Thursday, August 7, 2008

Terms of endearment?

Yesterday, a caller on WSVA's "Candid Comment" asked how can we get term limits for members of Congress? He didn't seem to know the process, but he was absolutely right about the difficulty. The 6th district's own congressman, Bob Goodlatte is a great example of why implementing term limits will be so tough.
The Constitution places no limits on the number of terms or years that members of Congress may serve. Terms cannot be limited by a simple bill, it could only be done by a constitutional amendment and that is tough two-step process:
  1. Amendments may be proposed by a 2/3s vote of each house of Congress (the very people we are trying to limit) or by a national convention called by Congress at the request of 2/3s of the state legislatures. The national convention route has never been used to propose an amendment; but more on that in a moment.
  2. After being proposed, amendments must be ratified by legislatures in 3/4s of the states or by conventions in 3/4s of the states (Congress picks the method of ratification; all except the 21st Amendment have been ratified by state legislatures).
So, the process of amending the Constitution, with supermajorities and multiple steps, makes formal changes to our fundamental law unlikely. Indeed, we've only had 27 amendments in over 200 years and the first ten, the Bill of Rights, may almost be considered part of the original Constitution, a few others corrected flaws (12th, for example), and two off-set each other (18th and 21st). This is as is should be - changing the Constitution should only occur with very broad consensus of both national and state governments and the people.
Back to the national convention method of proposing amendments, which has never been done. This method has been, and could again be used, to put some pressure on our national legislature. If a large number of state legislatures petitioned Congress to call a national convention on term limits, it may pressure Congress to act on its own (I seriously doubt they'd call a national convention). This was part of the process in getting the 17th Amendment proposed and in forcing Congress to pass the Graham-Rudman-Hollings Act (supposed to control deficits, but part was unconstitutional so it obviously wasn't effective). But, it may be tough to get state legislators to push such a proposal since, by implication, voters may want term limits for them, too!
Now back to Bob Goodlatte and how does he represent the problem with getting an amendment on term limits? When he was first running for Congress, Goodlatte advocated term limits. It was part of the Republican Contract with America. Of course, once in office and with Republicans holding the majority, the zeal for term limits faded. Goodlatte didn't push it. The joint resolution did come to a vote in the House of Representatives barely getting a majority and nowhere close to the 2/3s needed.
Goodlatte also promised that, even without constitutional limits, he'd only serve six terms. Of course, he's broken that promise to his constituents and is breaking it again by running for re-election in 2008. He's running with huge financial support of PACs, which helps perpetuate long tenures of office and separates legislators from the very people they were supposed to represent.
So, as long as the fox is guarding the henhouse, it is unlikely we'll see the kinds of reforms that will truly change the way Congress, and our democracy, works. This alone is enough reason to support Sam Rasoul for House of Representatives.

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