Editor's Letter: Coming to Terms


Imagine Chris Dodd’s career if there were such a thing as sensible term limits.

He would have been required to leave the Senate in 1998 following three successful, stimulating six-year terms. Upon exiting office in honorable fashion, he would have been named ambassador to Venezuela or some other intriguing, challenging South American country by President Bill Clinton. Enjoying his work there but finding himself missing elective office, Dodd would have come back to Connecticut to run successfully for governor in 2002 (John Rowland having been forced by term-limit law to leave that office—untouched by scandal— after eight years). Right about now, Dodd would be starting to wind down his final term as governor; he’d be advocating energetically for Connecticut’s place in the global economy, working to get his last budget through the legislature and wondering what challenges might be awaiting him in the Obama administration.

Instead, with no term limits in place, we have the unfortunate spectacle of Dodd as the career senator, his nearly 30 years in that office weighing on him like an accretion of barnacles as—clarifying, explaining and fast-talking—he makes his way from from one end of Connecticut to the other. Did he, as a member of the Senate Banking Committee, get a sweetheart mortgage deal from Countrywide Financial? Well, yes, it seems so, but he’s not sure why. Did he insert language into bailout legislation that would allow AIG executives to keep their bonuses? No . . . yes . . . well, someone made him do it. Did donations to his campaign come pouring in from AIG as he prepared to take over the helm of the Banking Committee? Yes, but he’ll give them back now. Did he actually take up residence in Iowa during the last presidential campaign and enroll his child in the public school there? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Such are the embarrassments that can come—that almost inevitably come—with too much time spent in high office. After decades in the unique culture of Capitol Hill, where senators and representatives float from place to place on a magic carpet of power, privilege and deference, it would take a strong man or woman indeed who didn’t begin to feel an intoxicating sense of entitlement. After a while, woozy with power, they begin to believe the office is theirs and that we need them to be there. Consequently, they will do anything to stay, whether that entails raising money from questionable sources, making regrettable promises, or even, in extreme cases, switching parties (Hello, Sen. Lieberman!).

In my own family, we could begin to sense the dark bloom of entitlement growing in my father as he approached the end of his 14-year stint in Congress. For example, even after he lost, he had the hardest time giving up the little license plate that allowed him to park in the congressional lot at National Airport in Washington. But he did, and he eventually agreed with his family that losing was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

It was never the idea of public office that you spend your life in it: You win, you serve, you have enough sense to know when to get out and return to your real life. I think it would be a benefit to all for U.S. senators to be limited to three terms (18 years), U.S. representatives to 10 terms (20 years), governors to two terms (8 years) and 10 terms (20 years) for those in the state General Assembly. That’s far more generous than what the term-limit crackpots advocate, but most of the trouble seems to come after the limits I propose are exceeded. Certainly, that has been the case with Sen. Dodd.

Editor's Letter: Coming to Terms

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