On my first day of teaching the Legislative Branch, we discussed the demographics of the current 115th Congress. Here are the frightening stats: The average age of a House member is 59 and of a Senator is 63 years old. Yes, this is one of the OLDEST Congressional terms in our republic’s history. Less than 20 percent of the 535 members are of color, only 19 percent of them are female and only 2 percent have a working family background—like a teacher. “James” asked why do our elected members of Congress not look like us? “Miriam” replied with these three powerful words: “NO TERM LIMITS!” I was smiling ear to ear. We were about the go off on a tangent and I loved it.
I said Miriam was correct! Unlike the President and local officials like City Council Cembers, there are no term limits for members of Congress. Case in point: Rep. John Dingell, Jr. (D-MI, 12th District) served for 60 years from 1955-2015. In the Senate, Strom Thurmond (R-SC) served for 48 years! James asked how could this be? People make a career out of a job that our Framers envisioned a citizen legislative body with high turnover. I replied, you are correct, James, our Founding Fathers like Franklin, Madison, Adams and Jefferson supported congressional term limits, “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office” as Jefferson wrote. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of term limits as “the most highly and dangerously oligarchic.” Nevertheless, the Supreme Court US Term Limits, Inc v. Thornton in 1995 in a 5-4 vote invalidated the Congressional term limit provision of 23 states.
Incumbents have a HUGE advantage over challengers when running for Congress. The name recognition, more access to donors, the media, gerrymandering, coupled with free mailing (franking privileges) and a staff devoted full-time to constituent services create herculean obstacles for a challenger to overcome in a congressional election. Case in point: the approval rating of Congress was 9 percent in 2013, yet over 90 percent of incumbents won re-election. Miriam then looked at me and asked what can be done about this? James said look to the laboratories of democracy: local and state government. James was right! In 1990, many states voted to impose term limits on the state representatives including Californians. More recently, voters in Santa Clara overwhelmingly passed term limits on their City Council in 2016, ending soft term limits. If Congress will not propose an amendment themselves (a 2/3 threshold must for proposal), 38 or more states could call a national convention. While we have never amended the Constitution in this fashion, over 70 percent of citizens support the idea of term limits at the congressional level.
The next day, we came up with a common sense approach to a constitutional amendment: Limit members of Congress to six two-year term in the House and two six-year terms in the Senate. An individual can serve up to 24 years in Congress. It passed the class with over 90 percent of the vote. The class then came up with reasons to champion common-sense term limits: 1) it will bring in more moderate members of Congress willing to work across the party aisles to get the people’s work done, 2) it gives more opportunities for underrepresented groups to be elected to Congress, 3) it will weaken the power of special interests, 4) it will restore public faith in the Legislative Branch, and as James and Miriam both agreed: 5) it will restore the vision of a Congress by our Framers: a Legislative branch that is made up of CITIZEN LEGISLATORS NOT CAREER POLITICIANS. If that happened, James and Miriam both agreed, maybe one day they would run for office. Wouldn’t that be nice and such a needed and refreshing change!
Dominic J. Caserta, a teacher at Santa Clara High School and Santa Clara Council Member, is running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in District 4, which includes Santa Clara. He wrote this article for the Santa Clara Weekly.