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January 07, 2007

Term Limits

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

Okay, goo-goos, explain this one to me: why are term limits for committee chairs a good thing? Senators and Congressmen are busy people, and it can take a good 3-5 years to build up a lot of expertise in certain areas. I'm not sure if it was caused by term limits or seniority, but Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was moved from some Health related committee to the Intelligence committee, and it's been ... challenging for him [though he seemed to get his footing in the months before the midterms]. And I'm sure the various Cali bloggers (Ezra, Kevin, et al.), as well as those from Colorado and perhaps other states, can attest to the damage term limits have caused in their state legislatures. Politically, it buys little with any major constituency, since the procedural reform movement died in about 1995. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has forgotten more about tax policy than most Democrats people can ever hope to know. Why make him leave the chief Tax Writing committee? Why make Henry Waxman (D-CA) stop being the investigative bulldog that he is? Now, the few really senior chairs (Dingell, Rangel, Obey?, Waxman) can probably be expected to retire or find other interesting chairmanships, but it really seems odd to me to adopt Republican reforms that preceded the most insular, beholden-to-leadership Congress in the last century.

Reform is good; reform for reform's sake is just playing with one's navel lint. So enlighten me as to what outcomes would be helped by picking new committee chairs every six years.

Update: Ed Kilgore gives it the old college try.

The "seniority and powerful chairs stalled civil rights, so it's bad" argument seems flawed for the same reason that "federalism produced Jim Crow means federalism is bad" argument has its weaknesses; any set of rules can lead you to bad outcomes. When the shoe is on the other foot (as it was during the Progressive era from 1900-1930, or would be today had Democrats not taken back the House), conservatives and liberals will happily switch sides on questions of local control. For a more recent example, thanks to civil-rights and '94 reforms, the Gingrich-DeLay Republican Caucus of the last dozen years has railroaded through an extraordinarily conservative agenda with little opportunity for House or Senate Democrats to offer oversight or alternatives. I have to say that the Sam Rayburn-era House rules looked mighty appealing a few years ago.

As for partisanship, I suppose this is a question of style. If you believe partisanship is the only way to attain power and have a progressive agenda, then pliant committee chairs are a good thing. If, however, you think that the 20% liberal-45% moderate-35% conservative structure of the electorate is likely to persist for the next decade, Democrats ought to show a willingness to act with their Republican colleagues, if only in the presence of a chaperone.

The Iron Triangle argument is more compelling. But, this strikes me as a reason for full public financing of elections, not diddling around with rule changes that lobbyists will immediately try to circumvent. At some point we just have to start electing people who have a different sense of ethics.

January 7, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Legislative limits on terms served (i.e. CA) probably are the wrong solution to increased accountability, but limits on the number of terms a congressperson can serve as chair of a particular committee are quite different.

Seniority of committee chairs leads to fiefdoms of power that is nearly immune from party principles and policy. The speaker, other elected congressional leaders, and the party caucas lose their control over how to enact a unified party platform. Example: John Dingle (D-MI) (bless his heart) has prevented action of fuel economy in cars year after year in pursuit of protecting the Detroit auto makers. Has that been good for Dems, good the the country, or good for the world environment? No way. It hasn't even been good for GM, Ford and Chysler - they are insulated from the united public will of the country - and it hasn't made them more competitive. Their asses are being handed them on fuel and other environmental advantages by the Japanese, and Koreans.

For decades, the average tenure of a committee chair was about 20 years. The seniority system allowed entrenched politicians from the least competitive districts to wield power over other members, not on the basis of merit, but becauseof their longevity. In the past, the only way to lose a chair was by death, resignation, retirement, or electoral defeat. PDF link

I might argue that 8 years or 10 years as a limit on chair holding would be better than 6, but I don't see any good argument for 'until death or defeat' permanent chair control. Six year limits were installed by the GOP in 1995, and Pelosi didn't want to argue about changing this limit to something else, but also didn't want to return to the era when Dixie Dems prevented any action on many Dem. party proposals. She was correct, IMO.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 7, 2007 6:56:22 PM

Nicholas: At some point we just have to start electing people who have a different sense of ethics.

That really isn't the solution. When a congressperson has been in their seat for 6-10 years, the local electorate just is unwilling to give their 'favorite' DC person the heave-ho. That really is a hard fact. Even Denny Hastert was re-elected after his role in the intern-gate coverup matter was fairly clear. Longevity in office is not a predictor of ethics, and in fact may be a counter-predictor.

MI's Dingell is a perfect example of the well-entrenched protecting their issue constituency (car manufacturers and their employees). There are dozens of examples of this on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Sen. Byrd is another good example, except he just favors his state (WV) in all matters big and small.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 7, 2007 7:24:55 PM

Clearly Nicholas, you're the hack on this issue. Sorry.

This isn't term limits on committee membership (which wouldn't be a bad idea) just on the chairmanship. Its not like the former chairman's knowledge and experience is unavailable-- he'll still sit on the comittee! The issue is solely whether one politician, likely politically untouchable in his district, has the right to be committee chairman (and the power to put his thumb on the scale of the legislative process) until he drops dead.

You're taking the side that power does not corrupt, and I would suggest that it does.

Posted by: beowulf | Jan 7, 2007 7:30:57 PM

Seniority of committee chairs leads to fiefdoms of power that is nearly immune from party principles and policy. The speaker, other elected congressional leaders, and the party caucas lose their control over how to enact a unified party platform.

But that's only good if the unified party platform is better than the committee chair's agenda. My argument is that there are no guarantees that's uniformly the case. Peter Rodino was fully pro-choice, at a time when there were many more pro-life Democrats than today. Would the choice agenda have been better off if Rodino had been bounced of the Judiciary chairmanship in 1979, letting someone else (potentially a pro-life Democrat) lead the committee? Or the Republican Vet Affairs chair, who said we ought to be doing more for veterans, and was promptly ousted; how is this good for the country?

That really isn't the solution. When a congressperson has been in their seat for 6-10 years, the local electorate just is unwilling to give their 'favorite' DC person the heave-ho.

Well, hey, our Democracy has flaws. Surprise!

I'm just not clear on how the cure is any better than the disease. Letting people railroad things through more often will increase the likelihood that someone will railroad through reactionary reform more often.

Now, you can argue that policy as a whole in America is too stable; that it takes too long to enact needed change of any sort, and I might agree with you. But, that's a subtly different argument from "the current system is bad for the progressive agenda".

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 7, 2007 7:41:29 PM

> 'm not sure if it was caused by term
> limits or seniority, but Jay Rockefeller
> (D-WV) was moved from some Health related
> committee to the Intelligence committee,
> and it's been ... challenging for him

Perhaps it is time to get some candidates and legislators who are capable of getting up to speed on new areas a little... faster? Americans are now told from day 1 of their first job that they must be prepared to be kicked out of any job and any area of expertise that they may hold, "retrain", and find new jobs/new areas at any moment in their lives. And a very large number of Americans have been forced to do just this 2, 3, even 4 times since 1980. But it takes a Congressman 10 _years_ to get up to speed on a new oversight area? Sheesh.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jan 7, 2007 8:39:04 PM

Neil, this hasn't been a good topic for you, as much as I generally find you interesting and informing.

Neil: Well, hey, our Democracy has flaws. Surprise!

And we should just accept the flaws and not attempt to craft things such that the flaws are minimized, right?

You comment just quoted sounds like something from NRO or LGF.

Was this something that you ate this weekend?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 8, 2007 2:52:41 AM

Nicholas,

I agree with Jim, you're off your game on this one.

Instead of asking which system is best for a progressive (or reactionary) agenda, its better to ask, which is more democratic (small d), that is, in tune with what the public wants. I would trust a "unified party platform" to be more reflective of public sentiment than a chairman who hasn't faced a competitive election in 30 years.

If the party loses touch, they get bounced (like the GOP did last fall), if an entrenched chairman loses touch-- nothing changes except he gets a smaller office.

Now you could argue that "public sentiment" isn't what Congress should reflect (you seem to be leaning that way with your example of a pro-choice chairman nullifying the views of pro-life Members), but that's an entirely different argument. You can go debate that with the libertarians and while you guys hash out the perfect society, the rest of us will deal with the real world.

Posted by: beowulf | Jan 8, 2007 3:23:27 AM

I don't see any reason to assume that number one most senior is going to have a predictably better agenda than number two and number three most senior ... and indeed, there is at least the prospect that a term limit may encourage stronger collaboration between the chairman and the next senior member.

I am also not convinced that its an entirely bad thing for senior Congressmen to gain experience at the top level in a variety of committees, in something a bit like the way that seniors members of a parliament have gained experience in a variety of portfolios during their career.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Jan 8, 2007 3:23:32 AM

Was this something that you ate this weekend?

Must have been potent stuff, if it turned him into Neil. Or maybe it was the other way round.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 8, 2007 3:25:23 AM

Instead of asking which system is best for a progressive (or reactionary) agenda, its better to ask, which is more democratic (small d), that is, in tune with what the public wants.

Ask yourself: would you really want small-d democracy if the public wanted to privatize Social Security, or to put all practicing Muslims in concentration camps, or to nationalize major industries?

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 8, 2007 9:33:47 AM

Ahh, the root of the problem, you don't believe in democracy. Which is OK, lots of people people don't.

As for whether I believe in democracy or not (boy, I wish I was runninig Congress against you), well I happen to agree with William F. Buckley, I'd rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone boook than the faculty of Harvard University. Incidentally, your examples are silly-- there's a greater danger to safety net programs, civil liberties and economic freedom in any undemocratic systems than in democracy. If you can find an example of a tyrannical democracy, please let me know.

Haven't you read The Wisdom of Crowds? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wisdom_of_Crowds

Posted by: beowulf | Jan 8, 2007 12:41:45 PM

I agree with you and Buckley in some ways, beowulf, as long as we're talking about setting direction rather than expertise needed to implement. We have, of course, had democratic tyrannies. I'd say slavery is about as tyrannical as you can get. Preventing the tyranny of the majority was a major concern for the writers of the Constitution, and they still didn't manage to avoid it as much as we would have wished.

But to get back to committee assignments, I agree with the substance of your first post on that. It's good to rotate the chairs and keep stability in membership.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 8, 2007 2:40:11 PM

Sanpete,

I would disagree that slavery (or for that matter Jim Crow) were an example of democratic tyranny. First, since a large portion (in some Southern states, a majority) of the population was unable to vote because of their race, the system wasn't in any real sense democratic. Granted, women couldn't vote at that either. But because few slaves had white family members and every white male voter did, sexism was never as pernicious as racism.

Secondly, The democratic process (as represented by the Reconstruction Congress) passed the 13th, 14th and 15 Amendments. It was unelected Federal judges that refused to enforce them, instead using the 14th Amendment as a tool to protect corporate power and declaring "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws constitutional.

Finally, from the 1920's onwards (according to Nathan Newman), the House of Representatives-- the house that best reflects popular sentiment-- had the the votes to pass Civil Rights laws. These laws were always bottled in the Senate:
(1) because of the profoundly undemocratic filibuster rules allowed a small minority thwart majority wishes and
(2) because committee seniority rules allowed senators from one-party Southern states to serve for life and thus take over most of the committee chairmanships.

And the circle is complete! :o)

Posted by: beowulf | Jan 8, 2007 4:49:14 PM

oops, to correct the end of paragraph 1:

Since white male voters all had female relations but rarely to never had black family members, sexism was never as pernicious as racism.

Posted by: beowulf | Jan 8, 2007 4:54:00 PM

So the pre-Civil War US doesn't count as an example of democracy? How about the concentration camps that we used for the Japanese? How about the invasion of Iraq? By the way, the "democratic process" that led to the amendments you mention was the outcome of a war and was essentially imposed on the South. Had the South been allowed to secede, which would seem a properly democratic thing, there would have been no such amendments.

I'm not sure what point you were trying to make that's relevant to what Nicholas said, in any case. I'm just quibbling with you.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 8, 2007 5:51:07 PM

I don't hate democracy, I hate mobocracy. There are plenty of cases where the "more democratic" outcome of all manner of situations is thoroughly unjust. At some point democracy wades into what the Founders called "tyranny of the majority". And that's no good; it gives us lynchings, the Scopes monkey trial, and who knows what else.

Now, obviously, reducing the power of committee chairs is not going to lead Congress to allow lynchings again. But it's not really a "more democratic" move, anyway; it's a move to give the leadership more power. Now, you seem to think that "let the leadership push a unified agenda" is the more democratic move; I just don't think that's a slam dunk.

Now you could argue that "public sentiment" isn't what Congress should reflect (you seem to be leaning that way with your example of a pro-choice chairman nullifying the views of pro-life Members), but that's an entirely different argument.

The public was in fact pro-choice, but Congress lagged public opinion, because it had lots of old white men and a sizeable number of Southern Democrats. So in this case, wasn't "public sentiment" better served by keeping Rodino in the chair, in addition to being better for the choice agenda? Your just transferring power from one slow-changing institution to another.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 8, 2007 6:35:26 PM

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