Dingell’s death inspires term-limit proposal that any Tom, Dick, or Harry should embrace

One week ago, the Honorable John Dingell Jr. died at his Michigan home in the Congressional district he’d served for 60 consecutive years. His 30 terms in the House of Representatives is a historic feat.

But there’s something unsettling about America’s longest-serving Congressman succeeding his father in the same office (Representative John Dingell Sr. had held the seat for the 22 years prior) only to be succeeded by his own wife (Representative Debbie Dingell was elected when her husband retired from office in 2015).

That a House seat has been in the control of a single family (from father to son to son’s wife) for over 85 years — more than a third the age of the House itself — is more awkward than praiseworthy. The Khan family didn’t even rule Mongolia for that long.

Similarly, consider the Congressional leaders well into their third decade in office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was elected in 1984, while Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was elected in 1987. Also in 1987, Donald Trump declared to Larry King on CNN, “I don’t want to be president,” and “Walk Like An Egyptian” by The Bangles was the year’s number-one song.

Clearly, times have changed a lot since 1987. Why haven’t the faces?

I propose an overdue 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Hereinafter referred to as the Federal Term Limit Amendment — “FTLA” to those in the know — the text of this proposed two-section Amendment (available upon request) limits members of Congress to 12 two-year terms in the House and four six-year terms in the Senate, and limits Judges to one 24-year term on the federal bench.

A mission to limit elective or appointed federal service to 24 years is ripe for criticism. As the proponent, I’m equipped to respond to all of it. I’ll now take your questions.

TOM: Isn’t this antidemocratic? What if I want a guy to represent me for 60 years?

Democracy unchecked subverts itself. Sure, you may want your Michigan Senator to represent you for 60 years, but his legislative votes also impact me in New York. Sometimes democracy has to be curbed to make things more democratic. Moreover, this is a federal limitation; locally, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan will still be free to make Erastus Corning’s 41 years in office look like child’s play.

Besides, there’s already a precedent for restricting a term of federal office; the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution formally established a two-term limit for the presidency. Are you really concerned that we’re becoming the Soviet Union because you couldn’t vote for President Obama a third time?

DICK: But why 24 years? That’s an odd number.

Actually, it’s an even number. And it’s also one conveniently divisible by both the two-year House terms and the six-year Senate terms. Additionally, there are 24 hours in a day, and “24” won Best Drama Series at the 2004 Golden Globe Awards. If you don’t like 24, take it up with either God or the Fox Network.

HARRY: But isn’t a 24-year tenure still too long for someone to remain in office?

Shush, Harry. The FTLA doesn’t guarantee 24 years in office, it just establishes an upper limit — you’d still be able to use the routine exercise of democracy (elections) to remove people from office. In most cases, the FTLA wouldn’t impact the terms of elected and/or appointed federal officials; the average length of service is about 10 years for both the House and Senate, and the average tenure of federal court judges is between 11 years (district) and 15 years (circuit).

The FTLA isn’t supposed to be a radical reformation of the system; it’s merely designed to spare us from those irremovable outliers who dominate the conversation as a function of their ubiquitous longevity.

Granted, there are benefits to a long Congressional career, given the institutional knowledge and talent for legislative procedure that accrues, plus the fact that committee leadership is based on seniority. Likewise, the stability in jurisprudence that results from long judicial terms ensures that the evolution of social norms proceeds smoothly, without sparking disruptive backlash.

But a term of office lasting nearly a quarter century achieves these advantages. After all, the FTLA accommodates nearly the entirety of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s celebrated 26-year Supreme Court tenure.

Besides, a term limit on judgeships would encourage presidents to appoint more senior and experienced jurists; there’d no longer be incentive to nominate the youngest candidates solely to ensure the longest possible lifetime stamp on the judiciary.

Given the reality of longer life-expectancies on judicial tenures, it’ll eventually be absurd not to impose such limits. Like, how many octogenarians should be interpreting laws that impact every citizen in this country, really?

JANE: I’m an aspiring member of Congress. Won’t the Federal Term Limit Amendment prevent me from amassing wealth and consolidating power in a cynical and self-obsessed bid for economic socio-political dominance?

Nope, not at all, Jane! With a little strategic planning, the savvy politician could rely on the FTLA to stay in office for 80 total years. Eight-zero years!

Let’s do the math. Jane wants to run for a seat the House of Representatives. Hooray! She wins, and then proceeds to do so again 11 more times for a total of 24 years. (Why not risk almost a dozen reelection campaigns? In 2016, only eight of 387 House incumbents were defeated in the general election — that’s an incumbency rate of nearly 98 percent, which was actually higher than the average incumbency success rate of 94 percent since 2000!)

In her 12th and final term in the House, Jane then thinks to herself: “I rather like my morning D.C. commute. But I can’t serve in the House anymore because of that dang FTLA. Wait! I’ll just run for Senate!”

Excellent choice. Jane launches her first Senate campaign and — relying on the notoriety and donor networks forged during nearly a quarter-century in the House — handily wins.

Jane moves her belongings from the Rayburn House Office Building across the National Mall to the Russell Senate Office Building, where she makes herself at home over the course of three additional six-year terms. (The prospects of an incumbent’s reelection in the Senate is only a nail-bitingly dismal 93 percent, but somehow, Jane ekes out a few more wins.)

Don’t despair, Jane! Your Congressional career may be coming to an end by operation of the FTLA, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run for president on the back of your hefty legislative career!

In fact, if Jane can secure reelection to a second presidential term, she could go so far as to unabashedly appoint herself to that newly-vacant Supreme Court seat in the twilight of her presidency, and rely on her former Senate colleagues to confirm her to the coveted 24-year term on the Supreme Court.

Add it up: 24 years in the House, plus 24 years in the Senate, plus eight years as president, plus 24 years as a Supreme Court Justice. That’s an 80-year reign over the affairs of state. Not too shabby, Jane! (Or, rather, Honorable Justice Madam President!)

My proposed Federal Term Limit Amendment ensures that power will be less consolidated among entrenched elites, but not so much so that our covetously ravenous lawmakers can’t still endeavor to devour each and every iota of power. That, my friends, is a win-win.

In summary, as we witness the dueling conceits of a few inexhaustible yet graying politicians, consider that Ms. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell have been in office for longer than 47 percent of the United States population has been alive. (Yup: nearly half of all Americans were born after they were elected to Congress. With an incumbency rate of over 90 percent, that functionally is a lifetime appointment.)

Furthermore, consider that a president who didn’t win the popular vote will impact our country for decades to come via the two lifetime appointments he’s already made to the Supreme Court.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Tom Brady may be a phenom, but wouldn’t it be nice if he let someone else win football for a change? If you agree that a century of Dingells in office is probably enough, call your representative and tell them to support the FTLA. Remind them about Jane’s 80-year career if they’re hesitant.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is stationed with the United States Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Florida.