Being a member of Congress was never supposed to be a lifetime employment. But for many, that’s what it’s become.
And even those who don’t spend decades in Congress—the average member of Congress serves more than nine years—do the next best thing and often become lobbyists so they can keep paddling in the swamp.
President Trump supports, as do I, term limits for Congress to “clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.,” as well as a five-year ban before members of the executive branch and members of Congress can be employed as lobbyists. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, has declared that term-limit proposals are dead on arrival: “I would say we have term limits now,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. “They’re called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate.”
McConnell has been in the U.S. Senate for thirty-three years; he’s the longest-serving senator in the history of Kentucky. He’s about the last person you’d expect to want to drain the swamp, because he thrives in it, and you’d be right. He is a firm supporter of the Washington swamp status quo. And he’s a perfect reason why we need term limits—because while his seniority might make him useful to some of the people of Kentucky, it also makes him a firm opponent of necessary congressional reform.
We need mandatory term limits in both houses of Congress. It might well require an amendment to the Constitution via the Article V process to get it done, because in spite of overwhelming public support for term limits, Congress has avoided taking action on it. Congressional term limits were actually part of the Contract with America, which propelled Republicans to a congressional majority in 1994—and still nothing happened.
Returning Congress to its proper role
Mandatory term limits would refocus members on the reality that they are elected to serve, not to be served. In a free government, Benjamin Franklin noted, “the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns”—so much so that he believed that no one should be employed in government service for too long, because that would “keep them always in a State of servitude, and not allow them to become again one of the Masters.”
George Washington set the example of serving only two terms as our first president—an example that is now part of our constitutional law. But today most members of Congress and the federal government take a very different attitude.
In Franklin and Washington’s day, there wasn’t much incentive to stay in our nation’s capitol, intentionally so. Members were paid six dollars for every day Congress was in session. Today, members of Congress receive an annual salary of $174,000, regardless of how many days we are in session.
In spite of what you might think from watching the 24/7 news cycle, Congress isn’t actually in session all that much. For example, we were only scheduled to be in session for ten days in January, thirteen days in February, and ten days in March 2016. For the entire year, we were scheduled to work for only 111 days
But even those numbers are exaggerated. When we fly into Washington on a Monday, that day counts as a workday even though everyone understands little to no work will be done. Some members jokingly refer to them as “bed-check Mondays.” Technically we have to be there, but we all know nothing of substance will take place. Likewise, the calendar says no votes after 3 PM on Fridays, but the halls of Congress are deserted by noon as everyone heads home. These calendar nuances mean we lose about a third of those 111 days to travel. Republican leadership in the House made a step in the right direction for 2017, scheduling the equivalent of three additional legislative weeks, but the light Mondays and Fridays continue.
I realize members have things to do in their individual districts, but this absentee pattern explains why so little gets done in Washington. It also gives undue power to the Washington staffs and congressional leadership. Even when in D.C., fundraising takes up a lot of time—up to half the day for some—as members strive to meet dues requirements placed upon them by leadership.
I am not opposed to fundraising for the good of the party. I pay my dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Thankfully, I don’t have to invest half my day into fundraising as some do, because in Colorado the congressional delegation hosts a few key fundraising events for a more efficient approach. The irony behind all this effort is that although members must raise more money to get plum committee assignments, they seldom use those assignments as intended because leadership consistently bypasses the regular order of the appropriations process. When leaders negotiate budget deals behind closed doors and roll all appropriations into omnibus bills or continuing resolutions, committees become irrelevant—and with them, the voice of the people goes silent.
I am not suggesting representatives should ignore their districts, of course, but making Monday a full workday would add nearly a month to the congressional calendar. More time in Washington means fewer excuses for budget crises and fewer excuses for not working on consensus bills for real reform—something that should be more achievable when members have a limited number of terms and are under pressure to get things done.
This article is an excerpt from Congressman Ken Buck’s new book Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption is Worse Than You Think.