastly refused to allow impeachment to proceed.
Clearly, in the absence of term limit provisions we get far too few statesmen and stateswomen, and we must endure far too many petty dictators (e.g., Tom Delay, Randall Cunningham) to make our collective indulgence for these self-focused public officials worth their seniority.
Perhaps now, with Senator Ted Stevens’ unequivocal corruption fresh in mind, we voters can prod our legislators to enact limits to the term served and return our nation to the citizen-legislator concept of the Founding Fathers. If 40-year Senator, “bridge-to-nowhere” Ted Stevens doesn’t do it, what will it take?
Better still, voters can take this issue into their own hands and simply refuse to vote for Senators after 2 terms, House members after, say, 4 or 5 terms.
If we all do this, state by state, we can defeat the onerous seniority systems now dominating House and Senate procedures and level the playing field on which our elected officials must compete. 2008 would be a great year to begin!!