Among the many challenges facing a young Orrin Hatch — my old boss — when he was a freshman Senator was how to help the downwinders, people in Utah and elsewhere in the West contaminated by Cold War-era nuclear weapons development. Along with uranium miners and others, the downwinders suffered cancer and similar problems from the radiation, but the courts refused to help them
Throughout the 80s, Hatch fought for compensation on behalf of those hurt by the federal government’s sloppiness, finally scoring with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990. Because of his prominence on Capitol Hill, Hatch helped expand RECA in 2000, and — to this day — members of our Congressional delegation still praise him for his efforts.
Hatch’s long service as senator empowered him to overcome Washington inertia to help thousands of people. Without his persistence and institutional knowledge, this injustice never would have been righted.
And I remember this every time someone mentions term limits.
Recently, term limits were seriously proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, drawing even more attention to the issue because he’s our country’s most popular political figure. He’s not alone, with Sen. Ted Cruz and others floating the proposal that seems to have broad support among Democrats and Independents.
Term limits are pitched as a transitive-property solution to our problems: power corrupts, incumbency empowers, so limiting incumbency will limit corruption.
The American belief in term limits is doubtless part of George Washington’s incomparable legacy — the first man in 2,000 years to voluntarily walk away from total political power. Given the unique position of the American presidency, the 22nd Amendment is probably serving a good purpose, with FDR making an exception to beat the Nazis and save Asia.
But what’s sauce for the Executive goose should not be sauce for the Legislative gander.
Congressional politics seem to be the only aspect of human life that does not champion longevity. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 20-year NBA career was so glorious we still talk about it today. Stephen Spielberg directed Lincoln 37 years after Jaws and it got 12 Oscar nominations. Tom Cruise’s most successful movie came when he was 60. Saturday Night Live would have died years ago without Lorne Michaels — though at this point maybe should have.
Moving back to political leadership, Elizabeth II did more in her 70 years as queen than she could have in 17. Omar Bradley served the military so well for 40 years he has a tank named after him. Augustus served Rome so well for 40 years he has a month named after him.
Someone does not need to have been in power for years and years to abuse power. If youth is no guarantee of innovation, as said 007 on his 50th birthday, it is likewise no guarantee against corruption: California’s Rep. Eric Swalwell was elected in 2012, and compromised by a Chinese spy in 2014.
One of the (many) theories for California’s bad management is its state Assembly is term limited, so legislators have to shoot for short-term political gains rather than long-term planning. Short-sightedness seems to be the windfall of politicians thinking about a quick win in two years rather than a legacy 20 years from now.
If a Constitutional provision is needed to inure us against corruption, we have very little faith in our institutions indeed. If there is a problem with improprieties, campaign contributions, primary election procedures, or conflicts of interest, those should be addressed on their own. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, not an expiration date because we get bored with someone.
Conservative’s distrust of the federal government is healthy, but it’s aimed in the wrong direction. We should be skeptical of those government officials who aren’t held accountable by elections rather than those who are: the Administrative State of unelected bureaucrats, contractors and others.
The Administrative State doesn’t poll us about our opinions, shake our hands, or ask for our support every two or six years. Those best empowered to check their excesses are elected officials. If they aren’t serving us, we already have term limits: they’re called elections.
Conservatives have a longstanding tradition of skepticism or even distrust of the federal government. These feelings are understandable. The federal government is geographically remote, often feels ideologically at odds with us, and sometimes gives us cancer with reckless nuke tests.
And I wish I could still vote for Orrin Hatch. Most of us do.
Jared Whitley is a longtime D.C. and Utah politico and award-winning political writer, having worked in the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Bush White House and the defense industry. He has an MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai.
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