Last weekend, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Dingell announced his intention to run for a 28th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. As the longest serving House member, Dingell assumed office of Michigan’s 15th Congressional district, which now includes Ann Arbor, in 1955. That’s the same year my parents were born. Dingell replaced his father, John Dingell Sr., who took office in 1933, two years after my grandma was born.

The 77-year Dingell family reign in southeast Michigan politics demonstrates something terribly wrong in the way we elect our Congressional leaders. Elected officials in the legislative branch are allowed to turn their stints in office into lifelong careers. Political tenures that span decades are one of the unhealthiest influences in American politics. The corruption, malaise and unfairness they cause must be stopped through the implementation of Congressional term limits.

A February Gallup poll measured Congressional job approval at 18 percent, a near record low. It’s been more than five years since Congress’s approval rating topped 50 percent. Clearly, most Americans are fed up with the body of government meant to represent them. Rather than working together for the good of their constituents, it’s obvious to me that many of our representatives are more concerned about being reelected — but who would blame them? With only two-year terms, the U.S. House offers very little job security unless representatives are constantly planning for the next election.

The House was structured to give regular Americans the loudest voice possible in Washington. It was supposed to be a place where the “little guy” could win office and ensure that his or her district was properly represented. Well, if you wish the “little guy” had less of a disadvantage in winning a House seat, you should be in favor of term limits.

It’s no secret that incumbents have obvious financial advantages in elections. Representatives enjoy salaries of at least $174,000 a year. Each representative has access to a federally funded mail budget, often utilized to send their constituents friendly reminders of the politician’s accomplishments in Washington. For many representatives, it can top six figures a year. Even in the sleepiest of districts, it takes a huge chunk of change to even consider a bid for Congressional office. With their ex officio benefits, many incumbents have an advantage over their challengers.

If we capped representative tenure at 10 years or fewer, we would ensure a constant stream of new ideas into Washington. Fresh voices would help Congress’s decisions more closely reflect the will of the people. The potential for corruption would decrease because representatives would have less time — and hopefully less of a reason — to dabble in special interest groups. Congresspersons would have less incentive to make careers from their elections and instead have increased motivation to make their mark on Washington in the time they have.

Right now, the Congressional system rewards career politicians. Only those with several terms of experience can become party leaders, Speaker of the House or leaders of committees. I’ll admit, I think some experience is a good thing. I wouldn’t want the Speaker, who is third in line to the Presidency, to be a first term representative. But, I think the amount of experience gained drops off significantly after only a few years. Does Dingell’s 32 years of additional experience really make him a better or more effective representative than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.)? I don’t think so.

Term limits would diversify House leaders, so newcomers would have more of a chance to assume important roles. Rather than the same old guard holding the positions of power year after year, newly elected representatives would have more influence. Today, some small states with fewer representatives rely on long-serving officials to amplify their voices in Congress. The establishment of term limits wouldn’t hurt these states because many leadership positions would have to be filled by more recently elected representatives.

Speaking to University Democrats last Saturday, Dingell chastised Wall Street for engaging in “greedy behavior that sent our nation into an economic tailspin.” In the waning months of his latest term, Dingell should take a serious look at his own greed. Instead of seeking reelection, Dingell should focus on enacting Congressional term limits. After 55 years, isn’t it time someone else had a shot?

Chris Koslowski can be reached at cskoslow@umich.edu.

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