In proposing term limits for members of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson stated that a limit was necessary “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress.” The Constitution does not include a provision for Congressional term limits, but prior to the Civil War many members of Congress in fact served only a few terms. However, as the power and importance of the federal government has grown, the incentive to seek a career as a federal politician has also grown.
On November 10, 2009, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution to limit the number of terms that a member of Congress may serve to 3 in the House of Representatives and 2 in the Senate. The resolution, cosponsored by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. As an amendment to the Constitution, passage requires a two-thirds majority approval in the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states. In introducing the amendment, Senator DeMint said:
“Americans know real change in Washington will never happen until we end the era of permanent politicians. As long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buyoff special interests, covering over corruption in the bureaucracy, fundraising, relationship building among lobbyists, and trading favors for pork – in short, amassing their own power. I have come to realize that if we want to change the policies coming out of Congress, we must change the process itself. Over the last 20 years, Washington politicians have been reelected about 90% of the time because the system is heavily tilted in favor of incumbents. If we really want to put an end to business as usual, we’ve got to have new leaders coming to Washington instead of rearranging the deck chairs as the ship goes down.”
Senator Coburn added:
“The best way to ensure we are truly a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, is to replace the career politicians in Washington with citizen legislators who care more about the next generation than their next election. The power of incumbency has created an almost insurmountable advantage for Washington politicians. Incumbency allows politicians to raise millions of dollars in campaign funds in exchange for earmarks. Incumbency gives Congress the power to raise money for itself – Congress just approved itself an increase of nearly $250 million from the U.S. Treasury that members will spend to promote themselves. Finally, with redistricting incumbents can choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives. Term limits is the best way to break this cycle.”
Proponents of term limits seek:
- More competitive elections, bringing new candidates and ideas into the process on a more regular basis and eliminating some of the inequalities that currently benefit incumbents. In addition to generally greater name recognition, political contributions and media access, incumbents enjoy the benefits of franking (free mail to constituents) along with taxpayer-funded staff, offices and travel. Incumbents maintain their comfortable salaries while campaigning, a benefit many challengers do not share. State legislators routinely redraw congressional districts to benefit incumbents, and both the House and Senate maintain lawyers specifically to handle term limits litigation.
- A more transparent government with greater access by the people, and a significant reduction in pork-barrel spending. Freshman politicians, by their nature, are more closely connected with those who elect them, reducing the need to buy ongoing loyalties with spending sprees designed around re-election campaigns.
- Significantly reduced influence by special interest groups. Career politicians build long-standing relationships with lobbyists which are often extremely lucrative. These lobbying “investments” yield much smaller returns when term limits are imposed.
- An end to control of the legislative process by those who are most out of touch with their constituents and the realities outside the beltway, a situation clearly demonstrated by the debate over health care over the past twelve months.
Opponents, on the other hand, argue that:
- Term limits are undemocratic in that they restrict choice. In fact, term limits should expand choice as the significant advantages of incumbents will largely disappear, reducing barriers to challengers.
- The most experienced legislators with the greatest understanding of the legislative process would be eliminated. This argument presumes that freshman legislators would have no previous involvement or knowledge of the process, when in fact most elected officials have previous experience at the state level and/or through staff-level positions. Further, no other profession requires years of on-the-job training in order to be effective in the position. The legislature is no exception. Term limits could attract more talent from more diverse fields as the need for years and years of experience in order to wield significant influence disappears.
- What is needed is campaign finance reform, not term limits. In fact both are needed and one does not preclude the other. Having career politicians presume to write campaign finance reform laws is tantamount to putting the fox in charge of access to the hen house.
- Unelected people – lobbyists, staffers and bureaucrats – would effectively run Congress while freshman legislators learn the ropes. As noted previously, it is far more likely that relationships with lobbyists would be diminished and would not continue as new legislators come into office. Turnover in both staffers and bureaucrats would likely increase, with greater focus directed toward legislation rather than re-election activities. Term limits may actually provide incentive to work for reforms that transfer more power away from bureaucrats and back to Congress.
- Politicians at the end of their terms will see no political advantage to following the will of the people and every advantage to seeking personal gain. Certainly we see little propensity today to follow the will of the people, but this argument also fails in that lobbyists lose their ability to use funds to generate long-term influence. This again argues for campaign finance and lobbyist reform, not against term limits.
It is hardly coincidental that those primarily opposed to Congressional term limits are career politicians and special interest groups who support them. Term limits would eliminate incumbent election advantages, reduce incentives for wasteful spending, reduce influence of special interest groups and eliminate concentrations of power with career politicians out of touch with their constituents. The volume of legislation passed contrary to the wishes of the American people over the last several years should be ample justification to support such an amendment.