Last week, my brother and I were having lunch with a longtime friend when politics entered our conversation. Because Congress may soon pursue budget cuts and a higher debt ceiling, our friend had strong opinions about members of Congress. She believes Congress is taking too long to resolve these issues.
“They’re not doing their job,” she said. “They should be fired!”
My brother chimed in, “Isn’t that what elections are for?”
Yes, voting incumbents out of office is one way voters can express political dissatisfaction. However, the two years in between House elections and the six years in between Senate elections are long times to tolerate bad politicians. Also, due to special interest groups and other factors many incumbents return to office despite widespread voter discontent.
According to a recent Gallup poll, Congress started 2013 with a 14% approval rating. Besides waiting for elections, how can we improve our new Congress?
To discover how, it’s worth reading Larry Sabato’s book A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country (2007). Sabato is a professor of political science at the University of Virginia (UVA) and the director of UVA’s Center for Politics. Sabato suggested 23 ideas for constitutional amendments to improve government, but this article only examines Sabato’s two best ideas to reform Congress.
For one, Sabato recommends passing a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the Constitution, which would force Congress to annually spend no more than its revenue. With America’s debt exceeding $16 trillion, America could use a BBA. Unfortunately, in November 2011 the House of Representatives failed to pass a BBA with the required two-thirds majority of support. Passing a BBA will be difficult, as two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of states must approve a BBA. However, on p. 69 Sabato notes the following:
[W]hatever the details, a Balanced Budget Amendment in the Constitution will be a powerful symbol that the nation values fiscal responsibility. The principal is vital – a principle about which all parents should think when they ponder their children’s senior years, and which all teachers should consider when they look at their students. These children and students may judge us harshly, and justifiably so, if we fail in this basic test of character, discipline, and foresight on their behalf.
Also, Sabato recommends limiting the service of Representatives and Senators to 12 years. On p. 44, he argued the following:
Legislative norms and times have dramatically changed since the founding generation and the ideal of the citizen-legislator has in large measure given way to a more professionalized and careerist style of politics. Consider the fact that only six out of seventy-three freshman members of Congress elected in a recent, typical year  received lower pay [emphasis added] as congressmen and –women than in their previous jobs.1
In another Gallup poll, about 75% of Americans support term limits for members of Congress. Americans seem eager to bring a better culture to government. Term limits might keep politicians focused on doing what is right, instead of falling prey to special interest groups and worrying about winning elections. For the past two years, various members of Congress have proposed term limits, but neither the House nor the Senate has voted on these proposals.
Sabato published A More Perfect Constitution in 2007. However, especially given Congress’ 14% approval rating, his two best recommendations to improve Congress are still relevant. Congress should pass a BBA and term limits to reform itself.
1 In 1996, congressional salaries were $133,600. Since then, members of Congress have raised their pay to $174,000.