The citizen-legislature blunder

By Steve Farrell
web posted March 26, 2001

In April of 1996, the traditionally liberal Democratic Party did something they are, in theory, never supposed to do - they out-conservatived the Republican Party, stood up for the US Constitution, and threw out a radical proposal designed to transform the United States from a republic to a democracy. This they did, when they rejected the Republican Party sponsored congressional Term Limits Amendment.

This past month, the Supreme Court repeated the feat, sending to the dumpster an even more radical version, again the work of Republicans, which would have permitted the states to accomplish what the US Congress hadn't, that is, to enforce state laws which overstep their bounds under the US Constitution and attempt to force term limits on US congressional incumbents via an in-the-voting-booth tool of bias, a derogatory asterisk placed next to the name of any candidate running for reelection after his state mandated term limit expired.

The whole idea of congressional term limits materialized as but one key element in the 1994 Republican Party "Contract With America" plan to take America back "to the wisdom and brilliance of the Founders," and more specifically, as a subsection of the Contract which focused on the re-establishment of "citizen-legislatures." To some, the ring of citizen legislature rang conservative in their ears, but in retrospect, the music was more Greek than American, and fraught with more measures to enhance executive power then check it.

The Citizen Legislature Act included a vote on two different term limit amendments. The first limited the terms of House members to six years and Senators to twelve, the second limited both House and Senate to twelve years. Added to that was the vision - expounded by the Contract's chief proponent - of the emergence of direct or semi-direct democracy and minority power.

Republicans arguing in favor of their act stated: "An entrenched body of politicians erodes Congress's accountability and responsiveness. An enormous national debt, deficit spending, and political scandals are but a few of the results."

Strangely enough, there was no mention of the fact that for the first century and a half of this nations history, Congress had been accountable and responsive without an amendment. So why blame the Constitution, when obviously, something else has gone wrong? And, pray tell, how does scrapping the Constitution qualify as a return to the Founders wisdom and brilliance?

Maybe, just maybe, the blame lies at the doorstep of those who elected these "out of touch" power hungry politicians in the first place, who continue to elect them, and who at this very moment, don't give a hoot about what's going on in Congress, just so long as Congress doesn't step in and cancel the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, or the World Series?

Democrats to the Rescue

In a rare, and admittedly, suspicious, knight in shining armor defense, the Democratic Party saved the day, and did so, quoting the reasoning of the Founding Fathers, who had also debated and soundly defeated the issue in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Democratic Senator Biden said term limits "are an attack on small states," because the primary intent of the US Senate was to provide a check against majority rule. He noted, that check was accomplished by giving the states equal representation in that body, and to the degree that certain small state senators acquire seniority, that check becomes more powerful. Limiting Senators to two terms defeats this critical feature of a republic, he argued.

Democratic Senators Simon and Kennedy asserted that term limits "deprive Congress of much needed insight and knowledge," which if negated would result "in a fundamental shift in the balance of power from the Congress to the President."

The Federalist Papers agreed. Career politicians, at least in the Senate, were precisely what the Founders had in mind. It was hoped that body would be filled with senior statesmen who had graduated from their state legislatures, so that their statesmanship and extensive knowledge would provide a critical check on the President, especially in Foreign Policy, which area of expertise took years to master.

In the case of the House, the Founders rejected term limits, in part, because House members, being directly elected by the people and subject to brief two year terms, would be the far more volatile of the two branches of Congress, and, therefore, a branch more subject to passion and socialist redistribution schemes. Term limits would only serve to aggravate that potential. On the other hand, the maturity and influence of a few senior members would encourage balance, patience, and order, while providing historical insight regarding those perpetual schemes to reintroduce an array of potentially dangerous "new" bills duked-up in sheep's clothing.

Consistent with at least some of the above, the Democrats added:

"Term limits would create a Congress whose members would be (a) inexperienced; (b) heavily reliant on Washington insiders; (c) more concerned about seeking job opportunities for their post-congressional years than about serving the country."

They topped it off, with something directly out of the Federalist Papers: "The greatest incentive to good behavior and honorable service in the US Congress is one's regular accountability to the voter's, not one's freedom from that accountability."

Indeed, what could be worse than having a host of lame duck congressmen on the loose every month of every year? Or, what incentive is there for citizens to - citizen-legislature like - maintain a watchful eye on their representatives, if their representatives are automatically kicked out of the system? Or, what is democratic about refusing the people the right to reelect a candidate they are pleased with?

And yet, there is another question: Are Republicans really ready to dispose of the few true conservatives who remain? Look to California Republicans for the answer, many of whom are now working to undo term limit laws they created, for that very reason.

And yet, Republicans elsewhere across the nation are still battling, often successfully to place term limits upon state and municipal political officers. They figure, Supreme Court resistance or not, local traditions will eventual foster national laws. They have not given up in perpetuating this bad idea.

Term limits were debated during the constitutional convention and soundly rejected. The Democratic Party (of all groups), and now the Supreme Court have had to stand up and defend the Constitution against an increasingly liberal and at times radical Republican Party.

Beyond term limits, the second part of the citizen legislature plan, as I alluded to earlier, included something even more radical, which the author of the Contract of America alluded to in speech after speech - a Third Way inspired vision which included a phasing in of direct voting power to the people, a phasing out of representative government, and a shift away from majority rule to minority rule.

What is that all about? Unconscionably, in regard to "minority power," it is a communist catch phrase which indicates the belief that the working class (the minority) are exploited by the middle class (the majority), and that the only way to solve this inequity is to unite all minorities into a new ruling class.

The Republicans haven't gone that far yet. But, maybe they have taken the first step in that direction with their Justice Departments plan to investigate "racial profiling," their school voucher plan which they have made available almost exclusively to the poor, and their incessant rumbling about compassionate conservatism, which would rob the many to pay for the few. Just who will be empowered by this new brand of conservatism, and who will not?

The other part of that vision - the phasing in of more direct forms of voting - is none other than government by referendum, with a plan to eliminate, in stages, the power of our representatives. On face value, some conservatives shouted hallelujah, thinking this meant more power to the people, a way to finally circumvent non-responsive Congressmen.

And let's admit, if one really believes the citizenry, as a group, are more educated in the affairs of government then their counterparts they elected to Congress, and, less subject to passion, as well, then the claim might have merit.

But, when we come back down to earth from this dreamworld version of political reality, what we actually have is a radical step toward enhancing executive power. And it is.

Face it. To where would an uneducated citizenry turn for information on how to vote on every issue under the sun, than to that one strong voice they already turn to for advice, the media? Or that body of men and women who favor executive power, who inform the people how to vote on polls, and who raise concerns regarding such critical political information as to which candidate has the most sex appeal. The people will turn to the media, even while the media determines who gets to speak, what subjects are addressed, and with what spin.

The problem is, the same people who are foolish enough to trust the Establishment media now, would continue to trust them later, but at far greater risk to our nation.

The Republican Progressive Wing had a ready counter-argument for that. We live in the information age, they claimed, and so all the old arguments the Founders had against direct democracy, need not apply! But what planet do such Republicans reside on? Internet or not, most of us are too busy making money, too busy being entertained, too inundated with the major media slant on things, to be informed and trusted with such direct power. After all, who but a small slice of Americans, study political issues on the Net?

The Founders well understood this as human nature, and even economic necessity - but two reasons why they preferred representative government and denounced direct democracy. This unwise "innovation," masquerading as a triumphal return to people power, would be, like term limits, and so many other measures which still haunt us from the old Contract With America, yet another step toward extreme executive power.

Let's hope the Citizen Legislature scheme to convince unwary and uneducated Americans into believing that term limits, direct democracy, and minority power, were part of the Founders vision for America - never succeed.

American government has become corrupt, sure enough, and patriotic Americans should be alarmed. But, almost all our problems stem not from errors in the Constitution, but from a people who no longer understand, nor abide by that Constitution.

Better, then, to rediscover the principles upon which our nation was founded, than discard them; to find better ways to educate the American people on what their congressmen are doing, than eliminate representative government and voter choice. Shame on the Republican Party for suggesting otherwise. contributor Steve Farrell is the former managing editor of Right Magazine, a widely published research writer, a former Air Force communications security manager, and a graduate student in constitutional law. He resides in Henderson, Nev.

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