Promises to Keep
It no longer inspires much news coverage — or, apparently, voter outrage — but Members of Congress continue to break self-imposed term-limit pledges with impunity. Just because it continues to happen, however, doesn’t make it right.
The most recent offender is Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who announced at a dinner in early September that he intends to run for Congress not just in 2006 but also in 2008, thereby contravening a pledge he made during a 1996 debate to serve no more than 12 years in Congress. “When the president of the United States and the majority of your constituents urge you to run, how can you not?” Shimkus asked at the dinner, according to the Marion Daily Republican. Apparently, the crowd of 450 people agreed; according to Copley News Service, Shimkus got a standing ovation.
Shimkus’ promise, made at a time when anti-incumbent, anti-Washington fervor served his Republican Party well, likely helped him win a narrow first race for the House. But then the GOP Congressional majority matured, and as newcomers such as Shimkus gained seniority, the party seemed to lose its will to keep pledge-makers honest. Democrats, it should be added, also have broken their pledges: Four Democrats have joined 16 Republicans in forgoing term-limit pledges since 2000, according to the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits.
This newspaper has generally opposed the idea of Congressional term limits, arguing that it already is within the voters’ power to hire and fire their elected representatives. But what is offensive about the ongoing pledge-breaking is that it flies in the face of trust and honesty. Unlike other campaign promises, which to be enacted require the cooperation of 534 unruly colleagues, this decision is entirely within the Member’s power. Clearly, some Members have found it in themselves to take the high road: 18 Republicans and three Democrats have kept their promise to leave when they said they would, and for that they deserve credit.
What’s especially troubling about the pattern of pledge-breaking is that it embodies the naked sense of entitlement that has pervaded Congress in recent years. Surely the fact that most Members in both parties now occupy safe seats has contributed to this arrogance by eliminating the fear of popular reprisal. Reforming the redistricting process, an idea that this newspaper has consistently supported, is one potential solution. In the meantime, we hope that some voters — somewhere, anywhere — choose to send their pledge-breaking Member a message in the midterm elections. Maybe then, other Members will finally understand that it’s really the voters who are in charge.