By Dr. Harold A. Black
In my mailbox were flyers from a group “U.S. Term Limits” urging my local state representatives to support congressional term limits. Their website says that resolutions have been introduced in 17 states. I presume that they want a constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, their website does not succinctly explain why they favor term limits. They mention that the re-election rate in congress is 90 percent. However, that points to the number of “safe” seats created in part by gerrymandering from the state legislatures. The implication is that guaranteed reelection constitutes bad government.
They cite that 82 percent of voters favor term limits. But I seriously doubt that even a small percentage of voters have thought through the issue. Asking a voter if they support term limits is like asking if they like Mom’s apple pie. It sounds good. I’m reminded of my dad saying “it sounds good if you are interested in sounds.”
They state “with tenure reaching an all-time high, seats open up less frequently than ever before. A quarter of Congress has been in office for more than 16 years. Nearly half of Congress has been in office for more than eight. Nine members have been in office for more than 40 years. Term limits would reverse this trend by ensuring that open-seat races are held on a regular basis.” It should be noted that the longest-serving senator was Robert (KKK) Byrd of West Virginia who was in office for 51 years. The longest in the House was Michigan’s John Dingell (59 years) who was succeeded by his wife who currently serves.
I don’t find this convincing. I am surprised to find that tenure is less than I had assumed. If my representative is doing a “good” job, I will vote for reelection. If not, I will vote to change. If the electorate disagrees with me, then I will work to change that representative’s position on items I consider important.
The website never documents whether term limits lead to better government. It points out that 36 governors and 15 state legislatures have term limits. It should be simple enough to create a template to show whether the term-limited governors and state legislatures have “better government” than those without the term limits.
Of course, the definition of “better government” is in the eye of the beholder. The poster child against term limits is the state of California where state representatives are limited to three terms (6 years) and state senators limited to two terms (8 years). Prima facia, one should oppose term limits simply because California has them.
I defer to the Founding Fathers on most issues of governance. It is important to note that they did not impose term limits on the nascent government. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, the only Founding Father to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of American Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the U.S. Constitution (1787) wrote: “Nothing renders government more unstable than a frequent change of the persons that administer it.”
My position is that we already have term limits: elections. Term limits would remove experienced lawmakers and make current ones even more susceptible to lobbyists and to staff. Bills are so enormous that few of our elected officials have time to read them. Remember “we will find out what’s in the bill after we pass it”? All too often with the mass of paperwork, staffers read the proposed legislation and make recommendations. This gets more exacerbated if term limits are imposed. New legislators take time to learn the lay of the land and are generally not very effective during their first terms. If the House were limited to 4 terms, then 115 new members would appear every two years. If limited to five terms, then it would be 87 new members. In the Senate, if limited to two terms (12 years) then every four years 25 new senators would be elected. I doubt that this turnover would lead to better governance.
I lean toward Sherman’s position. Again, I am not dogmatic. Show me the evidence that term-limited governors, govern best. Show me the evidence that term-limited state houses govern best. If that evidence exists, then I will support term limits. Otherwise, I think the effort is a waste of time and resources with little benefit to the public.