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January 23rd, 2001

  The Privilege of Serving the Public


Watching the Ashcroft hearings on TV, I found myself thinking of term limits.

Remember term limits? Perhaps you don't. They were a big issue, at any rate with the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy types I hang out with, back in the early 1990s. The idea was, that U.S. Senators and Congresspersons should only be able to serve a prescribed number of terms — two being the most popular number. The clamor for term limits subsided considerably, at least among the VRWC cadres, after the 1994 congressional victories. It turned out to have been one of those whose-ox-is-being-gored issues — urgent when the other party has all the committee chairs, but much less so when you yourself are in the ascendant. It also turned out to be a bit like pacifism: viz., it only works if everybody subscribes to it. If only some people subscribe to it, they soon find themselves in a fatally exposed position relative to non-subscribers.

Term limits actually exist at a lot of levels below the federal: New York City Council, for example, which is the legislative body for Pyongyang-on-the-Hudson, has been term-limited since 1993. At the Federal level, however, the only branch of government to accept any term limits is the executive, and that only for the Presidency (the 22nd Amendment).

The thing that brought term limits to my mind was the sight of all those senators lined up for inspection at the confirmation hearings. What a crew! The collective noun for U.S. senators, if there was one, would be a "pomposity" of senators, or a "smugness" of senators. The smuggest and most pompous of all, the ones whose glow of self-satisfaction could, if hooked up to transcontinental high-tension cables, have solved the California power crisis, were the ones who have served longest — Orrin Hatch (since 1977), Ted Kennedy (1962).

OK, it's an exclusive club, and OK, there is a case for institutions like that. The kind of collective self-regard that was making me gag does at least offer the chance that the Senate will be somewhat above the political fray, doing the nation's business in a lofty æther of detached impartiality, undistracted by the squabbling factions below. Calvin Coolidge said that the Senate had only one rule of procedure, which was, that the Senate did whatever it felt inclined to do. If that's true, I rather like it: though the behavior of Senate Democrats at the time of the Clinton impeachment trial suggests that if the senators of Silent Cal's day really were reluctant to be herded like sheep, their present-day counterparts are somewhat less so. Whatever: the oil of self-congratulation that was dripping down those committee desks last week was hard to look at without reaching for the barf bag.

I had better come out of the closet right now and tell you that I am a term-limits extremist. Senators, Representatives, and even Presidents — one term each, that's all I'd give them. I am aware of the arguments pro and con. If you are not so aware, you can find plenty of material on the Internet by keying "term limits" into your favorite search engine. This is, as you will see, a meaty issue, with big, solid arguments on both sides.

The best con argument is actually a libertarian one: Why legislate to force people to do what they can perfectly well do on their own initiative — get rid of incumbents? The late Malcolm Muggeridge claimed that he invariably voted against whichever party was in power, on the principle that since voting our rulers out of office is the only really distinctive right that citizens of a democracy have, we might as well try for it at every opportunity. If everybody followed this stirring example, my dream would come true without benefit of constitutional tinkering. My own feelings about term limits spring from the conviction that an entrenched political class gathering to itself wealth, favors and ever more power, is such a great evil that it is worth a small diminution in our freedoms — in the freedom to vote for anyone we please, that is — to prevent its development.

I would, in fact, make an even wider case: Term limits on government employment. This is a trickier proposition to work into practical policy — what, for example, are you going to do about the military? — but I think there should be some way to prevent people making careers in government work, even at the lowliest level. Lifetime employment in government feeds the "iron rice bowl" mentality, which is a total negative for our society and culture.

I have a neighbor who works part-time as a substitute custodian for the local school district. He has to call in at 1:30 pm every day to see if one of the custodians is off sick. If so, he gets a few hours work. He organizes his whole life — he has a full-time job at a car dealership — around these occasional opportunities. Why bother? I asked him. He: "Are you kidding? I've got a foot in the door! If a vacancy comes up for a full-time custodian position, I'm on the list! They pay twenty bucks an hour! You can't get fired! The benefits are GREAT! "  There are probably millions of Americans like this, spending their days and nights dreaming of a life in government work. It's ignoble. It's un-American.

Did I say "government work?" I'm sorry: I should, of course, have said "public service." That is the conceit of these people — the government people. They are "public servants" — "privileged," as they always say, to be mere butlers, footmen, housemaids and tweenies* to you and me. We've been hearing a lot of this PubServPriv baloney these last few weeks. Clinton, of course, gushed in all his numerous farewell speeches about how grateful he was to have had the "privilege" to "serve." This is a man who has got seriously rich without ever having had a job outside the public sector. Some butler! Conservatives come out with this stuff, too, though: John Ashcroft himself, in his concession speech to the people of Missouri, spoke of, yes, the "privilege" of "serving the people."

I am not, I hope, the bitterest of cynics. I do not doubt that there is some portion of sincerity in all these protestations of humility from the guys with the chauffered limos and six-figure pension plans. In the particular case of ex-Senator Ashcroft, I note in fact that he pledged, on first going to the U.S. Senate in 1995, to limit himself to two terms. That's still one term too many, but hey, the man's heart is in the right place. When a man like Dick Cheney, who obviously knows all there is to know about making money in the private sector, takes time off to do a government job, I applaud him for it, and give him all the benefit of the doubt as to motive. The Cheney spirit, in fact, is exactly what I would like to see more of.

For every Dick Cheney there is, of course, a legion of Hatches, Thurmonds and Kennedys. Down below the elected level, the legion is a mighty host. That neighbor of mine who yearns to be a school custodian: Is he driven by a desire to make himself useful to the little children of our district, or their parents, or teachers? Is he heck. He wants to have an iron rice bowl. For every government employee who is going to write to me indignantly and tell me that he has voted Republican all his life, is a longtime National Review subscriber, has never joined AFSCME, and works like a galley slave to fulfill his responsibilities with precious little thanks from anyone, there are a hundred like my neighbor. A hundred? There are a hundred thousand.

Let me name one: Officer Petersen of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Garden City, New York. Officer Petersen has screwed up my wife's application for naturalization as a U.S. citizen so comprehensively that she may, after two years of diligently filing forms, sitting on line in draughty waiting-halls for entire mornings, being insulted by "public servants" ("You're at the wrong window! Can't you read? ") and attending interviews, have to start all over from square one. I say "may" because we have no idea what the situation really is. The reason we have no idea is that "public servants" like Officer Petersen are apparently not required to take phone calls or answer letters from the public they "serve." You might think that the INS would have a tracking system, so that you could follow the progress of your application on-line, as you can with UPS parcels. You might think this, if you had never heard the phrase "good enough for government work."

It's OK, though. Having got no satisfaction from Officer Petersen, we have placed the matter in the capable hands of our U.S. Congressman, Rep. Gary Ackerman. Rep. Ackerman will surely be able to fix the problem. This is a guy who knows his way around the federal bureaucracy. He certainly should, anyway: Rep. Ackerman has been in the House since 1983, and is now "serving" — sorry, Congressman, those quotes just slipped out — his ninth term.

 * A tweeny was a servant girl who ranked between the housemaid and the cook. I am the last person in the western world who knows this.