When Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador came to Congress six years ago, the thought of term limits was nowhere on his radar. In fact, congressional elections worked well in his mind.
He won the 1st District seat in 2010 by knocking out the establishment’s favorite, Vaughn Ward, in the Republican primary, then defeating the Democratic incumbent, Walt Minnick, in the general election.
As far as he was concerned, congressional term limits already were in place – with House members up for election after two years and senators after six. But Labrador, who has been practicing “swamp draining” long before President Trump entered the political fray, soon realized that the political system needed repair.
“I realized there was no way to change the way Washington works unless we change the people who are there,” he said. “Serving in Congress has become almost a career for people, and they don’t want to let it go. I’m not saying that those who have been around for a long time are bad people, but in time they realize that the only way to be successful is by kissing the ring (of the establishment) and lowering the expectations of constituents. They become institutionalized.”
Now, Labrador – fueled by Trump’s ongoing war with establishment politics – has introduced a constitutional amendment calling for term limits, restricting members of both houses to 12 years. Can Labrador expect career politicians who have benefited from the system to vote against their self-interests?
“That’s the $64 trillion question,” Labrador said.
He does have Trump on his side, at least in concept. Labrador notes it’s at the top of his “Contract with the American Voter” list for action in his first 100 days. “I don’t know if he’s behind my bill,” Labrador says, “but he’s behind the principle of it.”
Critics will say that term limits, and taking away the wise owls on Congress, will only give more power to lobbyists and bureaucrats. But the lobbyists, with their flood of money rolling into campaigns, have a lot of influence as it is. And the veteran politicians have done little to slow down the bureaucracy, which has helped produce a national debt of nearly $20 trillion.
Labrador acknowledges that money is part of the problem in congressional politics. Another issue he sees is with the party structure, which Labrador saw first-hand when he ran for Congress in 2010. And he wasn’t even going against an incumbent.
“If you don’t kiss the ring here in Washington, D.C., you have a difficult time winning,” he said. “You have this entire Washington establishment, with all this money and influence, going against one person.”
Term limits could shake up the dynamics in Congress. “You’d have people coming here knowing they are not going to be here for the rest of their lives, and they would make wiser and better decisions as a result,” Labrador said.
There also would be more exciting elections, particularly in Idaho where congressional elections rarely have suspense. For practical purposes in general elections, the only name that counts in Idaho is the one on the Republican side of the ballot. In primaries, few challengers are brave – or foolish enough – to take on incumbents who are loaded with money and name recognition.
All four members of Idaho’s congressional delegation have safe seats, and probably lifetime jobs, if they desire. Sen. Jim Risch is 73, and appears poised to serve into his 80s. Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, who are in their mid-60s, have lofty committee assignments and show no signs of wanting to retire. They could be around for another 10 years, at least.
The wildcard of the group is Labrador, who has no desire to become an old man in Congress. “One thing I can promise you is I won’t be celebrating my 75th birthday there,” he said, laughing.
If the 49-year-old Labrador runs for governor next year, which he says he’s “seriously considering,” Congress will be in his rearview mirror before he knows it. But even if he doesn’t run for governor, he sees more to life than fighting political battles in Congress.
“I want to serve for a period of time, then move on and let other people have that opportunity to serve,” Labrador said. “I think that’s the way our Founding Fathers intended.”
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly and an editorial writer with the Idaho Press-Tribune.