The Case Against Congressional Term Limits
For progressives and Democrats, November 8, 1994, was a shock. We were two years into the Clinton Administration and overnight, Democrats lost their majority in both houses of Congress. Republicans gained eight Senate seats, fifty-four House seats (making it the largest swing in over 40 years) and ten governorships. Many state legislatures flipped. Governor Mario Cuomo, a Democratic icon in New York was defeated by George Pataki. Tom Foley, Democrat from Washington and Speaker of the House, was defeated in his re-election. It was an absolute blood bath.
I was a senior in college, sitting in my dorm room watching the election returns with a few of my friends. As always, we had been involved in local political races that fall including an Iowa governor’s race (she lost) and while we were prepared for a few defeats, we were absolutely shocked by the wholesale slaughter of the Democratic Party. It had been just 24 months prior that the Clinton-Gore ticket – the first Baby Boom generation presidency – had declared victory and we still remembered how excited people were when 42 was sworn in. It just made no sense!
Well, of course, it made sense, just not at age twenty or twenty-one. In the build up to that night, the Clinton Administration had had a really rough 24 months as had progressives. There was the poorly managed attempt to roll back “gays in the military.” Remember “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” That was a compromise after President Clinton really messed up the PR on rolling back the ban on gays in the military. What I remember was that he issued the roll back and then all hell broke loose. Back then, we had CNN as the only continuous news outlet and that was enough. What seemed like weeks later, the White House, Congress and the military reached some kind of “agreement” that was basically “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Twenty years later, President Obama lifted the ban and removed DADT to what seemed like limited fanfare. Amazing.
Then there were the appointments that did not get past the Senate (Democrats had the majority mind you). As I recall, the big clusters were for Attorney General, but perhaps there were others and they all had some kind of tax issue. It just seemed like every person the President nominated had some kind of problem (back when little things like not paying Social Security taxes for the housekeeper was a big deal. Now, we have a Secretary of HHS, Tom Price who may have made millions of dollars trading on insider information while in Congress and an EPA Chief who made a name for himself suing the EPA. Little stuff). Legislatively, there was the health care reform flop (remember Harry and Louise?), the travel-gate drama, a tax increase on the wealthy, and a reversal of a tax decrease pledge on the middle class. So yes, people were disenchanted.
And then there was Newt
Newt Gingrich really wanted to be Speaker of the House. Six weeks prior to the mid terms, he rolled out his signature “Contract for America” which looking back was really the forerunner of Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” that we are witnessing today. Gingrich brought all the Republican House members and all GOP candidates for House seats to the Capital for the ‘contract signing and photo shoot.’ Now the Contract I remember but it was so far to the right I thought, “Who is going to vote for this?” No. No. Let me be much more direct. “What idiot is going to vote for a Republican who signed their name to this? These people want to get rid of Social Security. They want to get rid of Medicare. They want to eliminate federal funding for education, welfare, and food stamps! This Republican party promotes policies that change the social contract to remove government from every aspect of our lives – including the part of government that makes sure that the food and water we eat and drink does not kill us.”
Well, as it turns out, a lot of idiots voted for Newt and his Republican Revolution and that relegated the Democrats to the minority. But you know what? The revolution failed. And it failed miserably. But like a “forty-four-year-old female who continues to eat chocolate even though she knows that her body will not metabolize it,” the Republicans just kept trying.
The art of legislating
When I last checked, Congress had a single digit approval rating. When Senator Ted Kennedy was alive, it was marginally better but at least Congress was effective. The summer before the 1994 midterms, I was really fortunate to intern in Senator Kassabaum’s Senate office. It was the one time in my life in which “I knew a guy.” Actually, I knew a woman. She was my aunt. My aunt Sondra had worked for the Senator for a long time and she helped me get into the summer intern program. For six weeks, starting after July 4, I ran errands, answered phones and responded to constituent letters. It was a great gig and I learned a lot about how the Senate worked but not nearly as much as Nick Littlefield, the author of the book “Lion of the Senate.”
The closest I came to Senator Kennedy that summer was an elevator ride – not the same elevator, of course, he was a few steps ahead of me – but Littlefield’s description of that “booming voice” is absolutely accurate. I can still hear it resonating off the walls in the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building. Kennedy was a legend, not just because of his family or his name, but because of the way he approached public service.
Too often, we are skeptical of others who step into the fray of politics or give their lives to public service. Think of how so many voters felt about Hillary Clinton. Ted Kennedy spent most of his adult life serving Massachusetts and Americans at large. He came from a famous and rich family and yet, he died serving the people and institution he loved, the United States Senate. The most important cause of his career was universal health care, a cause he pursued relentlessly after sitting with his 12-year-old son battling bone cancer in 1973. During the months of treatment, the Senator got to know the families of other children, those that were not nearly as well off financially or as well covered. That experience solidified his belief that every American should have equal access to health care and that no parent should have to choose between medical treatment for one of their children and the basic needs of another.
Before we felt the Bern, progressives had Ted Kennedy. But when he died in 2009 of the same malignant brain tumor now afflicting Senator John McCain, we not only lost a liberal lion, America lost a brilliant legislator. And that is the real crux of this post and the true missing link in Congress today. We do not have enough brilliant legislators.
To bring this back to 1994, Kennedy won re-election in probably his closest race to date. Ultimately, he beat Mitt Romney by double digits but it was close early in the fall. Littlefield served as Kennedy’s Staff Director on the Labor and Human Resources Committee and describes the Senator as a workhorse which was not unusual for his generation. However, what most Senators and House members staff out today, Kennedy did himself. He was intimately involved in the research and interviews of analysts and stakeholders of legislation. After the 1994 midterms and before the 104th Congress began, Kennedy and his aides held dozens of meetings with analysts and groups including historians, all trying to understand why Democrats lost and what Americans needed to hear in order to trust the party again. Kennedy would take all of this feedback to create a legislative agenda for himself and ultimately for the Congressional Democrats.
But the aspect of his time in the Senate that is most important to the gridlock we perceive today was Kennedy’s gregarious nature and his willingness to form longstanding relationships with members of both caucuses (Democrat and Republican) and both Congressional Houses (Senate and House). Kennedy always looked for common ground. One of his best friends in the Senate was Orrin Hatch. Yes, that Orrin Hatch – conservative Mormon Senator from Utah. Senator Kennedy took great pains to invite members of the Republican caucus and their staffers to his home for dinner and conversation. It sounds like they would have been my kind of parties too; there were specific topics for the evening and prepared questions. I would have loved that!
The Senate was purposefully designed to be complex and slow. This book is a primer for anyone who wants to get a flavor of the parliamentary procedure that each Senator’s office has to understand in order to move legislation. As Americans, we do not want the Senate to behave like the House and therefore, Senators need to legislate. Legislating requires skill and those skills take time to develop. Legislating requires Senators to develop relationships that then allow them to find common ground with other Senators. It requires the Senator trying to move a bill to understand the political headwinds, the timing and the pressure felt by a bill’s co-sponsor at any particular moment. Sometimes, a short term loss is part of a long term victory. A smart legislator knows that. Sweeping legislation rarely happens. Incremental change happens all the time.
A true legislator’s word is his or her bond. Once he/she agreed to a compromise, it was done. Even if he got a better deal down the road, Kennedy (and others of his caliber) honored the original commitment. That is the way things are done in the Senate and that is part of the “regular order” that Senator McCain spoke to when he returned to the chamber after his cancer diagnosis.
I will never support Congressional term limits because all they do is diminish the caliber and performance of those doing the job. Moreover, because the Senate rules are so complex, someone has to be the expert at navigating and moving legislation. If elected officials are term limited, the expertise and responsibility for bill management would fall to staff. We do not vote for staff. We vote for Senators and House members. Therefore, I only want Senators like Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy – men, and women who know how to legislate. On the House side, I only want House members like Nancy Pelosi and “name a Republican who can get legislation passed.” (Let’s be honest, that is a bit of a dry well right now). These Senators and House members see legislating as an art form in and of itself and not a stepping stone to K Street or to a “better gig” down the road.
After losing the majority in the 1994 midterms, Kennedy used his legislating skillset that he had honed since joining the Senate in 1962 to pass progressive legislation in a Republican controlled Congress and under a president who practiced “triangulation” (Clinton’s way of splitting the difference between the Dems and the GOP). He did not get his way 100% of the time, but he did not lose 100% of the time, nor did he shut down the government. Kennedy and his colleagues (on both sides of the aisle) legislated. They did their job. In front of the cameras, there was a lot of partisan bluster. But when the cameras disappeared, there was the Senate camaraderie and statesmanship apparent in the most exclusive club in the world.
The Kennedy family sacrificed and lost a lot in their commitment to public service. Joe Kennedy Jr, the eldest brother was killed in World War II. President Jack Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. President Kennedy’s son John was killed when his private plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean with his wife and sister in law. Senator Ted Kennedy experienced his own personal issues, including rumors of alcohol use, sexual improprieties and a scandal over the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, known simply as “Chappaquiddick.” All of this is part of the public record. His marriage to his second wife Vickie in 1992 seems to have turned around his personal conduct. His last years in the Senate were as focused as ever.
We should be concerned with the ongoing denigration of our Congressional institutions including our systematic disrespect of House members and Senators. Let’s remember that most of our representatives are like Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch. Far fewer resemble Ted Cruz. Americans must start to see public service as an honorable profession again; today we do not. Today we consistently personalize our policy differences rather than seeing them as merely ideological rather than personality driven. Our elected officials do not help the situation by their PR campaigns and derogatory comments in front of cameras. But we can.
I have always maintained that had Ted Kennedy lived, Obamacare would have been bi-partisan. The ACA may have looked a little different, but it would have been bi-partisan. In this book, Orrin Hatch agrees with me. Kennedy had the relationships and he had the political capital to work the floor and to make everyone feel like they were getting something including the necessary cover from their constituents. Obamacare may still be in danger of repeal, but the fact that it had originally been a Republican and Democratic compromise would have carried a lot of weight.
On August 25, 2009, fifteen months after being diagnosed with brain cancer Ted Kennedy passed away. He was 77. The funeral and the memorials were a testament to him as a man, a husband, a father, an uncle and a Senator. I remember a lot from that funeral weekend, specifically the mass but also the memorial service at the JFK library in Boston. So many of his Senate colleagues, from both parties, spoke to his character and to his tenacity.
In a joint session of Congress over the need for health care reform legislation, President Obama quoted this letter, sent to him by Senator Kennedy after his cancer diagnosis. In that same joint session, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You Lie!” at President Obama (twice) when the President stated that health care reform would not target undocumented immigrants. Set aside party affiliation and just compare the two actions. Given Kennedy’s history, his letter it is something I could see him writing to anyone regardless of the D or R behind the name. It is the type of gesture that Kennedy was known for and it is the reason that he was so successful. We should demand no less from those that came after him.
-Amy September 2017