“Nothing renders government more unstable than a frequent change of the persons that administer it.” –Roger Sherman, open letter, 1788.
Congressional term limits have long been argued to be an easy mechanism for improving the effectiveness of Congress and government at large. More specifically, advocates suggest term limits would allow members to spend less time dialing for dollars and more time on policymaking, allow them to make unpopular but necessary decisions without fear of retaliation at the ballot box, and avoid the corruptive influence of special interests that many assume is an inevitable result of spending too much time in Washington, D.C.
Plus, proponents reason, new blood in Congress is a good thing. New members bring fresh ideas and aren’t beholden to the old ways of Washington that have left so many voters frustrated and Congress’ approval rating in shambles. At the very least, term limits would prevent members from being reelected despite serving long past their primes.
In a political environment where bipartisan agreement on any issue of any size is rarely enjoyed, this proposal is incredibly popular. Seventy-four percent of likely voters are in favor of congressional term limits. In fact, many members—the very people who would be affected should such a policy be put in place—have shown their desire to limit the number of terms they themselves are eligible to serve by introducing legislation in nearly every congressional session since 1943 that would add a term-limit amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Even then-candidate Donald Trump argued term limits would effectively help him “drain the swamp” when elected, much to the delight of his anti-establishment base.
The implicit argument is that Washington, with its corrosive practices, corrupts even the most well-intentioned lawmakers. Because of this, the best—and maybe only—form of inoculation is to limit, constitutionally, the time elected officials can spend in power. At their core, limit advocates contend that elections can’t be trusted to produce incorruptible representatives.
Much of the term-limit reasoning makes sense. However, it ignores the very real downsides that would result. Despite widespread support, instituting term limits would have numerous negative consequences for Congress.
Limiting the number of terms members can serve would:
1. Take power away from voters: Perhaps the most obvious consequence of establishing congressional term limits is that it would severely curtail the choices of voters. A fundamental principle in our system of government is that voters get to choose their representatives. Voter choices are restricted when a candidate is barred from being on the ballot.
2. Severely decrease congressional capacity: Policymaking is a profession in and of itself. Our system tasks lawmakers with creating solutions to pressing societal problems, often with no simple answers and huge likelihoods for unintended consequences. Crafting legislative proposals is a learned skill; as in other professions, experience matters. In fact, as expert analysis has shown with the recently passed Senate tax bill, policy crafted by even the most experienced of lawmakers is likely to have ambiguous provisions and loopholes that undermine the intended effects of the legislation. The public is not best served if inexperienced members are making policy choices with widespread, lasting effects.
Being on the job allows members an opportunity to learn and navigate the labyrinth of rules, precedents and procedures unique to each chamber. Term limits would result in large swaths of lawmakers forfeiting their hard-earned experience while simultaneously requiring that freshman members make up for the training and legislative acumen that was just forced out of the door.
Plus, even with term limits, freshman members would still likely defer to more experienced lawmakers—even those with just one or two terms of service—who are further along the congressional learning curve or who have amassed some level of institutional clout. Much as we see today, this deference would effectively consolidate power in members that have experience in the art of making laws. In other words, a new, though less-experienced, Washington “establishment” would still wield a disproportionate degree of power over policymaking.
Even in instances where staffers, rather than members, lead the charge in crafting policies, it is often the member-to-member interactions that solidify a measure’s final details, build coaltions, and ultimately get legislation passed. Take, for example, the recent Sen. Graham-Sen. Durbin alliance that has recently proposed a bipartisan immigration compromise. Such a partnership is due in no small part to the pair’s long history—Graham and Durbin served two years together in the House and the Senate for 21 years and counting. Term limits would severely hamper the opportunity for these necessary relationships to develop. Strangers in a new environment are in a far worse position to readily trust and rely on their colleagues, particularly from across the aisle.
3. Limit incentives for gaining policy expertise: Members who know their time in Congress is limited will face less pressure to develop expertise on specific issues simply because, in most cases, the knowledge accrued won’t be nearly as valuable in a few short years.
We have seen a semblance of this effect after Republicans limited House committee chairs to six years at the helm. The incentives for chairs to dive deep into the policy details of their committee’s jurisdiction are now limited, given that chairs know they will soon be forced to give up the gavel. (In the 115th Congress alone, an alarming seven House Chairs have announced their retirements from Congress.)
Thus, term limits would impose a tremendous brain drain on the institution. Fewer experienced policymakers in Congress results in increased influence of special interests that are ready and willing to fill the issue-specific information voids. Additionally, a decrease in the number of seasoned lawmakers would result in greater deference to the executive branch and its agencies that administer the laws on a daily basis, given their greater expertise and longer tenure.
4. Automatically kick out effective lawmakers: No matter how knowledgeable or effectual a member may be in the arduous tasks of writing and advancing legislation, term limits would ensure that his or her talents will run up against a strict time horizon. In what other profession do we force the best employees into retirement with no consideration as to their abilities or effectiveness on the job? Doesn’t it make more sense to capitalize on their skills, talents and experience, rather than forcing them to the sidelines where they will do their constituents, the public and the institution far less good? Kicking out popular and competent lawmakers simply because their time runs out ultimately results in a bad return on the investment of time spent learning and mastering the ins and outs of policymaking in Congress.
5. Do little to minimize corruptive behavior or slow the revolving door:
Because term limits have never existed on the federal level, political scientists have studied states’ and foreign governments’ experiences with term limits to project what effects the measure would have on Congress. These studies regularly find that many of the corruptive, ‘swampy,’ influences advocates contend would be curtailed by instituting term limits are, in fact, exacerbated by their implementation.
Take lobbyist influence, for example. Term limit advocates contend lawmakers unconcerned with reelection will rebuff special interest pressures in favor of crafting and voting for legislation solely on its merits. However, the term limit literature commonly finds that more novice legislators will look to fill their own informational and policy gaps by an increased reliance on special interests and lobbyists. Relatedly, lawmakers in states with term limits have been found—including from this 2006 50-state survey—to increase deference to agencies, bureaucrats, and executives within their respective states and countries simply because the longer serving officials have more experience with the matters.
Advocates also suggest that limiting the number of terms lawmakers can serve will ultimately result in fewer members looking to capitalize on their Hill relationships and policymaking experience by becoming lobbyists themselves. Establishing term limits, however, would likely worsen the revolving door problem between Congress and the private sector given that mandating member exits ensures a predictable and consistently high number of former members available to peddle their influence. The revolving door phenomenon is considered a normative problem without term limits and relatively few departing members per cycle. With term limits, the number of influential former members would drastically increase, giving more private sector landing spots to members whose time has run out. More lobbying firms would have members able to advance their special interests with former members making use of their relationships and deep understanding of the ways of the Hill.
On the surface, the case for term limits is strong given their potential to curtail the forces of corruption that so many assume dictate the ways of Washington. But, precisely because the creation of successful public policies by even the most experienced of officials is so difficult and uncertain, we should not mandate that our most effective and seasoned lawmakers be forced out of the institution. Instead, as constituents, we should rely on the most effective mechanism available to remove unresponsive, ineffectual members of Congress: elections.