Undemocratic Vistas

Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy

by George F. Will
Free Press, 260 pp., $19.95

Democracy, Chesterton said, is like blowing your nose—you may not do it well, but you ought to do it yourself. George Will (with many others) has decided that Americans blow their noses so abominably that we must snatch away their handkerchiefs this instant. If the American people continue sending bozos back to Congress, then the power to do so must be taken from them.

We are not talking, here, about the right of people to get rid of congressional bozos. They already possess that. All 535 members of the House, along with thirty-three senators, can be turned out of office in any federal election year. Constitutionally, there was no necessity to have a single incumbent left in the House after this fall’s election. People have never been denied the right to reject candidates. But they have mistreated (we are told) the right to choose them again; and so legislators, after serving a specified number of years, should not have the right to be reelected. In this year’s elections, proposals to limit the terms of senators and congressmen were put on the ballot in fourteen states, including California, Florida, Missouri, and Ohio.

Some, including George Bush, urge this antidemocratic step on apparently democratic grounds—that the people are showing in polls and referendums that they want term limits. What is stopping them? They can limit terms any time they reject their own representatives—a chance they get every two years, the most frequent opportunity in our federal system. Does this mean that they register a velleity with the pollsters but a compulsion in the voting booth? Are they saying, with the cry of a serial killer, “Stop me before I vote again?” Are they votaholics asking that someone make them go cold turkey?

Well, say that is so. What does that tell us about our democracy? The constituents of Candidate A, able to oust that candidate if only they can summon up the will, keep voting for the person; but they want, simultaneously, to deny the constituents of Candidates B through Z the chance to vote for their MC (member of Congress). That is: the constituents of the one candidate they have the best means of knowing and controlling, because they fail to do either, tell other candidates’ constituents—in districts they have no means of assessing—that they must forfeit their constitutional right of voting for whomever they wish. Voters for A, confessing misuse of their own vote, want to take away the freedom of voters for B through Z—a strange exercise in vindication of democracy or even of basic equity.

The vote for a candidate from one’s own district was considered by the Constitution’s drafters the most democratic element in the whole Constitution—James Wilson called it the broad popular base on which alone the pyramid of republicanism could rise.1 The right to choose one’s own representative from one’s own district—in the circumstances that best allow local scrutiny and accountability—creates what the framers considered the “first chamber” of the supreme body of…

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