The topic of term limits for members of Congress often comes up as a supposed remedy for fixing our nation’s ills, specifically the legislative branch.
As Congress consistently has polling numbers that demonstrate the American people have negative views of the institution, the attempt to make it more “likable” is a noble pursuit, as it grants that body more legitimacy in the eyes of constituents.
However, term limits won’t do a thing to fix Congress. If anything, it’ll make matters worse.
Recent calls made for term limits
Lawmakers frequently cite the need for term limits in order to end what they see as a problem of having “career politicians” in Washington. As part of his push to “drain the swamp,” President Donald Trump, as a candidate, promised to promote the idea.
“If I’m elected president, I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Colorado during his election campaign, per reporting from PolitiFact.
Earlier this year in January, at the start of the new Congressional term, a host of Republican politicians, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would put an extreme limit on how long an individual could serve: only two terms in the Senate, and only three terms (or six years) in the House of Representatives.
And just this past week, a Republican lawmaker in the state of New York submitted paperwork to push for a Constitutional amendment that would bypass Congressional approval, through a concurrent vote of three-quartes of the states, which the Constitution itself allows for.
Elizabeth Warren’s caution about what harm term limits could bring
Another Senator, who is herself now running for president, has a different opinion. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) believes that instituting term limits would make lawmakers more beholden to special interests than they are presently.
“Here’s the problem on term limits on folks in Congress — it makes them more dependent than ever on the lobbyists,” she recently said, according to a report from Boston.com.
In short, novice politicians seeking to win office would depend on lobbyists’ money to win elections while lawmakers who have spent years in office would already have an idea of how elections work. Another problem? Lobbyists could remain in Washington for decades — and attain a deeper understanding of how the “game” is played than a politician who has to leave in six years’ time.
The data seems to back up her points. According to research compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, states that have enacted term limits in their own legislatures have lawmakers who are “less beholden to the constituents in their geographical districts” and that are more likely to focus on “other concerns” that pique their interests.
The founders warned against term limits, too
There’s another compelling argument against instilling term limits in Congress, and it comes directly from warnings made by the founding fathers of our nation’s government.
James Madison, who is often credited as being the foremost authority on the Constitution, believed having “career politicians” would help the federal government more than harm it, preventing newbies from making mistakes and allowing elder statesmen to guide freshmen members of the legislature as they learned how to navigate the system.
“The greater the proportion of new members of Congress, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they be to fall into the snares that may be laid before them,” Madison said.
Another founder, Benjamin Rush, openly advocated for individuals to dedicate their careers to governing, if they were able to remain in office. “Government is a science,” Rush stated, and it “can never be perfect in America, until we encourage men to devote not only three years, but their whole lives to it.”
Indeed, the founders had good reason to be wary of the idea of term limits: the previous government of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, was an unmitigated disaster, one that required elected leaders to serve under very restrictive term limits.
Rush explained his disdain with the previous system.
“The custom of turning men out of power or office, as soon as they are qualified for it, has been found to be as absurd in practice, as it is virtuous in speculation,” Rush said. “It contradicts our habits and opinions in every other transaction of life. Do we dismiss a general — a physician — or even a domestic, as soon as they have acquired knowledge sufficient to be useful to us, for the sake of increasing the number of able generals — skilful physicians — and faithful servants? We do not.”
Let the people decide how long lawmakers should serve
This isn’t to say that fresh ideas and perspectives shouldn’t be welcomed in Congress. Far from it — a person ought to be elected by their constituents based on their ideas, not just their experiences.
But by the same token, we shouldn’t dismiss an individual as not qualified to legislate any longer simply because he or she has served in office for a long time. If voters want to continue to send the same person to Washington year-after-year, they should be allowed to do so. Preventing them from selecting an individual who has devoted their life to service denies them the right to pick that choice, whom they might really, really like having as a legislator.
Other reforms can correct the ills that plague Congress. Rules that make the process of redistrictring more fair, for example, will ensure that politicians won’t be able to “elect themselves” to office, rather than having the people choose who they want to represent them.
We should reject all calls for any amendments that would institute term limits for members of Congress. Such moves limit the rights of the people to pick who they want to represent them — which would be a wholly un-American practice to live by.
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