John Conyers’s resignation from Congress Tuesday was more than just a victory for the victims of sexual assault. It also signaled the passage of the last member of Congress who was first elected to that body in the 1960s.
The two may seem unrelated, but Conyers’s tale is just the latest example of a politician who stays in office so long that he begins to think himself a king. Rejecting Conyers should be a step toward also rejecting the career politicians who dominate Washington.
Arrogance Grows With Time
Conyers was first elected in 1964, the year President Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in an Electoral College landslide. Another congressman elected from Michigan that year was Fifth District Republican Gerald R. Ford, who was still ten years away from becoming our 38th president.
Johnson, Goldwater, and Ford are all dead now. In fact, nearly everyone elected to the 89th Congress from Michigan that year is now dead (John Dingell is one long-lived exception; four other long-retired Michigan congressmen also soldier on in their nineties.) All of these men (and one woman) who were elected before men walked on the moon were defeated years ago or else had the good sense to retire already. All but Conyers.
His desire to cling to power is understandable, in the way that all human frailties are understandable. Thanks to the racial gerrymandering required by the Voting Rights Act, Conyers had an extremely safe district—his lowest percentage of the vote in his 27 elections was 77 percent. His control over the local party was strong enough not only to stave off serious primary challenges, but also to dole out local offices among his family members like a medieval prince dispensing sinecures. Conyers had it good.
Human beings do not react well to that level of protection. We become haughty, arrogant, and entitled. So it was with Conyers, according to the accusations now leveled against him. At least four women have accused Conyers of what The Hill described as “a wide-range of inappropriate conduct, including making requests for sexual favors, caressing and touching, as well as having his staff contact and transport women they believed were sexually involved with him.” He also used government money to cover up his lechery, including a taxpayer-funded severance package granted to one female employee who had accused him.
These are not the deeds of a man who thinks there will ever be any consequences for his actions. They are the acts of someone who, through political acumen and quirk of geography, found himself in a position from which he could not be dislodged. That calculation turned out to be in error, but that it took this long cannot be said to be evidence that the system works. In fact, it should raise the question of whether we should allow any member of Congress to serve in office so long.
Temporary Service Or Job For Life?
In electoral politics, the only real accountability is to the voters. Unfortunately, voters have done a bad job of policing the behavior of the people we employ to represent us. With his resignation, Conyers became the rare exception to the tenure of a big-city machine politician, which typically ends in the graveyard or the penitentiary. Perhaps due to his advanced age—88—and declining health, Conyers conceded to the inevitable and resigned. But we should not have to wait around for the weight of scandals to force safe-seat congressmen out of office.
The concept of term limits needs little introduction. The phrase is self-explanatory and the idea has been floated since the republic was new. Indeed, it predates the current American republic: the Articles of Confederation contained, among very few limits on state power, a clause preventing any state from sending a representative to Congress for more than three years in any term of six years. There were a lot of flaws in our pre-Constitution constitution, but term limits was not one of them.
Despite the lack of rule against it, people did not generally stay in office very long in the early republic. But better medical advances have meant longer, more productive lives, and the growing scope and size of government has made officeholding more lucrative, if not to the members of Congress directly, then certainly to their friends and family.
It all made for a change from serving in Congress as a temporary, part-time job, to working there as a live-long, full-time occupation. Staying in that world and accumulating all that power changes people for the worse.
Drain the Swamp?
When historians examine the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the main themes that will emerge will be the conflict between what Peggy Noonan aptly described as the Protected versus the Unprotected. Donald Trump was for many people, despite his own position at the peak of wealth and fame, a messenger from the Unprotected. He rebuked the Protected, the people with successful careers, secure jobs, good pay and benefits, solid families, and a general insulation from the everyday indignities of life. Against this standard, no one is more Protected than a 27-term congressman who assaults his staff members then pays for his transgressions with your money.
A generation ago, term limits were all the rage among conservatives. When Newt Gingrich led the GOP to congressional majorities under the banner of the Contract with America, a constitutional amendment on the subject was one of the new leadership’s demands. Even the Republican Revolution of 1994 was not revolutionary enough for that, though. Although a term limits amendment won a majority of votes in the House, it fell well short of the two-thirds needed for approval there. Among those voting against it, unsurprisingly, was Conyers, then serving in his 16th consecutive term.
Conyers, in those days, was only the seventh-most senior member of the House. None of the members senior to him voted for it, either, including two senior Republicans. That is not surprising. To such people, voting for term limits would be equivalent to admitting the Constitution should ban the way they chose to live the majority of their working lives. Not many people could do that. (One who did: Alabama Democrat Tom Bevill, a 15-term member who voted for the term limits amendment. He retired in 1997.)
Redressing The Imbalance
The 1995 term limits amendment proposed to restrict senators to two terms and House members to six—12 years each. If you managed to serve both, that would still amount to 24 years of high-level government employment. Not bad, but it was still too short for a sizable minority in Congress. It would have taken the votes of nearly every member who was short of that tenure just to pass the House.
Even with members like Bevill, term-limits advocates would have needed every member who had served six terms or fewer to admit right then and there that they would be happy to be turned out of office at the end of that Congress. It’s a tall order.
It is the same in the current Congress. After Conyers’ resignation, 31 percent of House members are already serving in their seventh term or greater. Many more would dearly like to join those ranks. With that sort of membership, it seems impossible to expect the House to pass anything like the 1995 proposal.
The makeup of the Senate is similar. Trump and Conyers both purport to represent the Unprotected but each is, himself, a member of a very Protected group. Trump, at least, is term-limited by the 22nd Amendment.
Our Founding Fathers may not have anticipated Conyers or Trump, but they did anticipate a federal government that would be reluctant to limit its own power. Although we have never seen fit to use it, the Constitution contains a provision for calling a constitutional convention. When Congress refuses to act, the states may do so. Some have already, through their legislatures, demanded just such a convention.
Such a thing seems unlikely, but we live in interesting times. Many unlikely events have upset the bipartisan consensus of the Protected in Washington over the past year. An uprising from the states against careerists would be in line with other populist outbursts of recent days. In rejecting the actions of Conyers and other over-sexed, power-mad abusers in Congress, the American people may be remembering their strength. Woe to the Protected if we decide to use it.