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While the leadership has consolidated its power, the rank and file has followed suit. In this century, the average tenure of representatives has soared. Former Representative Bolling, who pointed out the short tenure of 19th-century representatives, noted that his colleagues in 1969 had been in office an average of 11.2 years, up from 5.8 years in the previous century. The average in 1981 was 9.8 years. And Morris Fiorina wrote in Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, "Since World War II nearly 90% of all incumbents have sought reelection in any given election, and approximately 90% of all those who ran were successful."
Republicans might like to comfort themselves with the notion that since the House has usually been controlled by Democrats in recent years, a change in party control of Congress would improve the well-being of taxpayers and citizens. But that is a specious conclusion. Even in the minority, Republican legislators have participated in the system just as enthusiastically as Democrats. After all, when Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen joyously observed of his colleagues, "None retire, few die," he was not referring exclusively to Democrats.
As former Treasury Secretary William Simon, a Republican, said so forcefully in 1977 in A Time for Truth, the ratchets-up in bureaucracy, taxes, deficits, and inflation that produced our economic mess were generated by both parties. This is indeed a time for truth, and the truth is that anyone, whether saint or sinner, would be sorely tempted by the spoils system made possible by long tenure in office and the power it produces. Any saints who don't comply are usually ousted by willing sinners-or "pragmatists." And the pork barrel rolls on.
The strategic connection in all of this is that the increasing seniority of representatives after the revolt of 1910 meant that special interests of all kinds had an increasing incentive to support the members of Congress with the most tenure, offering campaign contributions, influence, and votes. So they did. That in turn gave members of Congress a greater chance to be reelected and thus to increase their tenure. And this provided them increasing incentives to support special interests over the general, public interest. So they did.
The real sharpies in both House and Senate soon discovered the miracle of power-through-milking. Each time they passed a new regulation and authorized a new bureaucracy to interpret and enforce it, they created new victims and victors. Regulations exact a price from some members of the population. They also enrich by throwing the mantle of government protection and subsidy over special interests. Many victims and victors long ago saw the handwriting on the pages of the Federal Register that records all bureaucratic promulgations. Its length mushroomed from 10,528 pages in 1946 to 57,704 pages in 1983. That helped to sink our once high-flying economic miracle into the morass of decline-but it was a wonder drug for drooping representatives, senators, and bureaucrats.
Legislators and their burgeoning staffs (from almost nothing in 1900 to 2,344 in 1960 to about 12,000 now) make the laws, appropriate funds for the bureaucracies, and authorize the bureaucrats' paychecks. Thus the now-infamous Iron Triangle-Congress, interests, and bureaucracy. Congress passes regulations enforced by bureaucrats. The victims appeal to their representatives for help. The representatives then appeal very quietly and discreetly to the bureaucrats, who see the budgetary bottom line writ large every year and help the victim accordingly. Chalk up one more satisfied customer of "constituency service," one more milking session, and lots more votes.
After considering solutions to this Iron Triangle, Fiorina for one has reached the sad conclusion that almost no new reform will work. In fact, reforms are usually written into law by the representatives, who "reform" themselves into more tenure and power. In the wake of the Watergate scandals, Congress passed a law in the name of "election reform." It limited campaign contributions-and thus reduced the chance of a successful challenge to any entrenched incumbent. Congress, meanwhile, was steadily increasing its use of the franking privilege-not counted as a campaign contribution-to send mail to voters postage-free. Frank mail has nearly doubled in the last 10 years to 566 million pieces annually.
But I submit that there is a simple change that would work: a constitutional amendment to limit all House and Senate members to one term. There is no rational argument against it.
Members of Congress would scream that expertise is needed to run such a monstrous government, but everyone knows that's blarney. Our presidents run the whole monster, as much as anyone can, with the help of bureaucrats and public advice. No legislator needs one percent as much expertise as the president.
Besides, who needs or wants this monster? It wasn't complexity that created tenure and concentrated power. It was tenure that created the complex monster in the guise of "necessities of state and welfare." If this institutional reform-the one-term Congress-were combined with other basic reforms reining in our Frankenstein state, America might once again be the land of truly representative government, and thus a land of milk and honey.
Does it sound too simple to be true? Real reform is always simple. Ending tenure would take the profit out of politics and return Congress to the business of advancing the general welfare.
Jack Douglas is a professor of sociology at the University of California in San Diego. He acknowledges a conversation with legal and historical scholar Laurence Beilenson as the source of the idea for reform discussed here.