BY JACE WHITE
Congress’s frequent low approval ratings have lead many to suggest that creating term limits for our representatives would fix what many view as a corrupt and broken system. They believe that people who have been in office for a long time promote a system where corporations and other interests can pay money to influence the government. Term limits won’t solve this problem because it isn’t the congressmen themselves, but the size of the enormous government they are tasked with operating that give us a system that benefits some at the expense of others.
Advocates for term limits assume that the actions of Congress are primarily determined by the attitudes of individual elected officials. They say that the government could distribute all of the money that it collects in a fair way if it wanted to, but it doesn’t because the people who are now in Congress are not interested in being fair. They say it’s because they have been there too long and are only focused on being reelected.
It is true that many people in Congress seem to work more with special interests than with their constituents, but can we really expect new congressmen to be any different? When we ask a group of a few hundred representatives to decide how to spend money collected from the rest of us, it is almost impossible for them to do so in an unbiased way. The very best among us may be able to resist the temptation to collect money in exchange for favors, but no one is completely unaffected by outside pressure. Even the most idealistic congressmen need to consider the political realities they face. Party loyalty, the need to secure funds and support for reelection, and the demands of constituents can all prevent a representative from being totally objective when deciding on an issue. It is a mistake to believe that the only reason lobbying is a big business today is because today’s congressmen are a special group of greedy and corruptible people.
In truth, lobbyists are an inevitable consequence of having a big government. With the federal government spending trillions of dollars each year, there are thousands of groups with both helpful and harmful agendas that descend on Congress hoping to secure part of that enormous sum of money. They want subsidies, tax breaks, regulations, protective tariffs and more all in an effort to enrich themselves and punish their competitors. In all of that chaos, it is extremely unlikely that every voice would be proportionally represented, and it is often the case that those with the most money are better able to influence congress. It makes financial sense for a business to spend millions of dollars on lobbying if it stands to make billions of dollars because of a government action. With so much at stake, there is no way that normal, fallible people could decide how to fairly divide that much power.
The economist Milton Friedman spoke of those who “think that the cure to big government is to have bigger government except with them running it instead of the people who now run it.” It is much easier to blame senior members of Congress for our problems than to accept that the system that now exists is the inevitable result of the kind of government that we ourselves demanded.
We could attempt to diminish the influence of special interests by reducing the size of government to prevent it from being a useful tool for businesses looking to grow richer off of special government privileges. By viewing the problem of interest groups as something that affects government no matter who is in office, we can take practical steps towards eliminating it.
Or we could just create term limits and comfort ourselves knowing that even though we are still making the same old mistakes as before, at least now there are some new faces to look at.