As I type this article on Monday morning, a government shutdown seems inevitable. In a little under 18 hours, barring a congressional Hail Mary, legislative intransigence will mean the shutdown of the National Parks, freeze on pay for troops, and furloughs of governmental employees.
My slightly anarchistic sensibilities should make me want to sit back and watch it all burn. Still, I am overtaken by disgust. After all, we elected these folks; we symbolically passed them the key to the country to represent our wants in the preeminent democracy of the world. This is the result of our votes of confidence.
How did we end up in this portentous state of affairs? Ask anyone, and their political leanings are sure to shine through; the right blames the left, the left blames the right, and independents are left shaking their heads. Toxic rhetoric flashes across television screens, and parallels to Nazi Germany and the Civil War are drawn on the most tenuous of bases. Partisanship is just the proximate cause of the latest crisis, however; the ultimate issue lies in the fundamental character of the political system at present.
Despite two-year terms in the House of Representatives and biennial elections for a third of the Senate, length of service averages 9.8 years and 11.4 years for representatives and senators respectively. Some skew this average up, with some veteran members of Congress serving for decades. Considering as well the relative sociocultural homogeny of lawmakers, it is clear that legislative power is concentrated in the hands of a sort of elite political class.
We task our politicians with an almost Herculean task: to govern altruistically for the betterment of the nation. The dynamics of life of the professional politician is antithetical to this goal, however. Some sectors posit that increasing pay for lawmakers might remove their personal biases, but conventional bribery isn’t the problem. After all, given the momentous cost to launch even a congressional campaign, politicians aren’t in it for the paltry salary (even when supplemented by corporate kickbacks).
Instead, the principal reward for service is prestige; successful politicians have it, and retirees from office do not. In our current political system, politicians must therefore be constantly plan for the future, lest they be forced to retire incognito to their mansions. By scribbling letters next to each politician’s name, we give the problem a new face; we call it “partisanship,” as if to imply it is loyalty, not selfishness, that drives our representatives’ and senators’ actions. But casting the issue in such terms implies monolithic Republican and Democrat parties, a notion that empirically holds no water (see Richard Tisei). We cannot keep pointing to super-PACs and national conventions when the problem is created at the neighborhood ballot boxes.
Although the gridlock in our political system is created at home, it can’t be solved there. But by imposing term limits on all elected office at the national level, it is possible to erase the compulsion to legislate in accordance with long term personal goals and encourage politicians to govern, not rule.
Why do we limit the President to two terms? Although the precedent was not codified constitutionally until 1947, the tradition arose among the earliest Commanders-in-Chief as a conscious decision to avoid the earliest steps down the path to monarchy. Rather than monarchy, however, the greatest threat to democracy is now oligarchy. Politicians wheel-and-deal with promises of future reciprocation — perhaps an essential vote on a future bill or support at the next convention — precisely because we encourage them to plan for their futures by making a career out of political office. Our political system furnishes the means to create dynasties.
I think Zoidberg (of Futurama fame) succinctly outlines one of the few legitimate objections against term-limits for members of Congress: “[Nixon] may not be perfect, but do we really want some new guy? I’ll stick with the evil maniac I know, thank you!” Fresher politicians might mean legislative inexperience, but it also means comparative purity; I would be content to accept greenhorns if we could wrest political power from the hands of a shadowy, Ivy-educated elite. Given that only Congress could establish term-limits for members of Congress — an irony of constitutional amendments — such a change in the political system is unlikely in any of our lifetimes. In that regard, voters hold the ultimate power. Only we can vote for the underdog, the unknown. We must ignore names and vote on the basis of platform instead. Otherwise, we are doomed to bide our time until the next crisis emerges and wonder why politics never changes.