26 August 2009


Ted Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962 at age 30, the youngest age allowed by the U.S. Constitution.

Ted Kennedy's election came two years after his brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was elected President of the United States. Ted Kennedy filled the vacancy his brother's ascension to the Presidency created.

Ted Kennedy's other brother, Robert Kennedy, served as his brother JFK's United States Attorney General from 1961 to 1964. JFK's term was cut short by an assassin on November 22, 1963. In the election following the JFK assassination, Robert Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate in New York and won. He served until his assassination in 1968, while running for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Ted Kennedy served the state of Massachusetts in the U.S Senate for the rest of his life, which ended this week. Until the very end, when his brain cancer kept him from attending except for the very most critical votes, his service was exemplary, everything I could ask for in a U.S. Senator.

Still, 46 years of U.S. Senate service is a very long time. Perhaps Ted Kennedy deserves an exception from ordinary considerations. He brothers were cheated out of their legitimately won political terms by violent thugs.

Ted Kennedy's term in office was longer than the average life expectancy when the U.S. Senate was established in 1789. It is longer than the entire working career of most American adults.

It is longer than most federal judges, who are actually appointed for life, serve. As of 2005, from 1790 to 1970 the average length of service of Supreme Court justices was approximately 16 years. Since 1970, however, the average length had gone up to more than 24 years. Lower federal court judges resign when they are eligible to collect their pensions much more often than U.S. Supreme Court Justices do.

It also isn't unusual. When Congress convened in 2007, the average length of service in the House, at the beginning of the Congress, was about 9.3 years (slightly over 4.5 terms); in the Senate, 12.1 years (two terms). But, of course, over their entire careers, most members of Congress serve terms about twice as long, and many Senators previously served in the House of Representatives. The average U.S. Senator will spent almost thirty years in the House and Senate combined over the course of his or her career.

This wasn't always so. There was no need to regulate the terms of members of Congress in the nation's first century because the problem then was convincing members of Congress to stay in office, not very long terms of office. The average Representative prior to 1880 served two years. The average Senator prior to 1880 served four years.

Voters in most U.S. states and an even larger percentage of U.S. House of Representatives districts strongly favor one political party or the other. Incumbent U.S. Senators and Representatives are almost never successfully challenged in primaries. A surprisingly large number of Representatives and Senators in Congress end up spending more time in Congress (sometimes split between years as a U.S. Representative and years as a U.S. Senator, an example Mark Udall is currently following in Colorado), for longer than the average federal judge appointed for life spends in office.

The political tides shift the balance of power in Congress from liberal to conservative to liberal again, but most of the change in the political balance of Congress takes place in swing districts, swing states and open seats. The politics of personal attack are key tactics in Washington, because removing an incumbent on the merits in an ordinary election is such an insurmountable task in most of the country.

Turnover In The Federal Executive Branch

Following a precedent set by George Washington, the first President of the United States, all Presidents until Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) limited their terms of service to eight years, if a lost election or death didn't force an earlier removal from office. Like Ted Kennedy, FDR was also a Democrat who was exemplary in his achievements and the public support he garnered as he guided America through the Great Depression and World War II until his death.

Still, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the United States Constitutional, adopted six years after his death, in 1951, which limited a President to no more than ten years in office (after no more than two elections) rightly received wide bipartisan support.

As a result of the higher turnover in the Presidency, Secretaries of federal government departments have served even less long than the Presidents under which they have served in most cases not involving a premature death. Most President have replaced most of their initial cabinet officers at least once before leaving office. The average tenure of a cabinet secretrary is around three years, give or take.

Colorado's Experience

Colorado has term limits in its legislature (effective for terms starting in 1991). Generally, in Colorado, one may serve no more than four two year terms in the state house and no more than two four year terms in the state senate. Term limits also apply to almost all other offices.

Terms limits of six years for the U.S. House from Colorado, and twelve years for the U.S. Senate from Colorado, adopted for the terms starting in 1995, were held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, after they were adopted by Colorado voters: U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 115 S. Ct. 1842 (1995).

In practice, the term limits in Colorado's legislature may be too strict. But, it might help curb the nation's aristocratic tendencies.

N.B. Neither U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, nor Colorado State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, are members of the Kennedy political family.

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