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A Cap on Political Careerism

By James H. AndrewsJames H. Andrews is on the Monitor's editorial page staff. / October 5, 1992



IN a book calling for term limits on members of Congress, it's not surprising to find denunciations of pork-barrel politics, congressional perks, the House bank scandal, and the federal budget deficit. Because this is a book by columnist and television commentator George F. Will, it's also not surprising to find the average number of speeches given annually by early American presidents and quotations from a 1774 speech by Edmund Burke to the electors of Bristol, England.

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Among political journalists in the United States today, Will is perhaps the only true political philosopher. He takes the subject of term limits to a level well beyond that generally treated in the press. His closely reasoned arguments ought to stir up new thinking among those who regard term limits mainly as a peevish reaction to congressional foibles and legislative gridlock. In Will's analysis, term limits are more than just a way to "throw the rascals out."

Although Will is a prominent conservative and in general a Republican apologist, he stresses that his advocacy of term limits isn't based on the prospect of partisan advantage. (Because the majority of US representatives and senators are Democrats, skeptics often note that term limits, by dislodging incumbents, could favor the GOP.) He insists that such motives are beneath the dignity of serious thinkers about America's political condition.

On one level, Will shares the anger of many voters over the self-serving and self-indulgent practices that seem to have become endemic on Capitol Hill. His book contains a litany of horror stories about expensively irresponsible conduct in Congress, from the subsidization of the mohair and honey industries to abuses of the franking (free-mailing) privilege and redistricting power. He attributes these excesses to what Founding Father John Randolph called " `the most delicious of privileges,' that of spend ing other people's money," and - more important - to careerism among legislators that causes them to purchase incumbency through heedless disbursements of pork.

Term limits, Will says, may be the only way to end congressional careerism and the "culture of spending" it spawns.

In this careerism, Will sees an even graver threat to American government than just the misallocation of fiscal resources and the deepening of the budget deficit. Legislative careerism, he warns, threatens to overwhelm what he calls "deliberative democracy." His argument is premised on the notion that, in the republican form of government established by the US Constitution, legislators are not sent to Washington simply as bearers of voters' shopping lists; rather, they are commissioned to assemble and, i n a deliberative spirit and atmosphere, exercise independent judgment in the interests of their constituents and the nation as a whole.

The problem, in Will's view, is not that members of Congress have become too distanced from the people, but rather that they have grown too close to them - in the sense that, to prolong their careers, legislators have become slavishly responsive to voters' demands, or at least the demands of those organized factions of voters who through money and political clout can sway the outcomes of elections.

Will says term limits are necessary to detach lawmakers from powerful interests, to enhance their independence and re-create the "constitutional distance" between the people and their representatives that permits deliberative democracy to function. "The object," he writes, "is to create constitutional space in which reasoning, rather than mere responsiveness, can occur."

Term limits would not diminish Congress as an institution, Will says. By restoring deliberative democracy, he believes, they would redeem Congress in the eyes of a now contemptuous populace and thereby return the legislative branch to its original eminence as the principal organ of American democracy - as the Constitution contemplates in both its language and structure. This is essential, Will states, for "a republic can not long despise its legislature and respect itself."

Will rebuts, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, the common arguments against term limits: that they restrict people's right to choose their representatives, that they would deprive the nation of the services of some talented men and women, and that they would enhance the power of unelected congressional staffers and federal bureaucrats.

He doesn't lay all doubts to rest, however. Despite his Jeffersonian faith that "representation is not a function beyond the capacities of any reasonably educated and attentive citizen," Will doesn't wholly dispel the concern that his antidote to political careerism amounts to political amateurism. Surely it's possible that in politics, no less than in business, law, or political punditry, success is the product of skill honed over years of experience.

Will is regrettably silent, moreover, on what many regard as a better alternative to term limits, which is to enhance competitiveness in congressional races through campaign-finance reforms and other measures to reduce incumbents' advantages.