The Coble question: Is long-term tenure good or bad in a congressman?

News-Topic of LenoirNovember 18, 2013 

The following editorial appeared in the News-Topic of Lenoir:

Ronald Reagan carried Howard Coble into Congress, and no human soul was able to dislodge him.

When Coble ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984, Republicans held just two of North Carolina’s 11 seats (including the 10th District, held by Lenoir’s James T. Broyhill). The coattails of Reagan’s landslide re-election helped Republicans boost their total to five and helped give Republicans just the party’s second governor since Reconstruction.

Coble’s 6th District, based more or less in the Greensboro area, at the time could be described as a swing district in a state gradually moving from Democratic to Republican control. He took it from Democrat Robin Britt, who in turn had taken it in 1982 from Republican Gene Johnston, who in turn had taken it in 1980 from Democrat Rich Preyer, who had been in office 12 years.

Coble barely held the seat in his first run for re-election, 1986, edging Britt in a rematch by just 79 votes.

Since then he never received less than 61 percent of the vote (which was in 2012) and four times faced no Democratic challenger.

Yet Coble once famously said that he thought 12 years would be a sufficient tenure in Congress.

Later, with that 12-year mark in his rear-view mirror, Coble would say he would let the people decide his tenure.

Now, at age 82, while the people have failed to end his tenure, he has decided that 30 years is enough, though we suspect if he were not feeling his age (he has been hospitalized twice in the past year) he would be running yet again.

On Coble’s plus side, he somehow remained remarkably free of any hint of scandal or impropriety his entire tenure, despite being a lifelong bachelor. Gay or straight, single or married or merely “in a commitment,” barely anyone in Washington can make such a boast.

He also has made it a point over his career to be accessible to constituents.

Plus, he demonstrates a decent sense of humor, as when he told the Greensboro News & Record recently, “Someone asked me about the right for gays to marry, for gays and lesbians to marry. And my answer was marriage is an institution in which I have never enrolled … so therefore no comment.”

So on the one hand, it is easy to argue that Washington might be better off with a bunch more people like Coble, constituent-minded officials who mind their Ps and Qs and can joke about themselves.

On the other hand, one of the problems with Washington is how many people arrive intent on staying a short time (is 12 years short?) before clearing out to allow for new blood and new ideas, then change their minds and hang around for many years more. Coble’s longevity did not seem to be spurred by a desire to pass any particular agenda; his tenure is not marked by either grand legislation or inspired tilts at windmills.

In recent years Coble has pushed a measure to reform the congressional pension system, particularly lengthening the time of service required before a member would be eligible for participation in the pension program.

Coble himself has pledged not to receive any government pension at all once he leaves office.

Time will tell whether he reconsiders that position, but by then he’ll be well beyond the ability of voters to hold him accountable.

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