Reining in the Imperial Congress

Members of Congress couldn't wreak as much havoc if we limited them to one term.


The 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution limits the president to two full terms. Before this amendment was passed in 1951, some commentators—many nostalgic for Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms—warned of dire consequences from the restraints it might place on the presidency. But the executive branch has not foundered because of the amendment. On the contrary, a large body of opinion today favors curtailing even further the powers of what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., dubbed the imperial presidency.

New restraints, especially on the money-creating powers of government, are indeed needed. But there is an even greater need today for more restraints on our imperial Congress. Our representatives and senators have been just as eager as our recent presidents—often even more eager—to expand the already gargantuan expenditures and powers of government.

Shortly after the Reagan administration took office, House Speaker Tip O'Neill called a well-publicized "summit meeting" with the president of all the American people. The president had to go to O'Neill, symbolizing his role as supplicant. The president reportedly pleaded for budget cuts and offered various compromises on his own program, but the speaker of the House turned him down—and the great pork barrel rolled on.

This episode points to a problem found in both the House and the Senate, but especially the House. The Founding Fathers gave the House the dominant power over taxation precisely because its members were to be elected directly by the voters (and for only two years at a time). The Founding Fathers figured the people would be led by their own self-interest to elect representatives who would keep taxes to a minimum. And at first they did. For well over 100 years, federal taxation in peacetime was almost never more than 2.5 percent of the Gross National Product. Today, however, it is almost 10 times that if "off-budget"—that is, hidden—spending is included.

What went wrong with the Founding Fathers' plan? What produced this sea change in the trend of congressional actions? As usual, there are a number of factors involved, but the critical difference has been the growth of concentrated power both in the House committees and subcommittees that handle virtually all bills before that body and in the House leadership that coordinates the committees. The crucial factor responsible for this concentration of power has been the growing tenure of members of Congress.

The increasingly long terms of congressional office have an explanation. Back in 1910, members of Congress staged a dramatic revolt against Speaker Joseph "Czar" Cannon, one of the most authoritarian speakers in the history of the House. Cannon had single-handedly picked the members and chairmen of all the House committees, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. When his power was finally broken by the revolt, the speaker's prerogatives were permanently reduced and Congress adopted a new system—it began assigning committee chairs and slots according to members' seniority.

There is little question that the new system was a vast improvement over Cannon's ruthless political machine, but seniority was far from ideal. The new criterion for power in the House was no longer loyalty to the speaker but longevity in office. It wasn't long before congressmen responded to the incentives to hold on to their seats. Length of tenure grew remarkably, especially for members of Congress fortunate enough to represent districts where they had little opposition, such as in the "solid South."

Few states' representatives exploited the new system as thoroughly as did those hailing from Texas. By the time Lyndon Johnson was first elected to Congress in 1937, two of his fellow Texans had been in Congress for 24 years each, and two others for 20 years each. John Nance Garner, the vice-president at the time, had been a Texas congressman for 30 years, eventually winning the speaker's chair. And Johnson himself succeeded a 24-year veteran who left office only via death.

All this Texan tenacity was not in vain. For decades, Texas enjoyed vast outpourings of federal largesse—contracts, military installations, water projects, and subsidies of every variety. Texans have the seniority system, and some exceptionally crafty politicians who knew how to exploit it, to thank.

The long tenures that followed the 1910 reforms were in stark contrast to those in the 19th century. Congressmen then, like presidents, expected to serve only one or two terms. Former Rep. Richard Bolling (D–Mo.) gave some indicative figures in his 1969 book, Power in the House. Until 1901, in an average Congress, first-term members accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the entire membership in each house. And in most of those Congresses, the percentage actually ranged from 40 to 60 percent. Moreover, House members' average tenure never rose above 2.9 terms (5.8 years) until this century and was usually below that figure.

Although a very few congressmen did serve long terms, almost none were professional politicians like the great majority are today. Nearly all of them observed Andrew Jackson's doctrine of "revolving" political offices, which reflected the view that the nation was best served by letting as many leaders as possible serve the public.

New blood, it was argued, would tend to produce creativity and dedication and prevent the entrenchment of vested interests that breed corruption. Brief tenure would also keep politicians relatively close to the voters. Above all, it would offer no opportunity to use a congressional seat to maximize their own power by milking interest groups and the public. So-called robber barons might corrupt state legislators with long tenure, but representatives were gone from Congress before they had much chance to feather their nests.

Abraham Lincoln served as a representative from Illinois for only one term (1847–49) and did not run for reelection because "it was someone else's turn to run." In the same way, speakers took turns, so that very few held power for more than one session and only one did for three sessions (Nathaniel Macon, from 1801 to 1807).

After the "revolt" gave power to seniority, all of this was turned on its head. Czar Cannon's successor as speaker, Champ Clark of Missouri, may not have had Cannon's power over the committees, but he still served four consecutive terms. Sam Rayburn was speaker for 17 years altogether (1940–47, 1949–53, and 1955–61)—a record. In the last century, that would have been unheard of. Contests for the speaker's position were vigorously fought in the 1800s, but today, the selection of the speaker is a foregone conclusion. (Within the party caucuses that elect speakers every two years, incumbent speakers haven't faced a serious contest for reelection in decades.)

Incidentally, congressmen in the 1800s might have been scandalized or perhaps envious to learn that with only one exception (Carl Albert of Oklahoma), every speaker since 1940—Democrat and Republican alike—has come from either the Boston area or Texas. Tip O'Neill of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is widely expected to retire as speaker in 1985 or 1987, hoping to close his public career as ambassador to Ireland; and his heir-apparent is Majority Leader Jim Wright of (where else?) Texas.

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.