John Dingell—Poster Boy for Term Limits

February 26th, 2014

It’s been interesting hearing the news about John Dingell’s retirement from Congress.  After 58 years, Representative Dingell decided not to seek reelection to Congress because he “finds serving in the House to be obnoxious.”

With all due respect, some citizens out here in the heartland find serving in Congress for nearly six decades actually more obnoxious. Following your father in your congressional seat (which Dingell did) also seems a bit obnoxious to those of us who believe that the United States is full of many wonderful people who can serve.  Last I checked we’re still not a monarchy where power is simply handed down within a family.  That’s what makes the announcement that Dingell’s wife, Deborah, might run for his seat even more potentially obnoxious.

If she wins, why not just pass a bill in Congress making the Twelfth Congressional District of Michigan property of the Dingell family to be passed from generation to generation?

Granted, the power to control all of this is in the hands of the electorate.  We can always, on our own, take measures at the ballot box and vote out an incumbent if we feel he’s overstayed his time in office. We can do that but we seldom do, and there is a reason for that.

In the United States, there is power in incumbency.  It’s very hard to lose power or take someone else’s power away because once it’s there, the system makes it very difficult to overcome.

Members of Congress have various ways to hold on to their seats. As freshmen members, they spend a good deal of their time courting constituents for campaign contributions for the next race. You’d think this would be a burden that would make their jobs quite difficult.  While it’s time consuming and many regard it as quite demeaning, the fact is, once they are an incumbent, they have a very good chance of raising a sizeable war chest. As each year in office passes, the pot grows bigger.  Pretty soon, it’s so big, it would take a self-made millionaire willing to part with a sizeable chunk of his fortune to even have a slim chance of ousting the incumbent.  That rules out your average civic minded citizen wanting to serve.

The other problem is that there is an unspoken rule in political consulting circles that you never “primary” an incumbent.  In other words, you don’t accept business where you would be challenging an incumbent in your own party.  To quote Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind, “It simply isn’t done.”

This means that even the millionaire wanting to run against an incumbent is going to have a difficult time finding the best political consultants and political advertising firms to run a campaign.  That presents a huge disadvantage to any challenger.

So here’s what happens.  Either the incumbent is caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar or with his pants down in an inappropriate situation (although unfortunately even that doesn’t always work) or a member of the opposition party is able to successfully oust the incumbent.  The only other option is the open seat where the incumbent either (1) quits of his own accord or (2) dies.  The latter scenario often results in the Deborah Dingell scenario where some family member tries to claim the empty throne.  That’s where “we the people” are supposed to step in.

The alternative, term limits, has its own issues. Still, it would seem some form of term limits is in order.

Service in Congress was never intended to be a lifetime pursuit.  We need to take measures to assure that’s true.