More politicians need to follow the examples of George Washington and Calvin Coolidge. Washington could have been President of the United States for life. In fact he could have been king of the United States. But instead Washington set the precedent of serving two terms and then voluntarily stepping down from the presidency, a precedent that has since been codified in law. Washington saw himself as a citizen first and a public servant second. Many years later, Calvin Coolidge was the odds on favorite to easily win re-election, but instead he proclaimed: “I do not choose to run.” Like Washington, Coolidge saw himself as a citizen first and a public servant second. Neither Washington nor Coolidge was comfortable with the idea of a lifetime in politics. It is too bad that more of today’s politicians don’t see things this way.
Presidents, of course, cannot serve more than two consecutive terms in our nation’s highest office, but members of Congress can stick around forever if they can manage to get re-elected, and many do. Unfortunately, it seems that the longer an individual serves in Congress the more attached he or she becomes to the perquisites of office. Politicians arrive in Washington, D.C. full of high-minded idealism, or at least some of them do. But if they stick around long enough, it seems that even the best of them are stricken with Potomac Fever, a disease of the ego characterized by an addiction to power, status, special treatment, and money. Once a politician is stricken by this disease, a transformation takes place and in the words of Thomas Sowell, public servants become public masters. Americans do not send politicians to Washington, D.C. to rule. We send them to our nation’s capital to serve.
According to Thomas Sowell (The Washington Times, November 4, 2013), “The rise of the permanent political class in Washington came with the rise of a vast government apparatus with unprecedented amounts of money and power to control and corrupt individuals, institutions and the fabric of the whole society.” Those we elected in the early days of our republic were not career politicians. Rather, they were citizens who set their lives, families, and businesses aside for a specific period of time to serve our country. Many suffered personally and financially to serve. Having served, they returned home to pick up their lives, reunite with their families, and re-establish their businesses. Now turnover in Congress is a rarity. Thomas Sowell says it this way: “Turnover in Congress has been reduced almost to the vanishing point. Political alliances within government and with outside special interests, as well as gerrymandering of Congressional districts, make most incumbents’ reelection virtually a foregone conclusion.”
Politicians who get elected to Congress and stay there long enough to put down roots in Washington, D.C. tend to make the ugly transformation from public servant to public master. Before the days of big-money special interests, powerful lobbyists, and strategic gerrymandering, elected officials could not afford to be career politicians. But now with these things firmly in place they cannot afford not to be, provided they lack an ethical foundation. This is why I am an advocate of terms limits for Congress. To those who claim that we already have term limits and that they are called elections, I respond, “nonsense.” Look at the facts. Because of the way Washington, D.C. now works, incumbent Congressmen are almost assured of re-election. Thomas Sowell says it this way: “The first step in limiting, and then scaling back, government itself must be limiting the time that anyone can remain in office—preferably limited to one term, to make it harder to become career politicians, a species we can do without.” Well said, Dr. Sowell. I agree.