America Deserves Better Politicians

November/​December 2006 • Policy Report

True enough, and thanks to our British cousins for recognizing it. On the other hand, low expectations are one thing, but this? How low can you go? Lord Acton famously warned that power tends to corrupt. Indeed, when the Democrats were in power in Congress for some 40 years, they grew pretty corrupt (remember the House banking scandal?). It took the more efficient Republicans only a dozen years in power to catch up. The reality is, of course, that the endemic corruption in Congress and more generally inside the Beltway over the past two years is bipartisan:

  • Duke Cunningham (R-CA) is in the slammer for taking $2.5 million in bribes.
  • Frank Ballance (D-NC) is in the slammer for money laundering and mail fraud.
  • Bob Ney (R-OH) pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with the Jack Abramoff scandal and will be sentenced in January.
  • William Jefferson (D-LA) was found by the FBI to have $900,000 in cash in his freezer.
  • Curt Weldon (R-PA) is under FBI investigation for helping a Russian company with business dealings with his daughter.
  • Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is under investigation for selfdealing with a nonprofit that rented a house he owned.
  • Jerry Lewis (R-CA) is under investigation for profiting from earmarks he sponsored.
  • Tom DeLay (R-TX) has been indicted for money laundering.
  • Alan Mollohan (D-WV) had to step down as ranking member of the House Ethics Committee after revelations of earmarks designed to enhance the value of his property and failure to disclosure assets.
  • Rick Renzi (R-AZ), Harry Reid (D-NV), and Dennis Hastert (R-IL) are under criticism for using their congressional positions to benefit land deals in which they were involved.

With the exception of Reps. Ballance and Renzi, every one of those solons had been in office at least a dozen years. Yet another reason to bring back term limits. You’ll recall that in 1995 the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 vote, chose to ignore the Tenth Amendment (nothing in the Constitution precludes states from limiting the terms of their congressional delegations) by striking down term limit laws that had been passed in some 23 states.

The two most likely Supremes to step down over the next two years are Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, both of whom voted against term limits. When that happens, U.S. Term Limits (on whose board I serve along with Cato Board member Howard Rich) will look into the possibility of getting a somewhat different kind of term limit initiative passed with the hope of bringing term limits back before the Supreme Court. The previous ruling, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, was a close decision, and since 80 percent of Americans support the idea, it would not be out of the question that the Court would revisit the issue.

It has always been my theory that the reason we get so many bad apples in Congress is that the vast majority want to be career politicians, which brings to town an inordinate number of power seekers. One of the overlooked benefits of term limits is that they will attract citizen-legislators—people who would rather live in the private sector. That is what we should strive for, particularly in the House of Representatives. I’d prefer a lottery to the system we have now. It’s a system that has created a Congress that a mere 16 percent of Americans approve of, according to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

One more point and I’ll stop beating up on the congresscritters. Ultimately more important than the corruption of ethics and larceny is the corruption of principle. Congress today ignores the Constitution, which should the basis for our rule of law. As Chris DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, eloquently put it: “Modern political practices have left the Constitution in the dust in ways that no one is debating, and few have even noticed. Slowly and insensibly, James Madison’s parchment barriers have been worn down.” Term limits may be our last, best chance to restore those barriers.

Since this will be the last Cato Policy Report you will receive before the end of the year, I want to remind you that the people holding this newsletter in their hands provide about 80 percent of Cato’s annual budget. I hope you’ll choose to be as generous as you can afford. There are few groups as committed to defending America’s heritage of liberty as Cato. Recently, a group of wealthy “progressives” announced they had raised more than $50 million to support leftist think tanks. We are in a battle of ideas that will take serious resources to win. Don’t ask why, but Congress in its wisdom will allow people over 70 years of age to give up to $100,000 from their IRAs this year and in 2007 to a 501(c)3 organization tax‐​free (think Cato!).

This article originally appeared in the November/​December 2006 edition of Cato Policy Report

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