Philip Blumel: It was a tight race between Democrats and Republicans on November 3rd, but the incumbent party won a landslide. Hi, I’m Philip Blumel. Welcome to No Uncertain Terms, the official podcast of the Term Limits Movement, for the week of November 23rd, 2020.
Stacey Selleck: Your sanctuary from partisan politics.
Philip Blumel: The most recent polling data from October 2020 suggests that only 19% of Americans approve of the way the US Congress is handling its job. Then, days later after the polling, 95% of house incumbents running for their own seat were re-elected to the US Congress. Here to discuss this phenomena as well as other Congressional Term Limits news is Nick Tomboulides, Executive Director of US Term Limits. Hey, Nick.
Nick Tomboulides: Bonjour.
Philip Blumel: Okay. The elections. With 95% of the House incumbents running for their own seat were re-elected, that is almost precisely in line with the number we’ve seen since around 1970 for most of our lives. Nothing has changed, even in this mammoth election, and I know sometimes, a lot of times people will tell us that this is caused by apathy, that we hate Congress, but we reelect the Congress. It’s voter apathy. Well, you can’t blame voter apathy this time around. We had massive voter turnout.
Nick Tomboulides: No, Ben Franklin said that there were two certainties in life, death and taxes. I think he was wrong, there are three. Death, taxes and incumbents getting re-elected.
Philip Blumel: No kidding.
Nick Tomboulides: It’s all about the money, and it’s all about the incumbency. Incumbents have innumerable, innumerable advantages at the ballot box, the best of which is their financial advantage. They are able to out-raise challengers about nine to one in terms of the dollars that they can rake in from special interest PACs who want favors and bail-outs and protection from that Congress, from the federal government, it’s a symbiotic relationship. They have advantages the challengers simply do not have, and for as long as that persists, for as long as there are no term limits on Congress, trends like this will continue.
Philip Blumel: Sure. And incumbents tend to out-spend their challengers by four to five times. It’s really lopsided, which is why our election returns are so lopsided, and what I find fascinating when I bring this up is that incumbents, as we just mentioned, win about 95% of the time when running for their own seat in the US House. The Center for Responsive Politics notes that the top spender wins in a race in the US House, over 90% of the time. And of course, those top spenders are generally the incumbents, that’s why they have that correlation, and other over 90% correlation is that roughly 90% of PAC money flows to incumbents rather than challengers. Now, of course, all these numbers are highly correlated and interconnected.
Nick Tomboulides: And that’s not even discussing the institutional advantages of incumbency. Right? Incumbents are able to create red tape, and then through constituent service, they can take credit for getting rid of it. Incumbents are able to deputize their staff into full-time media public relations businesses, they’re able to utilize the mainstream media to basically run their campaigns free of charge by putting every single initiative they have into the newspaper and on TV. You had noted, I think, that the number of uncontested races this year is somewhat down, but it’s really under-contested races that we’re worried about. In any given election cycle, what you see is about 90% of the incumbents are under-contested, meaning they might have a challenger but it’s someone who is not very credible, who might not have the type of background to run a serious Congressional campaign, and most certainly doesn’t have the fundraising prowess to run a serious challenge against an incumbent. So you might say around 90% of incumbents, they might not be running unopposed, but they are financially unopposed.
Philip Blumel: Right, they’re not running unopposed. That’s something that’s changed over the years since you and I have been working on this project, because this time around, with this high turnout and such a focus on this election, we only had 27 uncontested seats in the US House. And you can compare that to 41 in 2018 and 61 in 2060. So it’s dramatically less. So this idea that it’s just apathy, it just isn’t the case. We have a lot more challenges to incumbents this time, but the incumbents won the same number of times because those challengers failed and failed miserably.
Nick Tomboulides: Yeah. And I was doing a little bit of research the other day, and I found quite the historical nuggets. I realized that re-election rates for incumbents have been very, very high for basically all of American history, but we haven’t always had career politicians. So how do you reconcile that? What is the difference between then and now? The reason is, for the first 100 plus years of our history, incumbents rarely ran for re-election, or if they ran for re-election, they might only seek one additional term. You know the average tenure for a member of the US House didn’t rise above four years until the year 1900. We routinely had 50% turnover in the US House. Now, I think the turnover rate is in the mid-teens, so incumbents are not only are they more powerful than ever at the margins, but they are just simply refusing to go away.
Philip Blumel: Right. And because their tenures become so long, it’s become a disease in our body politic because when they run for office, if they automatically win every re-election, and then of course the longer you’re in there, the more power you have, because it’s a seniority-based system, and all of the key chairmen of all the committees that actually decide what bills are going to be discussed and voted on, those are people that have been there forever and been playing the game, it’s not the newbies that come in with fresh ideas or wanna change the system or somehow improve things or change things. They are far away from the levers of power.
Nick Tomboulides: No, they want careers in politics or more accurately, they need a career in politics, because if you do not stay in congress for a long time, you don’t have any clout. The only way to amass power and clout in Washington is through seniority. That’s simply the system we have, it affects who gets appointed to committees, it affects who gets to be in leadership, you don’t get to be in leadership in your first term, that’s just not how it works.
Philip Blumel: Nope. And so pretty much if you run for Congress and want to be successful in any way, either to make changes or just to line your pockets, you have to go in there and be totally okay with the idea that you’re gonna be there for decades. That is to say you are entering the Congress with the idea of being a career politician. Most of us who recognize the way the system works, know, we’re not gonna be anywhere near the levers of power, we’re not gonna have any power for long, we’re not gonna do that. The cost, the toll on our families and everything else, just to go in to bide our time forever, that’s not a deal that most goal-oriented, serious people are willing to make if their goal is to improve things.
Nick Tomboulides: That’s right. So they just choose not to run at all, and our problems fester and get worse.
Philip Blumel: So for all of the bombast about the 2020 elections, we saw the same phenomena we always see, the same Congress getting re-elected.
Scott Tillman: Hello, this is Scott Tillman, the National Field Director with US Term Limits. Thank you for all your help this last cycle. In 2021, we’ll have more pledge signers in Congress than ever before, over 90 members. In January, new resolutions will be introduced in the US House and the US Senate. We present each pledge signer with a plaque to remind them of their commitment to their voters in their Term Limits Pledge. We’ll be working over the next several months to present Congressional members with these plaques. We also present plaques to state legislators who sign the pledge to support term limits with state resolutions. When constituents are with us to present the plaque, it helps to bolster the legislators’ commitment to term limits and legislators love to get their picture taken with constituents, accepting the plaque. If you’re willing to help us present plaques to legislators, please reach out to us on Facebook, or you can call or text us at 321-345-7455, that’s 321-345-7455, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, P-L-E-D-G-E-S at term limits dot com. Thank you.
Philip Blumel: US Term Limits is run by a board of directors and maintains a staff of about a dozen or two people at any given time. This group devises, monitors and tweaks our strategies to impose term limits on the US Congress via two primary routes. One, a constitutional amendment via Congress, or two, a constitutional amendment via the states, at an amendment proposing convention. We’re making real progress and the 2020 elections were further evidence of this, but this isn’t happening because of the efforts of a couple of dozen people. Any successful strategy will require citizen engagement and activism. Fortunately, the Term Limits Movement is blessed with activists like Janet Curran of Pennsylvania. We spoke to Janet last week. Hey Janet, how’s it going?
Janet Curran: Hi, Phil. How are you?
Philip Blumel: Very good. You caught my eye, literally, from a photo that I was forwarded of you holding a Term Limit Congress sign on a street corner. Where was that taken? And what prompted you to do that?
Janet Curran: That was in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. And I have been talking about term limits, kind of complaining that we don’t have term limits for a very long time, and decided that it’s time to do something. So I’ve been talking to friends and acquaintances and neighbors and they’re all for it. And we went a couple of times, so standing on the corner, downtown Kennett Square, there were four of us. The last time we went, one on each corner and we got lots of reply by horns beeping and thumbs up and things like that. So people who walk by asking questions.
Philip Blumel: Sure. Is this in Pennsylvania? Is that where that is?
Janet Curran: It’s Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Philip Blumel: Okay.
Janet Curran: It’s southeast to Philadelphia.
Philip Blumel: It’s southeast to Philadelphia.
Janet Curran: Almost in Delaware.
Philip Blumel: Okay. So you get a lot of good reaction. Now you’ve done this… You mentioned you did it a couple of times. How many people usually come with you?
Janet Curran: Well, we’re starting… We’re gonna build up, we only… We had four was the most, but we want to get more, and go in different parts of the town and pick the next town over. But we might have to get permission, they have a lot at Westchester, Pennsylvania. It’s a bigger town, it’s the county seat, and they have a lot of different people standing at the other courthouse, the main thoroughfare with signs for all kinds of things, but we’d like to be able to do that next time.
Philip Blumel: Okay. Bigger is better, of course, but I think four people, if that’s what you got, is effective, right? You have four corners at a big intersection, and…
Janet Curran: There’s no question it was effective.
Philip Blumel: Yeah. So.
Janet Curran: No question, it was effective, and we really would like to get a bigger crowd and we will.
Philip Blumel: So where did you get the signs?
Janet Curran: I got the signs from the man in Pennsylvania who was the Director of… The Lead for the Pennsylvania Term Limits. Yeah.
Philip Blumel: Is that Ken Quinn?
Janet Curran: Ken Quinn. I asked Ken Quinn for more and he sent them, so I passed them out. People have been putting them all around the different towns in PA, and then we hold them up for these little street corner exhibitions. [chuckle]
Philip Blumel: Right, that’s great. What other kind of activism have you done on this issue? I think you’ve done more than just holding the street signs, right?
Janet Curran: We also… I was at… My husband and I actually, I took the morning, he took the afternoon and we had a table, a Term Limits table at our precinct for this year’s election on November 3rd.
Philip Blumel: Okay.
Janet Curran: And we were right when they come out the door after they voted. We had a table and we handed out materials.
Philip Blumel: Oh, that’s great.
Janet Curran: And talked to people about it.
Philip Blumel: Great.
Janet Curran: One man actually came out from voting, saw our table and said, “It’s so good, ’cause this is something positive, this is a good positive.” He said.
Philip Blumel: Yeah.
Janet Curran: “This is a good positive note after voting,” is what he said.
Philip Blumel: Good, good. I love it.
Janet Curran: Because… Yeah.
Philip Blumel: I think it’s too… It’s effective. I guess the power in it is not just the thing itself, I mean, showing the sign on the street corner and having someone wave back is a nice positive local interaction, but you have to wonder like, What does it accomplish? But I think it actually accomplishes a lot. Politicians know, they know, they’ve seen polling, they know that 80% of the public are for this, and it’s Democrats, Republicans and independents, they know the people are for it. But they also know that unless the public is paying attention, or activated somehow, that they can sort of ignore it.
Janet Curran: Absolutely.
Philip Blumel: And so, when you’re holding a sign on the street corner, you’re showing them that the public is activated and is paying attention. So, whatever else is going on in your state at that particular time involving term limits is amplified by having people show support for it, like what you’re doing. So, why is this issue important to you? What made you wanna get directly involved in the issue of term limits?
Janet Curran: Because I see what is going on in Washington, and I see that nothing is getting done. Look at the past four years. I think maybe one thing was passed, or one or two things. One was the trade deal, but not a lot gets done, because these four years were different, I realize that, but it seemed like they’re in there so long they wanna avoid an issue that needs to be considered because it might threaten their job for life, which is what they want. They want to get voted in again, so they gear their vote to what they think people want, so they could get voted in again. And I would like to see… They work for us, we don’t work for them.
Philip Blumel: That’s right, that’s right. So, you’re saying, “Give them some courage.” When a lifetime in that position is not an option, it gives them some courage because they’re not afraid of losing that position so much.
Janet Curran: Absolutely.
Philip Blumel: That’s a really good point.
Janet Curran: Love to see political courage restored, yes.
Philip Blumel: More fallout from the election involves all the jocking for position in the new upcoming Congress. Largely, the same people, as we discussed, but that’s going on right now. Number one thing for the new House is, who’s going to be the new speaker? And in this case, much like most of the Congress, it’s going to be the old speaker, Nancy Pelosi, or so she’s received the nomination. I think the official vote’s in January. Now, this is interesting because she actually had a fight on her hands to become speaker in 2018 when the Democrats took power of the House again. And she had to make a promise to over a dozen younger members of her party that she would only serve two more terms, four years, as speaker, and then she would basically self limit herself if they would support her back then.
Nick Tomboulides: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. I think The Who had it right when they said, “We won’t get fooled again.” Except in the case of Nancy Pelosi, we just keep getting fooled, repeatedly.
Philip Blumel: Yeah.
Nick Tomboulides: Over and over again. We’ve been fooled again and again and again. Yeah, she cut this deal two years ago where she agreed to limit herself to just two more terms, so she says she will be leaving in 2022. Then again, this is Nancy Pelosi we’re talking about. Her promises are about as valuable as an IOU from Bernie Madoff.
Nick Tomboulides: So, pardon my skepticism. On the plus side of this, you only get two more years of Pelosi, but on the downside, you get two more years of Pelosi. It’s a cringe-worthy situation either way.
Philip Blumel: Before you give her too much credit for even making the term limit’s promise, she’s 80-years-old and she’s running up against a retirement term limit in any case, her own. Beyond that, she didn’t just promise that she was gonna self limit for four years. The deal that she made with those young Democratic legislators was that she was going to allow a caucus vote on proposed term limits for the top three Democratic leaders. Well, guess what? That vote was never held.
Nick Tomboulides: Right, that never materialized. It was just mysteriously scrapped, yeah.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, the other two House leaders said, “No way, we’re not doing it,” and Pelosi caved and the caucus caved, and so, things went on. She is apparently going to live up to her four-year self limit, but she did not actually live up to her deal, to her own caucus and the younger members in it. Now, many of those members got re-elected this time and they didn’t put up a fight against Pelosi. But I think part of her announcing last week that she was going to live up to her self limit was part of making sure that she didn’t have too many defectors in January, when they have the official vote, because she can’t afford too many defectors.
Nick Tomboulides: No, she cannot, and you have to think, for some of these members, who are thinking, “Maybe it’s time for a change in leadership,” they’re worried about retaliation from Nancy Pelosi.
Philip Blumel: That’s right.
Nick Tomboulides: If it publicly gets out there, that they voted against her, because she has the power to rip them off the committee that they’re on and put them on the back bench, and basically, cost them their seat. She’s that powerful, ’cause it’s a top-down leadership structure in Washington DC. You cross Nancy Pelosi at your own peril. I do agree with some of what you said, though. I think she’s getting up there in age, making the voluntary promise, it’s kind of making a virtue out of necessity in a way. [chuckle] Yeah, I had a 94-year-old congressman come up to me once and say, “Yeah, I’m for term limits.” And I’m thinking, “Do you really have much of a choice at this point?”
Philip Blumel: Right, I know, I know. It’s like a eunuch taking a vow of chastity. It’s like, “Okay.”
Nick Tomboulides: Right, yes, yeah.
Philip Blumel: In your state, Pennsylvania, we saw some high-level support of the term limits convention idea, specifically from some political giants of Pennsylvania. What was that about and how did you hear about that, by the way?
Janet Curran: That was Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, and I believe he was the lead Democratic National Committee chair for a while. And then, he worked with Senator Toomey who is a Republican senator still in office. He is going to… When he is done with his term now, he said he’s done because he… One reason is he believes in term limits. The two of them together are all for term limits for all these reasons we’ve been talking about. They feel the same way. And it was in the newspaper, it was on… Yeah. Very excited. And I hope to tap into them down the road here and talk to them and see how else they can help, or how we can help them get it done.
Philip Blumel: Right. And you can bet that everybody in the Capitol saw that. It was like an explosion for the political class. These big shots coming out in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in a joint article coming out specifically for the term limits convention and for term limits in general, and then when they see public support for it, you know, this has a giant impact on the way that these politicians view the issue. Like I said, they know we’re for it, but they’re only gonna take action on it if they’re being watched, because in their hearts, they don’t like it.
Janet Curran: Right, that’s why we’re trying to get people to call their state legislators, the senators and reps, and tell them to pass the term limits resolution. Either email them or call them. If you want me to go on the call with you, I will. I know that’s the main thing, so we’re really trying to get them to do that, so we can get that passed in Pennsylvania.
Philip Blumel: Is there anything that you’d like to tell or ask us?
Janet Curran: I wanna know what is the best way to get people involved? People, they really wanna know how to get involved, and I know they can go to the website, but be more than just calling, what else can people do?
Philip Blumel: Okay.
Janet Curran: And how can we get… What’s the best way to move them to do it?
Philip Blumel: Okay. Well, the things that we’ve seen that we think are most effective and that people are most willing to do, include… One, is making those calls, another is what you’re doing, tabling, and when you’re doing that, also collecting contact information. Those two things are very important. We also maintain a page on our website, termlimits.com. It’s under the Take Action tab, that, when you pull it down, it allows you to put in your address, and then it gives you the opportunity to send a message to your legislators, asking them to co-sponsor and vote for a term limits resolution in the legislature. It’s a tool.
Janet Curran: Perfect, that makes it easy for people.
Philip Blumel: Right.
Janet Curran: That makes it easy for people.
Philip Blumel: So you can send it to all your network, right? And that’s a good one. So the website is very important, not just to sign up and get on our list, although I think that’s a good thing too, but there’s tools on there, and that’s, I think, one of the best ones for what you’re talking about. Then of course, there’s letters to the editor, showing up at political events, wherever a politician is going to be, and either during a Q&A session or even just going up to them privately and say, “Hey, have you signed the term limits pledge?” They know about it, okay? They’ve all received it, they get calls about it, we have staffers that make those calls.
Philip Blumel: Those calls are effective when there’s a lot of activists asking them the same question out in the field, and then when they get our call, they say, “Oh yeah, I’ll be happy to sign it.” So, what you’re doing is so vital to make the work that our staff does, work. The other little things, liking us on Facebook, and of course, sharing those memes and action items that we send out. Another thing too, is that anyone that’s a member of local groups, and it can be a political group, Democrat, Republican, you know we don’t care about that. Or civic groups, like the Rotary, or anything else. If anyone’s looking for a speaker, we can provide us a term limit speaker.
Janet Curran: Perfect.
Philip Blumel: One last thing I’d throw out there, Janet, is February 27th is term limits day, and that’s a day that we want everyone in America we can get hold of to do exactly what you do. Go on on a street corner, I don’t know, wear a t-shirt or a lapel pin and put a sign in your yard. In some way, some simple way, but some public way, show support for this idea on that day. And we’d like to see this turn into a nationwide annual rally, not one where everybody gets in buses and goes to Washington, DC, but one where we put a sign on your yard and then go to work that day, something that regular people could do. And I see that you’re out there, already doing it, and I really wanna commend you. Thank you very much. This project would not be successful without people like you.
Janet Curran: It’s so, so important, and more and more people… I just find more and more people say, “Hey, you know, I’ve been talking to you about that. I wanna get involved now, I’m ready.” I don’t know what all of a sudden prompted them, maybe everything that just went… Is going on in DC, but they are ready, they are ready to do whatever they have to do, so…
Philip Blumel: Okay.
Janet Curran: February 27th, keep that in mind, Term Limits Day. Perfect.
Philip Blumel: And if you have an event going on, Janet, let us know and we’ll help you get to people in your area that might wanna participate, that you might not know, so, we try to help out the activists on the ground, we can’t do it without you. Thank you very much, Janet, for spending this time with me.
Janet Curran: You’re welcome, my pleasure.
Philip Blumel: Lastly, we saw, last week, House budget chairman John Yarmuth, of Kentucky, make some noise about repealing an unusual term limit that exists currently on the House budget committee. Since 1974, there’s been a changing, ever-weakening, term limit on this committee. And when it started out in 1974, House lawmakers were limited to two budget panel terms, out of five successive congresses. And then, over the years, in 1979, it went to three terms, and then, in 1995, it went to four term limits.
Nick Tomboulides: Four out of any six, right?
Philip Blumel: Out of any six, right. And then, ultimately, they scrapped it, they scrapped the rule for the Congress as a whole, but the Democrats kept it, but he’s trying to change that.
Nick Tomboulides: They have a caucus rule, and it’s no more than three terms in any five congresses, right?
Philip Blumel: Right.
Nick Tomboulides: This is not to be confused with the Republican rule that says you can’t be chairman of a committee for more than three consecutive terms.
Philip Blumel: Right, that’s different.
Nick Tomboulides: Of course, it’s framed as, “We can’t afford to lose institutional knowledge… “
Philip Blumel: [chuckle] Right.
Nick Tomboulides: We hear this about term limits all the time, and it’s obviously a very arrogant point of view. They will claim that the 535 philosopher kings in Washington, who’ve racked up damn near $30 trillion in debt, are the only people smart enough to run the country. That itself is pretty arrogant, but this… What this guy is doing is like super-sized arrogance. What this guy is saying is, not only are the 535 politicians in DC the only smart and gifted people in the whole country, and the rest of us are just a bunch of hillbilly rubes, but within that 535 that he’s saying there are a dozen or so extra smart philosopher king elites that America simply cannot live without. Yes, Solons, because he doesn’t just oppose term limits on Congress, he opposes term limits on committees. He thinks Congress will collapse if younger Congressman are allowed to do a little bit more than get coffee and shine shoes.
Philip Blumel: Right, so this idea of institutional knowledge, we’re talking about the US House here, of which the leadership are all about 80-years-old, in which the average member is in their late 60s. There is institutional knowledge in this body, like no other, and its results have been abominable.
Nick Tomboulides: It’s a pile of crap!
Philip Blumel: That’s clearly… That is really not…
Nick Tomboulides: It’s a dumpster fire!
Philip Blumel: The only consideration here.
Nick Tomboulides: ____ people, come on!
Philip Blumel: Isn’t that crazy? So alright, so this, the fact that there is a limit on the term length of the House budget chairman is gonna be that final little change that really moves this institutional knowledge into its perfect form.
Nick Tomboulides: Yes, and it’s in its highest form, it’s like a Pokemon that is evolving to its highest… So, in typical corrupt Beltway media fashion though, this story about this change, this abolition of the committee term limits didn’t have a single quote from anybody on the pro-term limit side of the aisle, just endless self-serving comments from legislators.
Philip Blumel: That had looked at it, the issue very closely and decided that, “Yeah, you know, we really should be able to keep our seats.”
Nick Tomboulides: Yeah. And there was one guy, I think he was a professor somewhere, who… It was in the article and he said, “Oh, this is a fabulous idea ’cause it’s gonna make for a much stronger committee,” and I’m thinking to myself, “a stronger committee”? I don’t know if I want my politicians being stronger, that’s more of like an adjective, a phrase that you use to describe yourself if you’re a politician in a place like North Korea or Russia, how about a more capable committee? How about a better committee, how about more honest and principled committee instead of stronger? And you know what, these rules, of course, they’re set by the very politicians who are affected, they have more holes than Swiss cheese, they can be added and taken away whenever members of Congress feel like it.
Philip Blumel: Right. The decision on this has probably already been made, but what we had read is in Roll Call that’s where this article is from, these meetings are not public, and so we don’t have the answer yet, and Roll Call or anyone else is not to report it on it to our knowledge, so we’ll let you know the way it worked out one way or another, it’s a small, small change, but it is, I think, illustrative of how much people in power wanna keep power, and that any effort, any small efforts to try to limit it are on the chopping block when they have their way.
Philip Blumel: Thanks for joining us for another weekly episode of No Uncertain Terms. All eyes are on Georgia were two run-off elections in January will decide which party controls the US senate, but term limits are also on the ballot, it turns out that both run-offs feature one US term limits pledge signer and one US term limits pledge refuser. Oddly, it’s the two incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who have signed the pledge, which commits them to co-sponsoring and voting for the congressional term limits amendment to the US Constitution. Their opponents, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have so far declined to sign the pledge. This week’s action item is for Georgians only. Please, if you live in Georgia, email messages to all four of these candidates, two of them should get thank yous for signing the pledge, reminding them of their commitment in case they win, two of them should get friendly encouragement from you to sign the pledge. You can do this at termlimits.com/gasenate, it’ll take you two minutes. Your prior registration is not important here, it doesn’t matter who you’re voting for. Go to termlimits.com/gasenate and send all four candidates a pro-term limits message. Thank you. We’ll be back next week.
Stacey Selleck: The revolution isn’t being televised fortunately, you have the No Uncertain Terms podcast.
Philip Blumel: USTL.