The Limits of Reform


Cleaning House: America's Campaign for Term Limits, by James K. Coyne and John H. Fund, Regnery Gateway, 235 pages, $21.95

Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy, by George F. Will, The Free Press, 244 pages, $22.95

The electorate's growing disgust with Washington began to produce institutional changes in November, when 14 states with two-fifths of the U.S. population passed ballot measures limiting the time legislators may serve in office. The success of these initiatives appeared to boost the chances of the proposed constitutional amendment, supported by George Bush but opposed by Bill Clinton, limiting U.S. senators and representatives to 12 years in office.

These two books, one by former one-term Republican congressman James Coyne and Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer John Fund, the other by George Will, the country's preeminent center-right newspaper columnist, argue that term limitation is an idea whose time has come. Congress, they observe, has become a careerist, bureaucratic, professionalized institution that has perverted society's quest for the common good into a trove of privilege for its members and clients.

The answer, these books argue, is to limit legislators' time in office, thereby breaking their government-expanding careerism. In Will's more-expansive view, term limits would also revive the deliberative function and restore republican morality—that is, the ideals of civic virtue, dedication to society's welfare, toleration, self-restraint, and so on.

Coyne and Fund's Cleaning House is a handbook for term-limitation activists. In addition to giving a good description of the current incumbency system, it contains practical information, from phone numbers and addresses of term-limitation groups in the various states to a list of answers to frequently raised objections.

For example:

• Doesn't the high congressional turnover this year show that the incumbents' hold has been broken and that term limits aren't needed? Not at all, say Coyne and Fund. The 1992 retirement binge was the result of unusual or onetime factors—the decennial redistricting, House bank scandal, and scheduled termination of congressmen's right to pocket leftover campaign funds after 1992. In fact, the power of the incumbent is at an all-time high-water mark, and only term limits can break it.

• Won't term limits restrict voter choice? No, the authors say, they'll actually increase it. It's the current system, with its massive subsidies to incumbents and its suppression of electoral competition, that really narrows choice.

• Won't term limits deprive Congress of needed skills, knowledge, and experience? No, according to Coyne and Fund. Incumbency protects the mediocre as well as the able, so opening Congress up will open the way to people with often superior capabilities and knowledge. In any case, professionalism in Congress is the problem, not the solution.

Left unaddressed by these books, unfortunately, is the central issue about term limitation: Can it be counted on to break Congress's "ruling-class mentality," or is it just a gimmick and diversion? The question here is, in part, a technical one: How stringent do the limits have to be to produce the desired effect? If we were talking about limiting legislators to a single two- or six-year term in office, we'd feel fairly certain that term limitation would work.

But 12 years? That's a long time in the framework of a career, especially these days; with several terms in local offices leading up to the full permitted period of service at the federal level, followed by a stint at a Washington law or lobbying firm, a 12-year limit seems all too compatible with the perpetuation of the current system.

Beyond that issue lies the larger question of what, politically speaking, would flow from the deprofessionalization of Congress. The public and Coyne-Fund clearly hope that a smaller, less promiscuously active government would result. If term limits were imposed as one element in a broader, pro-market, pro-constitutionalist program to return America to her Lockean roots, the effort would have a good chance of succeeding. It's noteworthy, however, that while Coyne and Fund are Jeffersonian conservatives, they don't advocate term limits as part of a broader conservative agenda. They urge term limits in isolation as a technical fix for big government, as if it were a pesticide that you apply once and forget about.

The implied notion of a technical, non-ideological conservatism that can be put into effect without any messy political struggle and risk reminds me of the supply-siders 15 years ago, when they were arguing that tax cuts by themselves would automatically restructure the incentives at work in the policy process, both reversing the real growth of government and eliminating the need for anyone to advocate anything as unpopular and risky as limited government. It wasn't so, of course. What came of it wasn't automatic conservatism, but a perpetuation of liberalism. Tax cuts without the decision to make spending cuts led to an expansion of the public sector, plus the rise of the mega-deficit.

It's easy to imagine term limits conceived in a technical spirit having a similar outcome. Given the liberal, pro-spending ideological and political forces that have been in play for years, a noncareerist, term-limited Congress would probably go right on voting for ever-bigger government.

This is where George Will's interesting but unsatisfying book, Restoration, comes in. It's a much broader-gauge and more ambitious exercise that, though thrown together in haste, succeeds in placing the term-limits idea in its broader context. The book's view of the dysfunctions of modern government seems highly sophisticated. A delicious story about the growth of the taxpayers' $100-million-a-year subsidy to producers of mohair neatly limns the utterly shameless, insensate, exploitative quality of our careerist state.

For Will, the purpose of term limits isn't to shrink or rationalize the corporate state. It is to defend it and to rekindle Americans' love affair with big government. Will is alarmed that disaffection from big government has thrown politics into gridlock, preventing institutions in Washington, D.C., from solving problems and meeting needs. He advocates term limits as a way of reducing the gulf between government and the people, making government admirable and trustworthy again, and restoring public confidence so that Will and his friends can get on with the business of ruling. He rejects the scenario in which a term-limited Congress shrinks the government; he argues against spending limitations.

Will's idea of a big government made lovely by a revival of deliberative processes, republican morality, and a new closeness between private society and public institutions is mostly nonsense. In the abstract, it may sound nice. But what we're talking about here isn't an abstraction, it's the mohair subsidy. Will talks as if a reformed Congress would give us mohair subsidies a disinterested citizen could take pride in.

But the point about the mohair subsidy is that it is publicly indefensible by its very nature. Its aim isn't to advance public purposes but to confer private privilege. A true renaissance of deliberation and public spiritedness will lead not to better mohair subsidies but to the rejection of mohair subsidies.

If Will really is in favor, as he says he is, of a revival of constitutional government, then he has no choice but to want, or at least anticipate, a reduction and reshaping of the role of government along Lockean lines. And if he wants to keep the big government we've got, then the talk about term limitation and deliberation and republican morality is empty rhetoric—a gesture to placate and distract an angry public rather than to respond to its sense of grievance.

Thus Will's book exemplifies the careerists' effort to co-opt the term-limitation idea. What's genuine and controlling in this book isn't the desire to reform a corrupted system but the desire to use term limits to maintain politics as usual.

Signs of the perverse and disingenuous quality of Will's interest in term limitations are everywhere in Restoration. In the introduction, for instance, he tells us that until recently he'd had nothing but contempt for the term-limitation idea but that now he's changed his mind. Yet he describes no transformative experiences leading to this reversal; he merely cites the growth of public support for term limits, plus his discovery that some of the Founding Fathers supported the idea. In other words, in typical careerist manner, he's seen which way the wind is blowing, and this book is his effort to run before it.

Then there's the matter of the dedication. "To Pat and Liz Moynihan and Jack and Sally Danforth," Will declares. "Were more of the people who came to Washington like these four, this book would not have been written." The reference, of course, is to the senior senators and senate wives from New York and Missouri, who are, it's true, admirable people. But they are third termers and professional Washingtonians and politics-as-usual types who, their intellectual abilities apart, exemplify what term limitation is trying to put an end to. What in hell is a book about increasing rotation in office doing making fervent declarations of admiration and affection for people whose careers embody the principle of a low level of rotation in office?

Consider, by contrast, Will's treatment of Rep. Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican from suburban Atlanta and House minority whip who has been at the forefront of a small group in the House who have been working aggressively to embarrass, confront, and defeat the Democrat-dominated system of House politics, the ending of which term limitation is all about. In his personal guerrilla war against the system, Gingrich hasn't been perfect. He accepted the traditional whip's perk of a government-provided car and driver, bounced two checks at the infamous House bank (one of them made out to the IRS), and ran against his first serious primary challenger in years on the promise that with his clout he could do "more for Cobb County."

Will heaps ridicule on Gingrich as the prime example of the effort to service constituencies without regard for the public merits. This attack is an act of monumental hypocrisy. Gingrich has based his career on assailing the system Will now concedes must go. But on the basis of a few mistakes of judgment, which Gingrich has admitted and apologized for, Will turns him into a symbol of the abuses of the system.

Meanwhile, he dedicates the book to Pat and Jack, big spenders who embody, defend, and benefit from the system of constituency service and who have never apologized once for any of thousands of votes cast for indefensible interest-group ripoffs. They are celebrated as paragons of deliberative brilliance and republican virtue, while poor Newt Gingrich, the uncool gadfly and sweaty Lockean crusader, is the villain of Will's save-the-system melodrama.

Will professes to have learned, in a career spanning academe, the Hill, and journalism, not just that ideas matter, but that ideas are practically all that matters in public life. He's quite right, and it is with respect to the ideas at stake in the Washington problem that Will's book is at its emptiest.

In response to the intelligent, constitutionalist arguments of economist William Niskanen for a spending-limitation amendment, Will scoffs, "The doctrine of enumerated powers [that the federal government may do only what is explicitly authorized by the Constitution] is as dead as a doornail. The modern state is a sprawling, palpitating fact, and here to stay." This, of course, isn't an argument or an answer, just hostile bluster that whatever is, is right. It's a response typical of a Washington careerist practiced in the arts of turning public matters to private advantage.

Will notwithstanding, term limits are part of a fundamental critique of the way the Washington world works. Advanced within that framework and as part of a larger program of change, they're an excellent idea. But urged in isolation and by themselves, as a technical fix, they're readily subject to co-optation. The book the term-limitation people need is one combining George Will's political sophistication with James Coyne and John Fund's political values.

Contributing Editor Paul H. Weaver is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of News and the Culture of Lying, to be published this year by The Free Press.