Mike Dingman: It's time we return to citizen legislators

commentFebruary 4, 2014 

The system is broken.

As far as the federal system goes, it is completely out of control and the infection is spreading to the state and local governments.

It needs to change.

While in college, I was working for a political campaign table at an event. The room was abuzz with conversation until all of a sudden the room became silent.

Everyone stopped in their tracks.

All eyes turned towards the front door, people got out of their seats and stood as if the national anthem had just started. The room burst out in applause.

Senator Ted Stevens had just entered the room.

I sat there a little bit in shock and full of curiosity about what was happening. I was a life-long Alaskan and obviously knew the political pull that Senator Stevens had in this state, but I had never seen it in person. I was disturbed.

This is the moment when I realized the importance of term limits.

Our founders came here and eventually founded a new nation to escape the tyranny of royalty. Watching a room rise and applaud when a man enters the room carries the unmistakable stench of regality.

This attitude is prevalent amongst elected officials around the country. In 2006 Rep Cynthia McKinney thumped a capitol security guard in the chest when he wouldn't let her through.

In August Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was charged with fraud for using campaign money to pay for personal items. In 2009, Rep. William Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison after being convicted of 11 counts of bribery.

These are just a few examples of many different stories of corruption amongst elected officials and their staff.

There are 17 U.S. Senators that have been in office for more than 20 years and there are 35 members of the U.S. House (including our own Rep. Don Young) who have been in office more than 20 years.

When people serve that long in Congress, they start to feel entitled, they soak up the power and they start to resemble royalty. This is not conducive to a responsive government - in fact it encourages quite the opposite.

Many people will tell you that we don't need term limits because the people already have the ability to limit the terms of their elected officials via elections. However, that's not really the case.

The truth is that the incumbent advantage is very strong. Since 1965 at least 85 percent of the incumbents in the U.S. House have been reelected and most of those years it is over a 90 percent reelection rate. In the U.S. Senate, the numbers are a little less in favor of the incumbent; however, except for seven years since 1965 the reelection rate has been over 85 percent every year.

This is all while Congressional job approval suffers. Currently Congressional job approval is at about 12 percent according to Real Clear Politics. Pew Research polls show that since 1974 Congressional approval has only risen above 50 percent once, briefly after 9/11 and even then it only went up to 56 percent.

We need term limits.

The original concept of elected officials was of truly citizen legislators. Today people make a career of this public service. They start off in a local seat, move into the state legislature, work their way up there, possibly run for federal office or stay in leadership in their state legislatures.

Before you know it, they've spent twenty or thirty years working as an elected official, sometimes longer.

The job of legislator should not be a second career and certainly shouldn't be a primary career. It should be a short duty that men and women consider and honor to serve and then head home.

They should never start to resemble royalty.

Members of congress and state legislators should get paid well for their service and be provided with health insurance while they are in office, but they should not be eligible for retirement. Members of Congress can collect a federal retirement after the age of 62 if they served only five years. That's less than one term in the U.S. Senate.

We need to reevaluate what the role of an elected official should be. It is time we return to the job of a citizen legislator and work to take our government back before it's too far-gone.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

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