Term Limitation: Bringing Change, Competition, Control and
Challengers to Congress
By James K. Coyne
My topic-.is what Will Rogers called the -"only truly native
American criminal class" the U.S. Congress. His view, though a bit
cynical, reflects modem public opinion. For nearly 50 years, G
allup and others have been asking the American public to grade or
rate various professions. When they first started, members of
Congress ranked pretty high, but over the past forty years,
especially since 1975, the public stature of Congressmen has droppe
d and dropped to the point now where on some polls Congress is at
the bottom of the list.
The Federalist papers predicted our modem dilemma: "... it is a
cause for just uneasiness when we see a legislature legislating for
their own interests in opposition to those of the people." Surely
such is the case today when the American public consistently
displays tremendous support for the concept of limiting
Congressional terms - nearly 70 percent in most recent polls. And
yet most members of Congress adamantly o ppose the concept. Maybe
they can't help themselves because they're addicted - addicted to
reelection at all costs.
What they have done over the past few decades is to redesign
electoral politics to assure that they will, in fact, always be
Th e hope of term limitation is to bring three or four simple
things back to America. One is change in Congress. Despite a lot of
talk and some hopeful signs back in the early 80's, Congress has
become ossified. It no longer reflects American creativity and
The second goal is competition. You all know from your own
careers, your own businesses, even in the business of running an
association like Heritage, that nothing improves an organization,
an individual, or an entity like competition.
Thirdly, we want to bring control back to the electorate'. As
we've already learned, the people who control Congress today are
the members of Congress, and they are effectively
Finally, we have to bring better challengers to the election
process. In your home Congressional districts, each of you can sit
down and draw up a list of 10, 20, perhaps 100 people who would
make an outstanding member of Congress.
James K. Coyne is Chairman of Americans to Limit Congressional
Terms and is a former Congressman from Pennsylvania.
He spoke at The Heritage Foundation Annual Board Meeting and
Public Policy Seminar on April 19, 1991.
ISSN 0272-1155. 01991 by The Heritage Foundation.
I challenge you to ask those people: "Would you consider running
for Congress?" Time after time, those good people will say, "You've
got to be out of your mind. There is no logic that would lead me to
take on an incumbent Congressman knowing that it will cost me
thousands and thousands of dollars, exposing me to all sorts of
outrageous campaign tactics, and, when it's all over, result in
What we need now is to return to a government of limits: good
government is limited government, and agood Congress is one with
limited terms. To do this, we're working to e stablish 50 different
groups to enact term limitation legislation in each of the states.
The group in Oregon is my favorite; they call themselves
"L.I.M.I.T.S." - an acronym for "Let Incumbents Mosey Into The
I know, however, that I'm speaking to the converted, especially
after the two preceding speakers. You know the practical and
philosophical argument for term limits.
Let me give you four simple numerical reasons: 28.6 percent, 99.3
percent, 37 years, and 37,388.
The 28.6 is the percentage of people in this country who are of
voting age and who regularly vote in Congressional elections in
this country - 28.6 percent. An unbelievable disgrace. All other
industrialized democracies have much higher levels of voter
But this is not because Americans are undemocratic, or shy, or
afraid that they'll be called to jury duty. Fundamentally they
don't vote because they know it doesn't make any difference.
In Virginia, we had a typical election in 1990. Of the ten
members of Congress seek ing reelection (there were no open seats),
five had no opponent at all in either the primary or the general
election. They just happened to be the 5 Democratic incumbents. The
Republicans all had challengers.
But in the same election, the Republican Senator had no
Democratic opposition, so half the voters who went into the polling
booth on election day in Virginia essentially had the following
choice: For Representative, the incumbent - or nobody else; for Sen
ator - the incumbent, or nobody else.
We ask why people don't bother to vote? Because they don't think
it'll make any difference.
The 99.3 is the percentage of unindicted incumbent federal and
state legislators across this country who were reelected over the
past decade - 99.3 percent.
It is hard to think of anything else in life that is as sure as
99.3 percent. Look at our
major corporations - they're laying off people left and right,
chief executives are changing, all sorts of organizational changes
throughout the economy and across the country.
Yet somehow through it all, our legislative bureaucracy, is secure.
The 37 is of course, as I'm sure you all know, is the number of
years the Democratic party has controlled the U.S. House of
Representa tives - 37 years. Continuous control. There is not a
single Republican in ihe House of Representatives today who knows
what it is like to be in the majority.
During that period of time, the British House of Commons has
changed hands 4 times, the French Ch amber of Deputies has changed
hands 3 times, the West German Bundesdag has changed hands 5 times,
the Canadian House of Commons has changed hands 5 times, the Indian
Loksabah has changed hands three times, and of course the Italian
government has changed hands almost 4,000 times! (Seriously, it is
only 40 or so.)
Of course some of you who are expert on Communist governments and
legislatures realize that over that period of time, many Communist
legislatures have effectively changed hands. Today, that process is
But again, through it all, the party of our national legislature
remains the same. Now, of course, we have different people. Well,
have we? Jamie Whitten, the Chairman of the Appropriations
Committee, and in many respects one of the most pow erful men in
the Congress, has been in that body for 51 years. Remarkably, he
has been chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee for more than 3
decades. There are a few of us who feel that our nation's
agricultural policy would benefit from some new blood .
The last number is 37,388. That is the current number of staff in
Congress. Some people are afraid that if we have term limitations,
it will lead to more powerful staff, that the situation will get
First of all, how can it get worse? The staff have grown from 4,000
to 37,000 in the last 30 years! Who asked for all that staff9 The
senior members of Congress; they're the ones who vote for new
staff, they're the ones who are tired of the real job of be ing a
The new members of Congress who would be elected in an environment
of term limitation would be like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith goes
to Washington". They would come to Washington and want and need
I remember one staff member who, after I attended my first Banking
Committee session and had asked my first question said, "But Mr.
Coyne, we didn't give you a question to ask
Such is the arrogance of the staff in Washington today. If we had
scores of new members in Congress every two years, we would once
again have a Congress we could control.
Clearly we're not getting change, we're not getting competition,
we're not getting control and we're not getting challengers.
I submit that the solution is term limitations.
I have to admit that there have been some arguments against term
limitations. One of the most superficial ones of course is that we
have turnover in Congress, and therefore, we don't need term
limitations. People do leave Congress, but usually for the wrong
Let me give you the six reasons - in order - that members of
Congress leave office.
Number one; they voluntarily retire. Most of them are
volunteering to retire at a later and later age. So even in the
retirement category -we're seeing less activity, less turnover.
Number two; they run for higher office. They voluntarily decide
to leave to find a more prestigious political title like Senator,
Governor, or President. But here, too, we're seeing fewer voluntary
departures because there aren't the openings in the Senate that
there used to be, and many of them have decided that being a member
of Congress isn't the springboard to national office it once
Number three; they die. Now I'm not sure that there's much we can
do about that, but I point out that even there, they're dying
later. So we shouldn't count on mortality to bring about change in
Number four; thdy are reapportioned out of office. While this does
offer some hope for change - it comes but once a decade and with
brazen Gerrymanderers like the late John Burton in California doing
the redistricting, the result can be just as bad. -ar N umber rive;
and this is an area of growth - they are arrested! Of the six
members of Congress who were defeated in 1988, five of them were
facing criminal indictment. But this technique can be slow and
Despite our dreams of increased criminal prosecution of members of
Congress, I don't think we can really count on it. The Keating Five
saga illustrates how incumbents protect themselves.
And the sixth reason? The least likely reason for a person to
leave Congress is defeat in an open, non-reapportion ed,
competitive election. It's gotten to the point where most members
of Congress consider that a totally unlikely event. - and let me
tell you why.
It's because they, like many high school students, have
discovered steroids. Now when I say "steroids" I don't mean the
kind you stick into your veins to make you a stronger, more
powerful, faster, taller, or more muscle bound athlete.
I mean the steroids you buy in 30 second slots, and put on
television each election cycle to turn you into a super Congressman
Congressmen have learned the very simple truth: if they buy more
of it than their opponent - they will, in almost every case, win
reelection. It's almost as simple as that.
If you correlate almost any independent variable with election
success in the past 25 years, you will find that nothing correlates
with success like who spent the most money on television
It truly is a political steroid. It allows a Congressman to tell
the public to forget about all the other things that have taken
place in Washington and focus on one or two superficial messages,
usually "constituent service" or some government spending that he
has directed to the district.
But there's a problem with steroids, as even high school students
have found. They cost money. For a Congressman to get the money he
needs to buy steroids, he has to sell his soul;he turns to
The money is extorted from those groups who are subjected to the
"oversight" of his committee or subcommittee, and, as you heard ear
lier, virtually every Congressman can become chairman or ranking
member of a committee or subcommittee in a few election cycles. The
message is simple: "I'm running for reelection, I'm having a
breakfast tomorrow morning and it is going to cost you $1000 to
come, but don't bother to come to the breakfast - just send a
Now this might seem to be part and parcel of fair, effective
politics, but let me explain the little idiosyncracies of today's
Today, the politician asking for money may not even have an
opponent. The 90 Congressmen who had no opponents in their
reelection campaigns this past election cycle raised over $15
million. That money was spent solely on themselves. Often this
money was r a ised by members of Congress who knew or thought they
were going to retire, and because of the law that they passed
nearly a decade ago (allowing incumbent members of Congress elected
before 1980 to take their unspent campaign donations with them),
those s o called "campaign donations" are in effect, personal
Just think for a minute - a Congressman calling up a PAC that is
regulated by his committee, let's say an S&L regulated by a
Banking Committee member and saying, "come to my fund raiser, I ne
ed money for television advertising, I don't have an opponent but I
want to make sure I don't have an opponent, I want to scare him
away, but if I don't spend the money on television advertising, I
can put the money in my own pocket when I retire."
What is that? There is a word for that - it's called extortion.
Legal extortion - And that's taking place today in our
Clearly we have to fight against this system, but many people
who are opposed to term limitations say, "well, let's fix the in
dividual problems, let's change campaign laws, let's change
financing laws, let's change all of these things that are abused,
let's change the staff, let's change the way members of Congress
spend time in Washington" or what have you.
But think for a second: who is going to pass the laws that make
the changes? The members of Congress. Then ask yourself the
question, will they ever make these changes in a way that favors a
challenger over themselves?
Have they ever done that?
All of the campaign reform, o r so called "campaign reform" in
the past 20 years, favors the incumbents. One of the reasons the
incumbents like the idea of campaign disclosure is that they can go
to the donors of their opponents and say, "I'm not going to let you
into my office again in the next two years if I see you donate
money to my opponent next time."
That's why PAC's have come to learn that the only person you
give money to in American politics is the incumbent. Fifty-two new
Republicans got elected in 1980 because 50 percent of the PAC money
was gutsy enough to go to the challengers. Today only 4 percent of
that PAC money is going to challengers. Every PAC has been
brow-beaten into submission by the incumbents. "Don't you dare give
a penny to a challenger, or I won't speak to y ou."
So what do we do? The best solution, I feel, is term limitation
- and there are several different ways we can bring about effective
term limitation. Fortunately, our founding fathers were a little
smarter than the average politician; they knew there m ight be a
situation where the interest of Congress would be different from
the interest of the people - and so they allowed for two different
ways to amend the Constitution; one the Congressional route and one
the state legislature route.
That's why we're working in all 50 states to try to get each
state to pass a call for a Constitutional amendment limiting
Congressional terms to 6 years.
But there's another way: for individual states, on their own, to
limit the terms of their federal leg islators - as Colorado did
this past year. As state after state follows that bandwagon, there
is no doubt that eventually Congress will get the message.
Eventually, term limits will be the law of the land. Until then
suffer - but please, not in silence.