Term Limits and Lame Ducks

The spector of the lame duck president, or of a lame duck congress, is a familiar one on the American political landscape. For many years there has been a tension between those who want professional, experienced government leaders versus those who would use term limits to allow new blood to enliven government. However, the emphasis by all parties has been on elections and on the beginnings of terms of office; relatively little attention has been paid to the problems of the lame duck.
It seems to me that the problem of the lame duck is at least as serious for the country as the problem of entrenched incumbency. It is well known that the effectiveness of government is greatly diminished during the last year of a president's second term (or the first term if the incombent does not seek re-election), and also of a congress that has seen a shift in the majority in the elections but must still finish out the current term. Officials either don't do much at all, or they do things that are contrary to the current mood of the nation.
An equally serious end-of-term problem is that of re-election. All too often a great deal of an office-holder's energy during the latter portion of a term is focused on things like fundraising, speechmaking, and pandering, all focused on getting re-elected to office.
I think that both incumbency and end-of-term problems can be addressed by making a few simple changes in the structure of our government, including but not limited to extreme term limits. (This is another in the series of random philosophizations regarding the need to replace our existing constitution through a full-bore constitutional convention.)
Well, for one thing, all elected offices should be limited to a single term, and the lengths of those terms should be increased somewhat. For example, four years for representatives, six years for presidents, and 10 years for senators. Federal elections would be held every two years. Note that during each election, 1/2 of all representatives and 1/5 of all senators would be up for elections, and the presidential election would be held every third cycle. To my way of thinking, this scheme would provide much more stability in government, since at least half of each body would remain in office (1/2 for the house, 4/5 for the senate) each cycle. (Note that the terms are all prime numbers multiplied by 2.)
The second change would be to limit the term of each office to one term. That is, to four years maximum for representatives, six years for presidents, and 10 years for senators. The concept of re-election to an office would become obsolete. Every election cycle would bring in new blood: 1/2 of the House, 1/5 of the Senate, and 100% of the presidency. Note that the increases in the lengths of the terms proposed above is a counterbalance for the rather extreme single-term limit. There would never be a complete shake-up in Congress. There could still be a system of seniority, but only to the extent that in the House, the representatives in the second half of their term would be senior, and the ones just coming in would be junior; the same situation would obtain in the Senate, but there would be five levels of seniority instead of two.
Furthermore, this term limitation would not be only on re-election to the same office currently held, but would also apply to any elective office. That is, someone who is currently serving in a federal office would not be eligible for any elective office for the term immediately following the current term. This would reduce the problems we have seen with fundraising and electioneering during the latter portion of most elected officials' terms.
However, there is no reason why someone who has been out of government entirely for at least one government election cycle could not run for election to another office. That is, one could see a four year term in the House, two years out of office, and then a ten year term in the Senate, or perhaps a six year term in the White House. However, no matter how long out of office, once an individual has served in the House, they would no longer be eligible to run for a seat in the House. This should even apply to those appointed to fill vacancies: once the term to which they were appointed is up, they would become ineligible in the same way as if they had served a full term. The reason for this is to simplify the seniority system and to prevent end-of-term pandering.
Problems: one problem with this scheme is that the terms of House members no longer divides into the ten-year census cycle. However, there is always a delay in implementing new apportionment after a census; under the proposed system, there would simply be a more gradual application of changes due to each successive census. I have written elsewhere in the blog about my concerns regarding how we have implemented our House of Representatives and Electoral College; for example, an universal at-large election of representatives whose votes in the House are weighted either by the number of constituents they represent or by the actual number of votes they received in the general election would make the census question less problematic. However, the fact remains that because of the way that representatives overlap one another in this scheme, there would never be a clean break between one system of apportionment and the next, however, given that re-apportionments that change the numbers of representatives would only occur at the time of an election, there is a fairly simple set of procedures to deal with this fairly.
When a re-apportionment occurs, there are three possibilities. First, the number of representatives could remain the same for a given state. In this case, the boundaries could be redrawn and the new districts assigned to continuing representatives as well as to those up for re-election. Second, the number of representatives would be reduced. In this case, the reduction would occur only when representatives' terms end; at that point, the number of candidates would be reduced. In the interim, any extra continuing representatives would be considered to be "at large" representatives, that is, representing the state as a while rather than their old (non-existent) districts. Third, the number of representatives would be increased for a given state. In this case, continuing representatives' districts would be redrawn and re-assigned as needed, and for the election, there would be more open seats. Since no representative would be running for re-election, this modified system for implementing reapportionment should cause minimal disruption.
A second class of problems has to do with incumbents who campaign for their "favorite" replacement. This system does nothing to help with that, nor should it. Politicians would still be politicians. However, when we observe campaign activities under the current system, we notice two things: (1) people campaign much harder for themselves than they do for others, and (2) we cut people much more breaks in terms of missing votes, being out of Washington, and so on, when they are campaigning for themselves than for when the are campaigning for someone else. Therefore, while this activity will still go on, it will be reduced, and it will no longer really be an end-of-term phenomenon (because people will also campaign for members of their party when their term is not ending).
A third class of problems has to do with incentives. Maybe the above changes would simply make all of our elected officials lame ducks. Without any incentive to get re-elected, this line of argumentation goes, what would force our elected officials to do their jobs honestly and sincerely? Well, there are several responses to this. First, I simply happen to believe that the problems surrounding the ends of terms are much greater when the official can be re-elected and is working for that. If all officials were, in effect, lame ducks, the entire dynamic would be changed. People would enter office knowing full well that their time in Washington is limited. Yes, some might treat their elected position as a sinecure: ethics enforcement would be at least as important under this scheme as it is under our current one. However, it would also become much easier for our officials to follow their conscience. Even in the last session of a term, every official would be fully aware that they could not run for elective office for at least two years, which is more than ample time for the fallout from an unpopular vote to dissipate. But this is definitely a balance that deserves full public discussion.
A fourth class of problems is related to the previous class: accountability. Currently, the system is supposed to eliminate an official who doesn't follow the desires of constituents, by electing someone else. As a result, relatively small groups of people in congressional districts often can have a disproportionate effect on national policy and laws, and members of congress abuse such institutions as the legislative earmark. This proposal will, in effect, change the balance, especially in the House, between small groups of constituents and larger national issues. However, it will also make the House somewhat less responsive to the people. Once again, this is a balance that would need to be discussed in detail.
All of the above should be discussed in a nationwide constitutional convention, in my opinion. There is no chance that our current Congress would ever pass such a sweeping change.


Why George Romney's Defeat is Good for Atheism

• No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States —Article VI, US Constitution

As an atheist, I have long been aware that the American political structure discriminates against atheists. For example, there have been many polls in which a majority of participants say that they would never, or would be unlikely to, vote for an atheist for high office. The way I've always encoded this bigotry is that only monotheists are allowed to pass the constitutionally nonexistant religious test required to qualify for high office. Romney himself as governor of Massachusetts, along with various senators and representatives who are also Mormons, supported that view, as did the recent election of a Black Muslim into the House of Representatives. I always figured that the divide was between atheists and polytheists on one side, and monotheists on the other.

However, George Romney was defeated in his run for the Republican presidential candidacy because he is a Mormon. This really isn't very ambiguous: the Republican base is packed with religious conservatives who are basically on record that they will never vote for a Mormon, and in state after state, it was shown that this was no empty threat, especially since the religious conservatives could support the nonviable Mike Huckabee with their votes instead. The difference between the presidential campaign and other, lower campaigns, is simply that: the president is the truest test of American prejudices. Various individuals who are not members of mainstream-to-conservative Christian denominations can be elected to lower offices, basically as exceptions or due to the nature of the local consistency or simply as a fluke, but the likelihood of that diminishes to near zero for the office of President of the United States.

Therefore, it appears that the split is not between monotheists and everyone else after all. So what is the nature of the religious test for office and public trust in the Land of the Free?

I think that the test is actually based on fear of being attacked, as are several other important aspects of the US political landscape (the "War on Terror", the Border Fence, the fear of socialism). In this case, religious individuals view atheists and Mormons as a threat because they understand that their ranks are filled with former main-stream Christians who either have become atheists, agnostics, or non-participants in religion, as well as Mormons (and to a much lesser extent, Muslims). That is, the exclusion of certain religious categories is very similar to the kind of discrimination formerly seen among GM workers against Fords and vice versa, or among American autoworkers and foreign cars, or among supporters of various athletic teams. In short, it is a "branding" phenomenon, a defense against competing brands. And why not? At times it appears that our entire culture is based on advertising and marketing. Entire segments of our economy are "ad-based", that is, they make their living by enticing consumers to view or listen to advertising. It should come as no surprise that religions in America have adopted the same kind of advertising/marketing mindset, and that they demand brand loyalty from their adherents. (One might even speculate about the historical connection between religious brand warfare and consumer brand competition: which came first?)

As a practical matter, atheists, Mormons, and Muslims, along with Hindus and most other non mainstream-to-conservative Christians, still fail and will continue to fail the nonexistant religious test for high office in our land. But it is actually comforting to see that the test is not actually based on religious grounds at all, but on brand loyalty. Who know, maybe this insight could show a way to move beyond our current religious divisiveness and pettiness. For example, is there a secular brand (American?) that could actually transcend traditional religious and ethnic branding?