Every so often, the idea of Congressional term limits comes up, most recently from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Representative Francis Rooney (R-Florida). It’s also been floated by former Democratic President Barack Obama.
“The American people support term limits by an overwhelming margin,” said Rooney. “I believe that as lawmakers, we should follow the example of our founding fathers, Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who refused to consider public service as a career. Our history is replete with examples of leaders who served their country for a time and returned to private life, or who went on to serve in a different way.”
Given Rooney’s comments, it is important to note that Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of presidential and congressional term limits. But if Jefferson were alive today, he’d be in a small minority.
I recently had a terrific meeting with a bipartisan group of freshman lawmakers who feel very strongly in favor of Congressional term limits. I gave them my full support and endorsement for their efforts. #DrainTheSwamp
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2018
It actually is something Obama and Trump agree on. For that matter, Cruz and his most recent opponent, Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) agree on term limits. It’s also something three-fourths of Americans support.
And it’s a disaster.
The Cruz Term Limits Amendment Sucks
Firstly, the amendment currently under consideration limits Representatives to six years and Senators to twice that. This gives major advantage to the Senate over the House, as Senators could amass twice the working experience as Representatives. And benefits to the Senate mean benefits to Republicans.
The reason for this is how seats are allocated. In a debate literally as old as the nation, states with a larger population found it unfair that they had the same power to influence government as states with small population. This remains a problem to this day, best exemplified in the arguments for dissolving the Electoral College.
But states with a low population — which have more per-person power in the Senate than higher population states — tend to be Republican states. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to be elected in densely-populated areas, which gives them advantage in the House.So by making sure the House has half the potential to serve as the Senate, Cruz’s proposal gives the advantage of experience to the Republicans. And experience matters.
Like her or not, it’s impossible to deny that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) is incredibly effective at that job. The only way to become that effective is to understand how the sausage is made, and giving more time for the Senate to learn allows Republicans more time to become highly effective while limiting how long Democrats have before their time is up.
That advantage often translates into presidential name recognition, which is a powerful force in campaigning.
It’s also worth mentioning, then, that Cruz would get two more terms after his amendment was ratified, which is important given his presidential ambitions. The amendment explicitly states that it is not retroactive.
But as easy as it is to point out that Cruz’s proposal is a shameless way to use a popular political proposal to kneecap liberals for the remainder of the Republic and further his own ambition, there’s a much bigger problem than partisanship.
Term limits in general are a bad idea, regardless of if Cruz proposes it or if O’Rourke does.
The Problem of Experience
It can’t be known how effective a potential Speaker could become in just six years, but it’s likely they couldn’t become Pelosi effective. Not without help. And we actually know what that help looks like thanks to the laboratories of democracy: state legislatures.
States have long experimented with term limits. Since the 1990s, fifteen states have imposed term limits on their legislatures. Ten states have term limits of eight years per office. That affords a great glimpse on what the impact of term limits might be.
One study found; “Legislative oversight is the venue of specialists. A term-limited legislature tends to be populated by generalists, who lack the accumulated knowledge to exercise oversight effectively, if they even recognize it as their responsibility.”
Most observers of state-level term limits have noted that the power of lobbyists has grown in states where limits are adopted. This is a result of the experience gap — while the Senate would have the advantage over the House, the only permanent apparatus left in Washington would be the lobbyists.
This has been the case in Michigan, where lawmakers are limited to eight years. Michigan voters liked the idea that “citizen legislators” would be more in-touch with their needs than career politicians. But those citizen legislators needed help knowing how the halls of power operated in Lansing.
“Even though voters were promised that term limits would severe the cozy ties between legislators and lobbyists, what we actually found is that legislators are more likely to turn to lobbyists for information,” Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, author of Implementing Term Limits: The Case of the Michigan Legislature told Michigan Public Radio.
“When people have a short time horizon, and they don’t have much experience … they concentrate on things they can fix easily and quickly, and … they have to try and figure out where to get information on how to do that,” she added.
This finding is not unique to Michigan. In states where governors aren’t term limited or the governorship stays in one party’s control, term limits also raise the power of the executive branch relative to the legislature.
A respondent told a study that after term limits came to their state “agencies [do] what they want to. [One bureaucrat told me] ‘we were here when you got here, and we’ll be here when you’re gone.’ ”
The power of long-term players who aren’t elected by or accountable to voters also likely lends power to shadowy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group made up of Republican legislators and corporate lobbyists that provides state legislatures with pre-made, corporate-friendly legislation. Writing for the Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein directly links the idea of removing term limits with empowering legislators to develop their own legislation instead of relying on ALEC.
The Problem of Ambition
“We see that the longer you serve in Congress, the less connected, the less responsive, the less accountable you can become to the people you represent,” said Beto O’Rourke.
But are citizen legislators any more responsive to the needs of their constituents? Again, look at Michigan.
The lame duck session the Mitten State recently endured was a sight to behold. More bills were sent to the governor in the last month and a half of 2018 than in the entire year up to that point ranging from attempts to make it nearly impossible for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot to a procedural gimmick that blocked a ballot initative in 2018.
But if you’re looking for a citizen legislator who served the people instead of himself, don’t look to Michigan’s Joe Bellino (R-Monroe). He authored an end to the state’s popular ten-cent bottle deposit that would save the his own business $9,000/year and cost the State of Michigan around $400 million annually. The bill also would have untold costs as plastics go unrecycled.
The thought was that term limits in Michigan would produce more daring and ambitious legislators. Well, it has. And Michigan is regretting it.
“They want to concentrate on things that are quick fixes, easy to do,” Sarbaugh-Thompson said. “Anything that’s really tough, they can kick the can down the road and then the next batch of people have to cope with it.”
As a result, these citizen legislators are even more career politicians than the politicians they replaced. No longer are legislators in Michigan content to serve their community, because the term limits force them to eye new offices constantly.
“Contrary to the selling point that term limits would rid government of career politicians, legislators have become increasingly driven by electioneering concerns,” wrote Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
“The focus has shifted from retaining legislative seats to moving up [from the House to the Senate or to Congress] or down [to county commissions, city councils, or other local governments].
“The focus is on short-term gains and fixes because politically costly solutions might undermine legislators’ plans for their next political office,” he continued.
And Michigan is sounding the warning bells. The Detroit News urged Congress to not pursue term limits, citing their state’s own horrible experiences with the idea.
Listen to Michigan
Michigan isn’t alone — there are fourteen other states struggling under term limits — but Michigan is a good example. Michigan is a diverse state in dire economic straits, trying to revitalize after the mortal blows the automotive industry has given the state. It\s an industrial state without the industry. It’s large geographically and in terms of population. It makes a great analogy for America.
We Michiganders, too, were wooed by the promise of citizen legislators who were “real people” and not career politicians. We thought it would fix all the problems in Lansing. That’s not what happened.
“The reality has been an increasingly young and inept body of lawmakers who are elected to one office only to start angling for the next one,” wrote the Detroit News in their staff editorial. “What’s been lost in Michigan are experienced legislators who stay around long enough to become expert in both governing and the issues facing the state. And who are able to build relationships with each other that make cooperative governing possible.”
And the cost of experience is too high for the nation to pay for a policy that doesn’t even work.
The Washington Post crunched numbers and found that those legislators in term-limited states are more determined to say in office of some form or another than those from states that lack term limits. If the goal is to get fresh blood, regardless of its competency to perform the job, term limits are not nearly as effective as people hope. And, as the Detroit News points out, half of all Senators who served ten years ago have since retired or been defeated.
What should be done instead to combat the problem of incumbency? The Detroit News suggested redistricting reforms — a policy Michigan voters adopted in 2018.
As for term limits, the laboratories of democracy conducted the experiment already. The results aren’t what we hoped.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.