Tenured incompetence

Congress' abysmal performance cries out for serious reform

If the American people have learned just one thing from the debacle in Washington these past few weeks, perhaps it should be how desperately and completely we need term limits in Congress.

We already knew we had a ruling elite in Washington – a cabal of the connected that this page has repeatedly called imperious and impervious. They are undeniably imperious – as they flit happily above the laws they write for the rest of us, their gymnasium quite operational even as the government tries to turn away World War II veterans from their outdoor memorial.

They are impervious too, sadly enough of our own doing, as voters can rarely overcome the power of incumbency which we, ourselves, fuel with taxes and special interest monies.

But the government shutdown and the conflict over whether to raise the debt ceiling have highlighted yet another intractable problem in Washington: These entrenched rulers in Washington can’t work together.

They’ve been fighting each other for years, in some cases decades. There’s bad blood. They often don’t like each other, and they most certainly don’t trust each other.

They’re on constant prowl for political advantage over one another. It’s their livelihood, after all. They gotta eat, you know. So instead of looking out for the country, they’re playing chess against each other.

The rest of us are pawns in that game.

So many leaders, so little leadership.

While the government shutdown can legitimately be blamed on Republicans, approval ratings for both Republican House Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are in the teens. And despite – or maybe because of – his repeated acid-tongued rebukes of Republicans, President Obama’s approval rating dipped to 37 percent last week.

Clearly none of the players is covered in glory in this charade.

We need term limits. We need them desperately. And if this latest, historic political disaster is any indication, we may need term limits to preserve the Union.

How to get there?

The courts have made clear that congressional term limits can only come through a constitutional amendment.

Many folks think that’s impossible because they mistakenly believe Congress itself must initiate the amendment process. Not so.

Article V of the Constitution allows either two-thirds of Congress or two-thirds of state legislatures (34) to call a constitutional convention. If the states call it, then Congress is reduced to the role of facilitator.

Some scholars worry that a constitutional convention might open a can of worms, through which faulty amendments could be approved or existing ones altered for the worse. We understand that concern completely. But others believe, and we agree with them, that a constitutional convention can be called for specific purposes, such as term limits, and be confined to the intended topics.

In fact, we’re certain that legislatures would insist on it. Either way, no amendment would become the law of the land without further ratification by an even larger majority of the states: three-fourths.

We also understand the argument that a constitutional amendment is so difficult to propose and ratify that it will never happen. The Chronicle’s editorial department has been told that to our faces by esteemed conservative leaders in Washington.

We just don’t agree.

In fact, we proffer evidence to the contrary: Gregory Watson.

The former University of Texas student once wrote a paper on a proposed constitutional amendment. He got a “C” on the paper. Then, armed only with a typewriter and costly long-distance telephone service, he proceeded to get that amendment ratified by 1992. It is now the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Don’t tell us it can’t be done.

We believe a constitutional convention should be called to propose two amendments: term limits and federal spending restrictions. Conservative commentator Mark Levin has proposed others in his book The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic.

Congress may never call for such amendments, but has inadvertently proved over and over, through its tenured incompetence, the inescapable need for them.

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