By Liz Peek
Tea Partiers have found an organizing theme, even if they don’t know it yet. Like beaters flushing quail, they are turning incumbents out of office at an unprecedented rate – both on the left and the right. In effect, they are imposing their own special brand of term limits.
Political pundits are alternately rejoicing or despairing over this unexpected development, depending on the leanings of the latest victim. The passionate energy of the Tea Partiers was welcomed in right-wing circles when it stirred opposition to health care legislation and especially when it lobbed long-shot candidate Scott Brown of Massachusetts into the Senate. Now that it has upset long-time legislator Senator Robert Bennett of Utah and is threatening Arizona’s John McCain, Republicans are having second thoughts. Their anxiety is amplified by the primary contest in Kentucky, where Tea Partiers may push Rand Paul to victory over Trey Grayson, the more mainstream pick of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Tea Partiers already dumped Florida’s Charlie Crist; now there’s concern that party stalwart Orrin Hatch of Utah could be next.
Democrats started out anxious about the Tea Partiers. To lose Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to a Republican upstart left no doubt about the group’s influence. Though party pundits have been not-so-secretly rejoicing about the quicksand Tea Partiers are spreading before Republicans, they may quickly change their tune. The loss of West Virginia Representative Alan Mollohan to right-leaning State Senator Mike Oliverio in that state’s primary is another wake-up call. Oliverio honed in on Mollohan’s ethics issues and pounded him on having supported the health care bill. Turns out the Tea Partiers are ambidextrous.
Should Americans celebrate these developments? Yes! Without a doubt one of the most corrosive influences in our body politic is the near-certainty of being re-elected to many Senate and House seats. The folks at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) who each year publish a list of the “Fifteen Most Corrupt Members of Congress” say that the most predictive indicator of joining that unholy club is time in office. Legislators who are voted in year after year acquire an unhealthy disdain for the voters they represent. It is but a short step from comfort to corruption.
Representative Mollohan, a multi-year member of CREW’s “Fifteen Most Corrupt” list, had served 14 terms – nearly 30 years – in office. And, he occupied a seat that his father had held for 14 years before that. His previous popularity and his ethics violations had derived from the amount of pork he was able to deliver on a consistent basis to his district and to friends and family. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he earmarked $369 million in grants to his district for 254 programs over the past ten years. Of that total, according to CREW, $250 million went to five non-profits created by Mollohan and staffed by his friends. Over that period, people associated with these same outfits funneled nearly $400,000 to Mollohan’s campaign and PAC.
While voters have previously been wooed by earmarks, assuming that money funneled to their district came from somewhere and someone else, they are waking up. The nation’s fiscal health is failing, and voters are consequently upending many previously sacrosanct notions. Among those previously taboo topics, for example, is cutting spending on public schools. Governor Chris Christie is daring to take on the militant teachers unions of New Jersey, cheered on by the hard-pressed taxpayers in that most high-taxed of all states. People – especially out of work people – are no longer willing to support the endless raises, bloated administrative budgets and insane work rules demanded by a union that arguably does not deliver a good product. People want a new deal.
Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina has introduced a constitutional amendment to establish term limits on those serving in Congress. He notes that over the past two decades politicians have been reelected 90% of the time. “Americans know that real change in Washington will never happen until we end the era of permanent politicians” says DeMint. He is completely right. In poll after poll, a large majority of Americans say they support term limits. The good news is that we may not have to wait for DeMint’s long-shot bill to pass; the Tea Partiers may impose term limits all by themselves.
Liz Peek is a financial, political and social columnist.