Saturday, March 9, 2013

Congressional Term Limits

It's past time for a serious discussion of term limits in the U.S. Congress.  The current system of seniority holding so much power leads to situations like the one we have now, where they have abysmal approval ratings, yet the states keep sending back the same people.  The problem is that while no one likes what is going on, no one is willing to lose the power they believe they have through decades of seniority.

The problem is that the people don't have the power.  Again, they believe they do, but they don't.  Their congressional delegation has the power.  Each state sends back their own delegation and hopes that all the other states replace theirs with new people.

I was looking up something in the Constitution (something I think most of Congress hasn't spent much time doing recently), and I found something really eye-opening to me.  The U.S. Senate website has a copy of the Constitution on their webpage.  Great.  Thanks for that nice service.  Of course, they go so far as to interpret it for us.  Okay, so I know we're in murky waters when it comes to trusting their interpretation of the Constitution, especially since that responsibility falls in the lap of another one of the three branches.

Before even getting to the preamble, there is a short introduction.  It points out that the first three words, "We The People", stress the fact that the government is to serve its citizens.  Great so far.  And stop.
The supremacy of the people through their elected representatives is recognized in Article I, which creates a Congress consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The positioning of Congress at the beginning of the Constitution reaffirms its status as the “First Branch” of the federal government.
I'm good where they say that government should serve the citizens and that the people hold supreme power, but that's not where they're going with it.  The Senate's claim is that not only is Congress the first branch of the government, but in effect, they are the people.  That is, our power is not inherent in that we are the citizens of the country but that our power is made manifest through Congress.  We are not supreme but rather supreme through our elected representatives.

I get that we are a republic and as such the statement they make is true from a certain point of view.  Our power, however, is supreme, in that we can replace those elected representatives.  The only problem is that we are tricked into not exercising that power by rules Congress puts in place to promote their own longevity.  So what we need to do now is push for a rule that limits longevity and promotes turnover and new ideas.

So where do we put the limit?

To figure out if there is a natural break, I grabbed a list of all current members of the House and Senate, all elected under an open market, if you will, with no term limits.  The average length of time current members of the Senate have been serving is 9.6 years, with a standard deviation of 9.8.  Given a normal distribution, two thirds of a population are within one standard deviation of the mean (0-18).  Since there is a hard cut-off at 0, one standard deviation below the mean, the percent actually drifts a little higher at the other end.  16% have actually been in office for longer than 18 years, more than one standard deviation.

Interestingly enough, the numbers are almost exactly the same in the House even though Representatives are elected every 2 years, while Senators are elected every 6 years.  The average tenure of current members of the House is 8.9 years, with a standard deviation of 9.5.  Likewise, 16% (71/435) have been in office for longer than 18 years, which is again, one standard deviation above the mean.

An interesting stat with members of the Senate is that almost exactly 50% of them served in the House before being elected to the Senate, so the numbers are actually even more skewed in the Senate if you include their full tenure in Congress.

While I'd be more tempted to place the limit at 12 years - 2 terms for Senators and 6 for Representatives, I'm actually okay with giving them 18, although if you let me think about it too much longer, I might talk myself back down to 12.  Only 16% really overstay their welcome all the way past 18 years, and those are more likely to be the extreme sociopaths.  If we cut it off at 12 years, we'd be skimming off the top 28% in both the House and Senate (still interesting how the percentages stay the same, 28 in the Senate and 122 in the House).  If the 18 years was a cumulative total between the House and Senate, that would perhaps make up for going with 18 instead of 12.  There would be a more steady churn from House to Senate and from Senate out to pasture (jobs with lobbying firms or a run for the presidency).

So where do we draw the line?