The day Rep. Liz Cheney announced she would not run for the U.S. Senate, I received the following email: “I’m sure you’ve seen the news, pretty bummed, I was really wanting to make the run.” Just like that, a dozen would-be contenders with fresh ideas and varied backgrounds gave up because the seat would no longer be “open.” Given Liz Cheney’s age she’ll likely hold that seat for 25-30 more years, such that my friend and others like him will never have the chance to run for Congress in their lifetime. This isn’t healthy for democracy or Wyoming — and is the strongest case I know for federal term limits.
We know the statistics by heart. Congress has a dismal approval rating but a 90 percent re-election rate. Some argue that’s because we may not like Congress as a whole, but we love our representative. But going into the 2018 elections, a third of all Senators had an approval rating of 43 percent or less. Reelection rates are high not because politicians are delivering results but because they have used their powers to build a fortress between them and us. For example, in 2014 Congress voted to cap individual contributions to a federal PAC at $5,000. But then, in an astonishing act of self-dealing, gave the PAC’s run by the two political parties – and only those PAC’s – a $106,000 limit. Through high-tech geocoding, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians. Party primaries, and the rules governing them, are decided by an apparatus openly committed to protecting incumbents, creating a system where the players also get to be the umpires.
Given Senator Mike Enzi’s planned retirement, this year we have two strong candidates asking for our vote, with hopefully more to follow. Cynthia Lummis has been campaigning for months, and Foster Fries announced a “Listening Tour” to understand our concerns. All of this is reminiscent of the 2018 gubernatorial race, which was only possible because of term limits. That contest brought together a strong field who for months tirelessly traveled the state making their case to voters. They knocked on doors, went table to table in cafes and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in debates. They met thousands of Wyomingites and listened closely. They got a good look at us and we got a good look at them. That was good for our state. It was democracy at its best.
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Not so when battling an incumbent. When I ran against John Barrasso in the same 2018 Republican Primary, he declined every scheduled debate. Not once in seven months did the two of us talk to Wyoming voters about healthcare costs, the best path forward for our coal communities, solutions to our student debt crisis or how to save Social Security. I understand why he made the campaign choices he did — it was a good strategy. But I question whether those choices were good for voters.
The Framers chose to require Congresspeople to face re-election every two years. They had the magnificent dream of a legislative body which was highly accountable to its communities. They never envisioned a Congress made up of lifetime appointees who only returned home for parades and photo-ops. They never imagined a legislative body that looked more like a monarchy than a democracy. The Framers knew accountability and competition would be healthy for our country. They knew it would be good for the nation to require our representatives to sit in a pie shop every two years and ask us what’s on our mind.
Term limits are not a path to “get the bums out.” Liz Cheney, John Barrasso and Mark Gordon all have extraordinarily high approval ratings. But remember that none of them would be in office had there not been an open seat. Remember also that behind these incumbents are dozens of Wyomingites with fresh idea and new energy, like my friend, each wanting their fair shot at serving our state.
It’s been said that we have term limits; they’re called elections. But 82 percent of Americans support term limits for Congress because we know the political establishment has its thumb on the scale. We know from our own experience that term limits are the only way to create healthy competition. We conservatives agree that competition makes us all better, whether on the playing field, the marketplace or politics. It’s also good for democracy.
Dave Dodson lives in Wyoming and is former CEO, professor at Stanford University and former Wyoming Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Read more from his archive at davedodson.com/news.