Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy
By George F. Will
The Free Press, $19.95
Reviewed by Martin Dyckman
Leave it to George Will to find a moment in history when Americans actually cried out "Long live Congress!" It was during the Revolution, he reports; the Americans were captured officers taunting the British.
It has been downhill ever since. Nobody has a kind word for Congress today. What cheers it receives are of the Bronx variety. Government in general and Congress in particular have lost the respect, if not yet the consent, of the governed. But if some conservatives are enjoying this, Will is not.
"That is not my kind of conservatism," he writes. "I do not fathom how any American who loves the nation can relish the spectacle of the central institutions of American democracy being degraded and despised. Patriotism properly understood is simply not compatible with contempt for the institutions that put American democracy on display."
Will's remedy is the political equivalent of tough love: term limits. He makes the case as thoroughly, persuasively _ and, to a degree, as objectively _ as the case can be made. The trouble with it is that it is premised on the kind of total faith in change for change's sake that conservatives such as Will normally find so objectionable on the part of liberals. Perhaps term limits will do wonders (though I think not) but there is no way to know. For all of Will's eloquence, he does not know. He simply hopes. He conjectures. He surmises.
"If people served in legislatures only briefly, going to them from other careers, to which they would return in a few years," Will writes, "they would have less incentive to shovel out pork. .
. And if legislators were not too separated, for too long, from normal citizens and normal life in normal communities, they might retain the ability to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate functions for the federal government."
Perhaps. A lawmaker intending to return to private life might indeed be less disposed to pork _ unless the job to which he or she were returning happened to be on the staff of the local port authority or in the Washington lobbying office of a defense contractor.
Will professes not to be bothered by the fear that maxed-out senators and representatives would hang on as lobbyists. Their influence would be limited, he argues, because most of the colleagues with whomthey had served would have been forcedto go home. True, perhaps, but irrele-vant. With the Congress stripped ofinstitutional memory and wisdom ev-ery 6, 8, 10 or 12 years, to whomwould newly elected members neces-sarily look for guidance? To the lobbyists, of course, and to staff _ a staff that will have more ties to the veteran lobbyists than to the fledgling law-makers.
Will isn't worried about staff be-cause statistics show that the average Capitol Hill employee stays less than 6 years. Here he comes closeto being disingenuous. It is the staff directors rather than the clerks and researchers who pull the strings in Congress, and the former tend toremain long enough, thank you, toacquire great power and misuse it. As staff director of the Senate Banking Committee, M. Danny Wall helped persuade Congress to deregulate the savings and loan industry. His influence then carried him to the Home Loan Bank Board, just in time to preside over the resulting disaster.
To be effective, term limits would have to be applied down the line. "As more and more state legislators are brought under term limits," Will argues hopefully, "those who want to prolong their sojourn in politics will need to find other offices to seek." Upwardly mobile state lawmakers will make the political climate for term limits on Congress.
But Will can't have it both ways. If "careerism" is bad for Congress, what makes it good for state legislators? That this year's session of the Florida Legislature was the worst in memory had much to do with the fact that so many members were focused only on running for Florida's new or redrawn congressional districts. Term limits might be as utopian as Will assumes. Or they could as easily give us 120 state representatives running at once for 40 state Senate seats, 40 senators all running for Florida's 23 seats in the U.S. House, 23 members of that House all running for the U.S. Senate, and 30 or more U.S. senators all running for governor of their states, or for president. Certainly George Will would not call that good government.
This makes no brief for the status quo. Will is irrefutable when he asserts "the urgent need to restore Congress to vigor, self-respect, respectability and its rightful place in American governance." With a "stammering cipher" like George Bush in the White House, Will argues, Americans ought to see clearly the "danger of excessive reliance on the presidency as the locus of energy and purposefulness for the national government." Yet this line of reasoning makes as least as much of a case for a parliamentary system as for term limits, which seem as likely to weaken Congress as to strengthen it.
The politics of a democracy are almost always self-correcting. Congress is already undergoing the most dramatic shake-up since World War II. Counting retirements, primary defeats and deaths, there will be at least 87 new House members and 9 new senators. Redistricting (which comes every 10 years), the House banking controversy and the public's anti-incumbent mood have all contributed. Some members have quit simply because of their own despair over congressional paralysis.
Before imposing term limits, should we not give the new Congress time to reform campaign contributions, streamline its procedures and hone its ethical standards? Should we not wait to see if a Congress and president of the same party can cooperate? By all means we should, but it may be too late; the tumbrils of term limits are already rolling.
So let us hope Will is right. If he is wrong, Americans will be left more disillusioned and disgusted than ever. What a pity Will gives such short shrift to the one law no Congress or constitution can repeal: the law of unintended consequences.
Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.