On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

West Point Cadets
West Point cadets and instructors

West Point Cadets

A group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. Who better to explore the gray areas of leadership than members of The Long Gray Line?

Federal fatwas not necessary

Q: When he died this week, Robert Byrd, who was a frail 92, had represented West Virginia in the Senate for more than 50 years. Is it generally a good idea for top leaders in any sector to serve that long, or that late in life? Given the common instinct to hang on, should limits be imposed?

All politics are local. It's the duty of the governed to decide when to replace decrepit leaders - not some federal fatwa in the form of term limits designed to usurp the judgment of American citizens.

In April, I had the honor of meeting Senator and Medal of Honor recipient Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. In conversation, he was candid, thoughtful, genuine, and sharp - but he represents something perhaps more powerful than what he could ever say: After Senator Byrd's passing, he is the President pro tempore and the most senior member of the Senate. He's represented Hawaii in Congress since it became a state in 1959.

Inouye's existence as an eight-term Senator embodies the most fundamental pillar of democracy: Elected leaders don't decide for themselves when to step down. If senility truly incapacitates a leader, then it's up to her political opponents to make that clear to voters. I think that the architects of the American flavor of democracy anticipated problems such as age; in the case of an incapable Senator, the antidote is available every six years.

The corollary to re-selecting our legislature so often is that even the most altruistic of politicians must devote time to re-election that could otherwise be spent improving the country. The most successful political leaders win trust from their constituents that spans generations - thereby freeing them somewhat from the campaign trail and allowing them to transcend part of the burden of local elections. Between our efforts in Afghanistan and the imperiled Gulf alone, few would argue that we don't need that kind of focus today. -- Cadet Sam Goodgame

The stigma of age

It is easy in a society focused on youth and "the next big thing" for us to forget what age and wisdom can bring to the table. With a common stigma that age brings nothing but infirmities and weakness of mind, an age limit sounds good. However, what would be that age? Some succumb to these "aging problems" in their 50's while others pass on in their 90's just as sharp as before. Many elected officials in the 20th and 21st centuries have chosen to sideline themselves and govern their own "age limit." Are there really that many who pass on under these same circumstances that warrant setting a limit?

Though Senator Byrd far outlived the average life span, he possessed an institutional knowledge that cannot be gained any other way than pure endurance and some could argue, an unwillingness to let go. The real issue for term limits though has less to do with the Senator than it does for those who have elected the same person over and over.

Constitutionally, we have Senators and Congressmen as representatives to the legislative body, not necessarily leaders of the state or county (most of such positions DO have term limits). Regardless of the district/state, those chosen for the position are usually done so to either continue doing what the population agrees with or be the breath of fresh air that is more in line with the population's views. Either way, the choice is left up to the state/district and should remain so. If a term limit were imposed, how many?

Senator Kennedy was hailed for the amount of time and experience he put forth leaving a legacy on the Senate floor, whereas Senator Thurmond was both hailed and nailed for his own long-laboring efforts. Would we, as a nation, give up the rare opportunity that having a few seasoned members of the legislative body? -- Major Katie Matthew

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

By West Point Cadets

 |  June 29, 2010; 10:38 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: What the Founders rejected | Next: Salad days for our Senators


Please report offensive comments below.

When our founding fathers created the House and Senate, those elected to the office were "regular folk," well respected in the community, sent to Washington to be the voice of the community.

These men went to Washington, leaving their families and businesses behind. The position was low paid, with no benefits, with long hard hours, and they took their responsibility to serve their country very seriously.

At the end of their term, most Congressmen and Senators were more than ready to go home to their families, farms and businesses.

Over the years the House and Senate has evolved into a plush career, loaded with high salaries, benefits and perks that makes the average man faint ... and most of these perks and benefits are for life.

In addition to the salaries and benefits, just about every lobbyist in Washington has a bag of money for any Congressman or Senator who will vote their way. Businessmen and women also stood in line with bags of money to play the little Washington Quid Pro Quo game. And then there is the steady flow of political contributions to sponsor or co-sponsor a bill, kill a bill, vote for or against a bill.

AND, as most who pass themselves off as humble servant (yeah, sure), are heavily invested in the stock market, while drafting legislation that gives them an inside track - with no consequence.

Why would anyone want to leave this lap of luxury? As long as they "send home the pork" they will be re-elected and become richer with each term, spending more time counting their money for bills and votes than actually doing anything of substance (the substance part is the job of their subordinates).

Most freely and almost proudly admitted they didn't have a clue what is in half the legislation they sponsor, co-sponsor or vote for (example: the frequent deer in the headlights stare when constituents and media asked questions about the Health Insurance Reform Bill. It wasn't until their staff scheduled a full-day conference meeting to brief them on the content and provide them with cue cards, that they could read their notes before the media and appear to have a vague understanding of the bill they voted for – and then partied hardy afterwards – even though most still didn’t have a clue what is in the bill.

What our Congress and Senate has become is NOT what our forefathers intended. Our forefathers would roll over in their graves if they could see how our current Congressmen and women and Senators have prostituted this once respected public service position.

As others have said, I don't feel imposed term limits is the answer. Voters have to be accountable for their voting choices, starting by taking their right to vote seriously.

This is right that men and women died for and yet American citizens brush it off as a chore comparable to taking out the garbage.

When citizens summarily dismiss their right vote, why is anyone surprised with what we have in Congress?

Posted by: asmith1 | June 29, 2010 4:27 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I could not agree more with this writer. We voters always have the ability to limit the terms of any elected officials. If we are too lazy to exercise our vote, then we are too lazy to be involved in deciding who represents us. Voters bear some responsibility for the art of government. That is with our informed votes. If we don't do our share, and rely on automatic term limits, etc., then we do not deserve the democracy we have.

Posted by: littleoldlady | June 29, 2010 3:30 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I think Senator Byrd was one of the finest Senators we have had in the history of the U.S. He was honest and did the best he could to represent his constituents in WV. He was one of the few Senators to oppose the Iraq War resolution, granting Pres. Bush a blank check to wage an unjust/unnecessary war. Kudos to him for standing up for what he believed in and not always doing what was best politically.

As for term limits, I think they do serve a purpose in that they would make for a more active and responsive government. Paricularly for Congressmen who are elected every 2 years. They spend as much time trying to get re-elected as they do representing their constituents. If they were elected for a single 6 year term, for example, they wouldn't have to worry about getting re-elected, only doing the job they were elected to do.

Posted by: arteled1 | June 29, 2010 3:21 PM
Report Offensive Comment

If he/she runs and is elected then what's the problem????

Posted by: askgees | June 29, 2010 3:13 PM
Report Offensive Comment

"All politics are local. It's the duty of the governed to decide when to replace decrepit leaders - not some federal fatwa in the form of term limits designed to usurp the judgment of American citizens."

Then there should be no term limits for President!

Why are term limits good for the executive branch yet bad for the legislative or judicial branches of our government?

"12 years and OUT!"

Raise the term limits for POTUS to 3 terms (not to exceed 12 years), limit Senators to 2 terms (not to exceed 12 years) and limit Representatives to 6 terms (again, not to exceed 12 years).

This would go a long way toward discouraging the type of career politicians we are plaqued with today. The founding fathers had no concept that people would chose the tiresome task of governing as a profession, but they had no concept of the lure the growing power of our government would prove to be.

It amazes me that the Congress managed to get the 22nd amendment passed based on limiting the personal power of the President and forbidding the establishment of a "President for life" yet managed to deflect those very arguments away from themselves. "Senator for life" is equally harmful to our society. Frankly what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the President is limited, so then should be our legislators, and for that matter, our Supreme Court... 20 years tops for the Supremes, regardless of their age (though I believe they should step aside when they hit 80 or so).

Posted by: wildfyre99 | June 29, 2010 2:37 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The American people are already applying term limits on the vast majority of the Senators. Today, 56% of the Senators have served two terms or less, and 75% have served three terms or less. Since many of them do not come from a legislative background, it takes time just to learn the extent of the existing law and what approaches to solving similar problems have been tried in the past. With the impatience of the voters today, I think there will be fewer and fewer Senators serving more than 3 terms.

Posted by: wills1 | June 29, 2010 2:23 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Robert Byrd is a good example of someone who should have retired at least ten years ago.

One problem with the current system is that politicians have no where to go but the old age home when they retire. So they tend to stay in office too long. It's tough to go rom thew center of the universe (in their own minds anyway) to nobody in a day.

Creating an advisory role in Government for 30 year veterans might be a good way to retain experience on a part time basis while providing some incentive for politicians to retire. A system similar to the House of Lords in the UK might be a useful alternative to both the current system and term limits.

Posted by: jfv123 | June 29, 2010 2:09 PM
Report Offensive Comment

A major concern is that the President Pro Tempore of the senate is 3rd in line to succeed the president. Do we really want a 92 year old senator to take charge of the country is a time of crisis after the death of the president, vp, and speaker?

Posted by: bnichols6 | June 29, 2010 1:48 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Please, 92, 82, 72years is above and beyond the call of duty, it needs to be over already. Senator Byrd had no business filling that seat all these years, he stayed well past his time and the American people's time.

No, the Supreme Court justices and the House and Senate need an age limit, period, and being in your 80's ad 90's is over that limit.

Recently, there were articles in the washpo. about dogs being brought to work on the Hill, Senator Kennedy was pictured many times bringing his dogs to work and this is simply absurd. The American people cannot bring their dogs to work and they shouldn't and our law makers have no business doing it either. Really, no wonder our Nations is in the condition it is in(falling apart at the seams,) literally our Government as simply GONE do the DOGS and the beyond elderly law makers.

Grow up, Grow old, and, move one, folks, there is retirement for a reason, a very good reason.

Posted by: rannrann | June 29, 2010 1:48 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Sure the staffs of senators and representatives are a shadow government. It has been that way since the United States grew into a global power. And, yes, there are many examples of staff acting for enfeebled lawmakers, including some whose reputations were enhanced in the process. Sen. Warren Magnuson got a reputation for his consumer legislation that he was not possibly knowledgeable of sponsoring. Thurmond in his later years also was helped by a shadow senator who was his chief of staff. I know about both these cases because they were written about at the time, and in spite of that the voters of these states returned them to office. Do we now clamp some arbitrary national veto over what voters want? Some enfeebled senators continue to have active faculties and I don't hear these quibbles about Inouye, Leahy, Lugar or Hatch, the four currently most senior. In the House, where jockeying for leadership positions is more intense, the party caucuses take care of the matter, as was seen in the case of Rep. John Dingel.
Term limits is a stale debate, and seems to have waned as a national issue. There are some merits in seniority. Who in the Senate knows more about some truly obscure foreign policy issues than Richard Lugar, and who is more trusted on that subject? Patrick Leahy continues to be a stalwart on liberal issues and I wonder if a junior senator would have his audience.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | June 29, 2010 1:36 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The problem is that the voters get to decide on extending a Senator's term only once every 6 years. Someone in their 80s (or older!) can decline quite rapidly in that length of time, even if they were seemingly vigorous and alert when re-elected, and they themselves are unlikely to be fully aware of it. Their colleagues are understandably reluctant to do anything to remove one of their esteemed senior fellow members from a position of authority, so an over-90-year-old Senator can be the Chairman of the Committee on Crucial Decisions while not being fully appreciative of all that he's doing. Drivers' license renewals are (quite rightly) increasingly frequent as you age, unlike Senatorial elections. For that reason, term limits seem like a reasonable restriction.

Posted by: seismic-2 | June 29, 2010 1:20 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Funny how MOST Americans get to choose who represents them, but ordinary Americans who happen to live in the nation's capital do not. So much for Consent of the Governed.

Posted by: citizenw | June 29, 2010 1:19 PM
Report Offensive Comment

While a good argument is made that term limits go against the will of the people -- the U.S. has already rejected that idea with term limits for the presdident has it not?

Posted by: londonhobel | June 29, 2010 12:51 PM
Report Offensive Comment

But did the founding father's foresee the size, power and persistence of the Senator's individual and committee staff? Are these staffs not a shadow government, with executive and judicial capabilities, and subject to lobby influence without accountability? When the enfeebled Senator becomes a pawn for patronage providers where are the true checks? Where is the representation?

Posted by: BillKeller | June 29, 2010 11:59 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company