Are Term Limits in Congress the Answer To Corruption?

Are Term Limits in Congress the Answer To Corruption?

Story tools

A A AResize


The high-profile scandals involving Congressional Black Caucus members Charles Rangel, Maxine Waters and Eddie Bernice Johnson bring to mind two words that no elected official wants to hear: Term limits.

Each of these prominent black Democrats is under investigation, and they all appear to have experienced political meltdowns late in their respective careers.

What a shame.

Perhaps they stayed in Congress too long and became arrogant, sloppy and believed they were above the law. And maybe the old adage is true: Absolute power corrupts - absolutely.

Consider this number: 78. That’s how long Rangel (40 years), Waters (20 years) and Johnson (18 years) – collectively – have held seats in Congress. That’s a mighty long time to hold elected office – by anyone’s calculations.

While there are currently no term limits in Congress, the idea has been debated for many years. There are, however, 15 state legislatures and 36 governors now subject to term limits, which is like political kryptonite.

So is there a correlation between lawmakers staying in Congress too long and becoming involved in federal investigations? Perhaps – which is why there’s a growing movement in America to advocate for term limits because many voters believe congressional longevity is inexplicably tied to corruption.

Let's take Johnson, for example. While seeking her 10th term in Congress, Johnson is the latest Congressional Black Caucus member to bring shame to the storied black coalition. She admitted that she wrongly steered $31,000 in college scholarships from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to her own relatives and the children of a staff member.

Johnson, who represents parts of Texas, said in a statement that she reimbursed the foundation this week. The Dallas Morning News reported that 23 scholarships Johnson has handed out since 2005 violated the foundation's eligibility rules.

What was Johnson thinking? She blatantly took scholarships from students who really needed the money, although she still maintains it was unintentional. That's a pretty weak excuse. She knew the rules, she broke the rules. End of story.

But now Johnson, a highly-educated and well-read woman, wants us to believe that she didn't even know the CBCF had formal, anti-nepotism guidelines for scholarships?

"I never heard the rules even discussed," Johnson said Thursday in an interview with a Dallas radio station. "I can't really blame anyone. I could have researched them myself. But the rules just came to me. One sheet came last year, which I didn't read well, which was my mistake. They were really very ambiguous rules."


Meanwhile, the president of the CBCF is calling for a complete audit of Johnson's files. But where was the oversight during the five years that Johnson may have been routinely abusing her authority?

By the way, Johnson predicts that she'll be forgiven - and re-elected.

And then there’s Rangel, the 80-year-old congressman from New York who is running for re-election after serving 20 terms in Congress. Rangel is facing an embarrassing congressional trial sometime this year as a result of 13 charges of wrongdoing against him.

Rangel has acknowledged making mistakes by not immediately reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets and income, and he says the ethics committee has blown out of proportion his solicitations of businesses and foundations for the Charles Rangel Center at City College of New York.

Last month, Rangel said he's not quitting Congress and told supporters at a packed fundraiser that he’s ready to start campaigning for re-election.

Waters, 71, the 10-term congresswoman from California, also faces a well-documented ethics trial this fall over her actions involving a bank with ties to her husband that received federal bailout funds. The House Ethics Committee said it found "substantial reason" to believe that Waters may have violated Rangel and Waters deserve their day in court - and it's sure they'll get it - but in the meantime, what’s happening to our black elected officials? And what does this say about black leadership in America?

Local, state and federal elected leadership needs an infusion of young black civic activists to take the mantle from some old-school politicians who have overstayed their welcomes. And to protect the new cadre of black leaders from themselves, America needs congressional term limits to keep them honest.

Term limits would also allow for the emergence of more innovative ideas and progressive ideologies - politicians looking toward the future.

Obviously, every elected official on Capitol Hill will not succumb to corruption – or perceived corruption – but why take the chance?

And in the case of black elected leadership on Capitol Hill, there are fewer African-American representatives in the House – 42 to be exact – to address the myriad of economic and social problems facing millions of black Americans.

The African-American community needs every available congressman and congresswoman who is sworn into office.

With skyrocketing unemployment, poverty, and home foreclosures spiraling out of control, three black congressional leaders who are preoccupied with their own personal investigations and spending less time advocating on behalf of those in need, is unacceptable.

Rangel, Waters and Johnson, all prominent, long-time congressional leaders, have enjoyed distinguished careers as public servants and they have served their constituents well – until now.

Perhaps if term limits were in place, each of these legendary lawmakers could have retired from Congress scandal-free - and with their heads held high.