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Rep. Owens knows when it’s time to make an exit

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When members of Congress decide to move back to the private sector, it’s big news.

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-21st District, of Plattsburgh recently announced he won’t seek re-election this year. This set the gears of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the north country working in overdrive to come up with the ideal candidate to succeed him.

The big question for Mr. Owens, particularly from members of the media, was, “Why leave now?” The Watertown Daily Times and other news outlets interviewed him on this topic.

I suspect that, deep down, each reporter thought he or she could draw out the real reason for Mr. Owens ending his public career, other than the one he declared when he announced his retirement. There has to be more to the story than what’s contained in a news release, right? I mean, who in their right mind would voluntarily leave a job with all the perks granted to an incumbent member of Congress?

Here is the statement Mr. Owens issued on Jan. 14:

“After careful thought and consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election for the 21st Congressional District this November. I have enjoyed the opportunity to travel the district, meeting and serving the families and business owners of this vast community. It has truly been a privilege to serve, and I plan on continuing to work for a brighter future for the region.

“My appreciation for the support of my wife, children, grandchildren and close friends cannot be sufficiently expressed in words. There are others — too numerous to list — to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude. The remainder of my term will be spent in much the same way as the previous four years: assisting constituents with their individual concerns, continuing to focus on passing a farm bill, helping to create jobs in our communities, working for our troops and veterans, keeping the northern border secure and fluid, and being a voice in Congress for bipartisanship as well as fact-based decision-making. You can count on me to work with and for you over the remainder of my term.

“It is time for me to undertake new endeavors and spend more time with my family. Even though I will not seek re-election, it is my goal that the next phase of my life will continue to focus on helping to improve the lives of all New Yorkers, primarily through job creation and economic development.

“Thank you for letting me serve you since November 2009.”

Are there other reasons Mr. Owens is deciding to leave at this time? Perhaps there are, but I can’t be sure.

There is no doubt that the biennial grind of raising untold amounts of money to ward off any challengers just to hang on to an elective office is incredibly wearing. I can’t understand how so many incumbents put up with the same routine for so many years.

But rather than be surprised at Mr. Owens’s decision to leave office now, I commend him for his prudent choice. It’s not that I have anything against him personally.

In the seven months that I’ve lived in the north country, I’ve only met him twice. I don’t know him well enough to say if I would support or oppose any effort on his part to seek re-election.

My reaction is based on the notion that it’s good for public servants to know when it’s time to quit. Mr. Owens came to office in late 2009, was re-elected in both 2010 and 2012 and now believes it’s time for him to move on. He will finish his term in Congress with a little more than five years in office, and that strikes me as a reasonable length of time for someone to remain in this position.

When I first met Mr. Owens a few months ago, I had asked him about the idea of term limits for members of Congress. He said he didn’t believe they would improve the legislative process.

While we didn’t discuss the issue further, I disagree with his position. The quest to retain an elective office will often compromise the decisions made by legislators.

Most people who understand politics realize there are fewer things more dangerous than a lame-duck public official. Without the need to appease various constituencies, incumbents are free to vote on issues based on the principles they hold.

Term limits could accomplish the same objective. With no need to pander to anyone, lawmakers can put the interests of the country above their own.

So while I differed with Mr. Owens over mandatory term limits, he appears to support voluntary term limits. Someone serves in Congress a few years and then leaves. It’s not supposed to be a lifelong career.

The dynamic on Capitol Hill would change much more rapidly if more legislators followed Mr. Owens’s example. This may improve relationships between people of different parties and get things moving forward again. Many more members of Congress need to give this a try.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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