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Four powerful reasons for congressional term limits

Published in Uncategorized on December 18, 2017 by Convention Of States

3474 original

The follow excerpt was written by Dan Greenberg for the Heritage Foundation.

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which term limits would change Congress. They are supported by large majorities of most American demographic groups; they are opposed primarily by incumbent politicians and the special interest groups which depend on them. Term limits would ameliorate many of America's most serious political problems by counterbalancing incumbent advantages, ensuring congressional turnover, securing independent congressional judgment, and reducing election-related incentives for wasteful government spending. Perhaps most important, Congress would acquire a sense of its own fragility and temporariness, possibly even coming to learn that it would acquire more legitimacy as an institution by doing better work on fewer tasks.

Term limits secure Congress's independent judgment.

In one of the few cases where Congress itself has established term limits, service on the House and Senate intelligence Committees is limited on the grounds that long-term membership might cause Members to develop a loyalty to the intelligence bureaucracy that would undermine their ability to exercise critical and independent judgment over it. This mandatory term limit is based on a sound theory of human conduct, but it deserves wider application; in an age where scores of federal agencies and special interests continually lobby for funding, there is a very real danger that Congressmen will become enmeshed in a culture that is overfamiliar with the federal government and insulated from the communities they ostensibly represent. Public sentiment in favor of term limits is likely influenced by the fear that Congressmen will become captured by this alien federal culture, as well as by frustration with the sclerotic representation that results from incumbents of all political stripes routinely getting reelected.

Term limits are a reality check.

Term limits also would provide inescapable, bracing reminders of what life in the real world is like. After former Senator George McGovern tried (and failed) to succeed in small business after spending eighteen years in Congress, he observed: "I wish I had known a little more about the problems of the private sector.... I have to pay taxes, meet a payroll -- I wish I had a better sense of what it took to do that when I was in Washington." (Fund, op. cit., p. 10.) Ensuring that Members eventually are exposed to life outside of Congress should inculcate a more sophisticated understanding of the logic and the limits of federal regulation.

Term limits minimize Members' incentives for reelection-related "pork- barrel" legislation.

As government has grown larger, legislative careerism has become more prominent in Congress. Because long-tenured Congressmen have increasing power over the fate of federal projects due to the seniority system, senior members of both parties now routinely campaign by stressing their ability to bring federal projects to their home districts rather than by explaining their views on the important issues of the day. When Members express their preferences in committee assignments, they are aware of the electoral impact of federal spending directed at their districts. After the 1992 elections, so many freshman Congressmen chose the Public Works and Transportation Committee that new seats had to be created, making Public Works the largest committee in Congress. (Jackie Calmes, "Tables Turned: Candidates of Change in 1992 Find Congress Reforms Them Instead," The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 1994, p. A1.) Term limits, by eliminating incentives for careerism, would curb reelection-oriented federal spending which is targeted to particular districts but contributes little to the general welfare of the country.

Term limits thus provide an escape from the Faustian bargain that voters face: they know that returning an incumbent for another term may help their district, but in the long run it has dire institutional and national consequences. Long-term officeholders, less vulnerable because of a well-honed reelection machine fueled by public resources, come gradually to identify their interests more and more with those of the federal government. There is a strong correlation between length of legislative service and votes in favor of more public expenditures. (See James L. Payne, The Culture of Spending (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1991), chapters 5, 11.) Political scientist John Armor, for example, has calculated the effects of term limits on congressional votes by eliminating the votes of senior legislators who would be locked out by term limits and replacing them by the proportion of votes for and against legislation made by junior members of their parties (in order to simulate the additional, hypothetical term- limited legislators); he found that the President's 1993 tax increase would not have made it through the House, while last year's Penny- Kasich federal spending cuts would have passed the House overwhelmingly. (See Pat Buchanan, "Term Limits Revolution," The Washington Times, July 7, 1994, p. A16.) Longer-serving Congressmen are also more hostile generally to other fiscally conservative measures, such as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, (Payne, The Culture of Spending, pp. 178-179.) and a forthcoming study by Cato Institute analysts Steve Moore and Aaron Steelman finds that term limits would push numerous other congressional vote totals in a more fiscally conservative direction.

Term limits would restore respect for Congress.

Use of discreditable tactics like pork-barreling that have powerful electoral effects is a major cause of declining respect for and satisfaction with Congress. Term limits would arrest the decline of congressional legitimacy, ensuring that Members would be more truly representative of their communities, and would renew American citizenship by writing into law the principle that people can govern themselves -- and that this representation falls within the competence of any reasonably interested and well-educated citizen. The objection that long service is essential to understanding the complex legislative process says far more about the current congressional system than it does about the concept of term limits.

In short, the best way to reinvigorate government is to bring in legislators with fresh outlooks, new ideas, and better incentives. Term limits are the only realistic way to change the culture of legislative careerism in Congress -- a culture that undermines the public interest.

The only way to impose term limits on the U.S. Congress is via a constitutional amendment. Congress will never propose such an amendment, which is why the states must do it via a Convention of States. 

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