OPINION: Term limits can get Congress back on track
America is more polarized than at any time in its history except for the Civil War.
American politics has divided families, with parents and children no longer speaking. Family get-togethers are contentious. Lifelong friendships have collapsed. Marriages have ended due to irreconcilable polarization. At work, people are frightened to mention politics for fear of being fired or offending a co-worker.
Consumers even base what brand of toothpaste they use based upon their politics, according to a study for Colgate.
So, in this historic political chasm, where can a Republican and a Democrat reach common ground? Term limits for Congress.
A recent poll conducted by pollster Scott Rasmussen showed that 82% of Americans favor term limits for Congress. Broken down by party lines, 87% of Republicans favored congressional terms limits; 83% of Democrats favored term limits; and 78% of Independents favored the idea.
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln could not get this degree of favorability.
For many of our current members of Congress, serving in Congress has become a lucrative lifelong job. We have one member of the House of Representatives who was elected in 1980 and has served half of his life in Congress. In the Senate, we have seven members aged 80 or older who have been in the Senate for 30 years or longer. Things like this led Harry Truman to advocate term limits, saying, "Term limits would cure both senility and seniority — both terrible legislative diseases."
Americans see Congress as integral to the dysfunction that we see today in our institutions.
According to Gallup, approval for Congress has not reached 30% in over a decade. Voters don't see Congress working for them. Those that we have elected have simply forgotten who sent them and what their job is — to serve the public.
So, if we can agree that term limits are part of the solution, how do we get there?
Congress will never vote to term-limit themselves, right? Probably not. Although there are members of Congress who favor congressional term limits and are backing legislation to enact it, this legislation faces stiff opposition from entrenched Washington insiders.
So, how do we get off dead center on this issue?
When enough states request a convention to add a term limits amendment to the Constitution, Congress is legally bound to comply. This allows states to make an end-run around Congress. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower foresaw the need for this and said, "A constitutional amendment for congressional term limits could never achieve the blessing of Congress; it could be initiated only by the states."
Five states — Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Wisconsin and West Virginia — have asked for a national convention to amend the Constitution, limited to the subject of congressional term limits. Oregon could be next.
The state Legislature can pass a resolution calling for an Article V convention for congressional term limits only. A simple majority in the Legislature is all that is required to do this.
Setting congressional term limits would take power away from the Washington insiders and lobbyists and give it back to where it belongs — the citizens of each state.
For far too long, we have seen how staying in office for decades leads some of our elected officials to forget that they should serve the voters — not the entrenched special interests that exert their financial muscle in Washington. As Benjamin Franklin (who supported term limits) aptly said, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors. … For the former to return among the latter does not degrade but promote them."
And most importantly, it would lead to a Congress that is responsive to the issues facing everyday Americans. This would lead to real solutions to address the significant problems we face, not the self-serving chaos we see unfolding daily in Washington.
Setting congressional term limits will be a step to ending the political circus that has polarized and divided our nation. It will restore balance in our electoral process. It will return power to where it should reside, with the voters.
Term limits means Congress will develop fundamental solutions, to do the right thing for the people they represent, not incremental solutions that placate the lobbyists.
Now, more than ever before, we need congressional term limits. Let's have Oregon show its pioneering spirit, to help spearhead the change we need to see to get our country working together again.
Kathleen Harder, M.D., is the Oregon state chair for U.S. Term Limits and former Democratic candidate for Oregon's Sixth Congressional District.
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