Politicians are scared. Last year, voters in Oklahoma, Colorado, and California approved ballot initiatives to limit the terms of state legislators. Citizen groups in 20 more states are pushing similar measures, and the campaign for a constitutional amendment requiring members of Congress to give up their seats after 12 years is gaining ground. "It's like standing in front of a train coming 110 miles an hour," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D–Colo.), a 20-year incumbent.
But advocates of limited government have so far been lukewarm to the idea of term limitation. Many of them feel it does not directly address the state's galloping growth, that it simply rearranges the players and leaves us no better off than before. This view is mistaken. Limiting the terms of legislators would indeed help to limit the scope of government. It's an idea that friends of liberty should support.
The reason is simple: The longer members of Congress serve, the more committed they become to the expansion of government. To understand why, consider how our senators and representatives assess proposals for increased spending and regulation. In Washington, proponents of government action dominate the opinion-formation process. In a study of 14 hearings before a variety of Senate and House committees dealing with spending programs, I found a total of 1,014 witnesses appearing in favor of the proposed spending, while only seven appeared to give what might be taken as criticism of it. In other words, pro-spending witnesses outnumbered anti-spending witnesses by 145 to 1. A similar imbalance is evident in private contacts with lobbyists and government officials.
It's no mystery why this imbalance occurs. Witnesses seeking the expansion of government power are paid to represent this point of view, either by taxpayers or by private interest groups, many of which receive government funding. The taxpayers pay for the collection of biased statistics "proving" that programs are working; they pay for the preparation of testimony and time off from work to deliver it; taxpayers even pay for government officials' cab fare to Capitol Hill.
To counter the avalanche of pro-government persuasion, who comes to Washington to criticize spending programs? In the case of most programs, no one. Ordinary taxpayers may be disgusted with tax policies or spending programs, but they lack the time, money, and expertise to play a role in the decision-making process. At both the state and national levels, the legislative environment is utterly dominated by the pro-government professionals.
My research indicates that this propaganda has its effect: Senior members of Congress tend to be more supportive of government programs than junior members of Congress. One way to measure the difference is to compare legislators' scores on spending measures, as compiled by the National Taxpayers Union. The results show that senior members of Congress are bigger spenders than junior members. This pattern holds for both parties, and it is not an effect of age. If you control for the number of years served in Washington, the legislator's age has no effect on his spending views.
Furthermore, tracking the same senators and representatives over time shows that individual members do indeed become more pro-government the longer they serve. (See "Inside the Mind of a Big-Time Spender," July 1986.) It's not just that members who like big government are more likely to run for re-election and therefore tend to stay in Washington longer.
In making these calculations, I have drawn the dividing line between senior and junior members at 12 years, the period stipulated in the proposed constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms. The figures in the table suggest that this amendment would have produced a more fiscally conservative House of Representatives in every one of the past 12 years. (The results for the Senate are similar but less pronounced and consistent, because most senators have previously served in government and have therefore already been brainwashed.)
On most key taxing and spending votes, the effect of pro-government indoctrination shows up clearly. For example, on October 27, 1990, Congress approved the five-year budget plan worked out with President Bush to avoid the automatic spending restraints of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act. This budget package astonished the nation by purporting to "cut" the budget while actually increasing nondefense spending by at least $245 billion. To pay for this increased spending, the plan effectively dismantled the fiscal discipline of Gramm-Rudman- Hollings; it increased taxes by $137.2 billion; and it provided—in what was billed as a "deficit reduction package"—for an increase in the deficit, to a record $254 billion (or more, if you include the effect of recession) for 1991. To outside observers, it seemed an arrangement to ensure the growth of government spending at all costs.
If the constitutional term-limitation amendment had been in effect, this budget plan would never have been approved, for it was senior members, those having served more than 12 years, who gave it the margin of victory. In the House, the measure passed by 28 votes: 228–220. But with the senior members removed, it would have failed by four votes: 142–146. In the Senate, the measure passed by nine votes, 54–45. With the exclusion of the senior members, it would have failed by six votes: 26–32.
A glance around Capitol Hill confirms the statistical picture. In program after program, the senior members of Congress are the champions of bureaucracy. For example, the patron saint of agricultural subsidies has been Jamie Whitten (D–Miss.), whose 50 years in the House of Representatives make him its most senior member. Five decades of pure, unadulterated lobbying by administrators and interest-group representatives have rinsed from his mind any idea of a duty to taxpayers. Speaking of his agricultural appropriations subcommittee, he says, "We represent the American farmer."
What would the budget look like if Congress contained only the less-indoctrinated junior members? A modest tightening—of a few billion dollars each year—would almost certainly occur. The compound effect of this restraint over a period of many years would be a spending cut of hundreds of billions—that is, about the amount of our current deficit.
Yes, all members of Congress, junior and senior, have shortcomings. But in the modern American system, senior members tend to have an additional flaw: Most of them have become unthinking proponents of the appalling pro-government ethos that surrounds them in Washington. The limitation of congressional terms affords a way to counteract this dangerous bias.
James L. Payne is director of Lytton Research and Analysis in Sandpoint, Idaho, and author of The Culture of Spending, forthcoming from ICs Press.