Budget battles and debt limit deals have now become a perennial part of our divided government since Republicans took the House majority in 2010. Now, nearly three years later, Americans find themselves again frustrated at the end of a government shutdown and an underwhelming, short-term “solution.” Understandably, accompanying these yearly fiascoes and Congress’s dismal approval rating come more and more calls for congressional term limits. As of January 2013, Gallup reported that three-quarters of Americans support the imposition of term limits on senators and congressmen. However, while there can be no doubt that Americans’ displeasure with and suspicion of those in Congress is well-placed, the notion that term limits would provide a solution to our country’s many ailments is simply wrong.
Current and past legislators such as Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Congressman Paul Ryan, as well as hopefuls across the country gearing up for the 2014 races have repeatedly raised the issue of term limits in recent years. Groups such as US Term Limits have worked to develop petitions and push legislators to support such restrictions in the form of a constitutional amendment. The claim behind such efforts is that long-tenured legislators become mired in the corruptive influences of lobbyists the longer they serve, and that “term limits force out career politicians who are more concerned with their own gain than the interests of the American people.”
At first glance, the argument would seem to have some reason to it: shorter terms allow less opportunity for relationships to build between legislators and interest groups. However, the proposal ignores other potentially grave implications of such limits.
1. Fewer Re-elections, Fewer Consequences
The first problem with term limit plans is a matter of political economy and the sharp rise in “lame duck” legislators who would, under such rules, be serving on a regular basis. It is a well-known fact about presidents that in their second terms—and particularly the further into their second terms one looks, when they do not face the prospect of re-election and have either achieved or face no chance of achieving the prized policy goals on which they hope to constitute their legacies—that American presidents are less concerned with appeasing popular moods and are thus, in many cases, less responsive to the will of the American people. It is a simple incentive problem, and one that is widely known and frequently commented upon in political media.
Why the advocates of legislative term limits believe that the same effect could not wreak havoc upon the incentive structures of congress—both houses of which are already decried as unresponsive to the American people—is unclear and, most likely, simply a loose strand of their design.
Under the plan set forth by a small group of Republicans in 2009, led by Jim DeMint, members of the House would be limited to three terms and senators to two. True: such a plan may sever nascent ties between legislators and lobbyists. However, in the process it will also establish conditions in which a considerable number of congressmen and senators know at a given time that they will not have to soon face the will of their constituents and, for the time being, whatever relations with interest groups they have established in that time will appear all the more enticing and void of consequence.
Similarly, lobbyists would likely come to view those same departing legislators as ideal patrons on whom their efforts would be best spent. Thus, instead of a crisis in which long-serving legislators have built networks of favors and pull over time, we would likely face one in which the costs to lawmakers of accommodating lobbyists falls considerably. True, office-holders will have some incentive to maintain a sufficiently positive public image as to support their own party’s next candidate for their office, but if members of the legislature have so lowered their moral standards as to do the base minimum to achieve their own re-election while getting whatever financial gain they can from their position, we can scarcely rely upon them to do any more for their successor, party or none.
2. With the Bad, So Goes the Good
The second problem with term limit proposals is an obvious one that, in the heat of the moment when answering poll surveys or cursing at the television, Americans tend to forget: with the bad, so goes the good. When supporting term limits for legislators, it is fair to assume that many Americans have in mind those long-serving senators and congressmen whom they most despise. However, such a rule would apply just as surely to those whom they most admire—making its benefit to our political system unclear. As surely as it would rid congress of a Nancy Pelosi, so would it do away with Darrell Issa. As with Harry Reid, so, eventually, with Ted Cruz.
The effect of time on an already unscrupulous legislator may be to expose them to networks and opportunities for corrupt deal-making, but for a principled senator or congressman it may be to provide him or her with the experience needed to effectively combat the growth and abuses of government bureaucracies whose officials would not face such time restrictions.
3. Legislative Term Limits Favor Executive Growth
The third reason to be wary of term limits arises rather directly from the last point. That is: term limits may shift the balance in favor of an increasingly powerful executive. Opposing government expansion and the slow creep of unresponsive executive bureaucracies can be a years-long task for even the most well-intentioned and devoted legislator. One need only look to the successful efforts of Ron Paul in convincing the GOP to add “Audit the Fed” to its official platform to witness the time investment that is often needed to achieve meaningful change. As a result, any positive long-term efforts undertaken by legislators to changing the trajectory of our ever-growing, overregulating government could be severely inhibited by legislative term limits, tilting the scales in favor of bureaucracies that do not answer directly to the people, and potentially leading to an increase in the rate of executive power’s already considerable growth.
Surely, cultural factors and the changing of ideas over time played a large part in Paul’s effort, as they do in all such political achievements. However, it is often through the tireless and prolonged struggles of individuals that cultures are shown the way towards progress. By limiting legislative terms, we may unburden ourselves of lazy back room deal-makers, but we may also lose the benefit of those willing to stick tirelessly to a cause and see it through–no matter how long it takes.
4. Legislative Term Limits Make for Inexperienced Legislators
Henry Kissinger once wrote that an executive cabinet member spends much of his first four years in office learning how best to use the bureaucracy at his disposal and only in his second term (should he have one) is he able to operate at full capacity, knowing both what he wants to achieve and how to achieve it. No doubt the same is, to some extent, true of legislators—especially those who come from positions in private business leadership. It takes time for freshman congressmen and senators to learn the ropes of legislation. Furthermore, as is often noted, half of a congressman’s time in office is often spent gearing up to be re-elected.
Legislation, despite the way in which it is frequently characterized, is a learned skill. It requires knowledge both of government and the issues in which government is involving itself. Proper authorship of legislation is a delicate practice and authors must be hawkishly judicious in the language they include in each clause of every bill. Poorly conceived, poorly written, and non-objective laws make for a society in which individuals cannot know the legality of an action before it is taken and risk arbitrary punishment. Judges have, for years, deplored indecipherable language in legislative acts as the bane of a proper and limited judiciary. Certainly there could be procedural safeguards and processes of review set in place to guard against such non-objectivity in legislation, but ensuring that each congressman has a maximum of six years of experience (twelve for senators) does not seem the way to ensure careful and well-written laws.
5. Downward Pressure on Presidential Candidate’s Levels of Experience
Likewise, legislative term limits and the perpetual knowledge that their time is nigh may create a greater incentive for new, promising congressmen and senators to seek the presidency early in their careers, without the benefit of legislative experience and knowledge of congressional process that is so frequently valued by voters in search of prime candidates. While past executive experience is often cited as weighing more heavily in voter’s judgments of candidates, the trend since the middle of the twentieth century has been for presidents to be drawn increasingly from current or former legislators. Certainly that trend continues today with President Obama, and the 2012 Republican primary field showed it in full force, with legislators Michele Bachmann (who had five years of congressional experience at the time), Rick Santorum (11), Newt Gingrich (20), and Ron Paul (22), going toe-to-toe against governor Tim Pawlenty, former governors John Huntsman and Mitt Romney, and businessman Herman Cain.
Each of these candidates–whether one supported them or not–drew from their considerable experience in crafting the platforms and views from which Republicans had to choose. The least experienced among them, however, would have been approaching the end of her permitted time in office by the 2009 Republican proposal. One must consider the ramifications that such a policy would have on the knowledge and experience of the pool of candidates from which we choose our executive. If America was not aware of the risks of having a president without experience prior to 2008, it has certainly faced them firsthand since then, and it need not support structural changes in government that might invite the same fate again.
What, then, is the Answer?
Unfortunately, answers to the vast and complex political problems that the United States faces today rarely come in the form of one easy bill or constitutional amendment. We must resist the impulse to simplify such problems down to the point of salable but ultimately useless and potentially damaging proposals.
The answer to our problems is simply stated but arduously achieved: cultural change. A change in a country’s way of thinking, its moral values, and its priorities is a long, complex, and difficult process, but it is the only means of achieving lasting political reforms. Producing better legislators is not a task achieved through better term restrictions, but through producing better thinkers and better people. This begins at the level of education, in the universities where future legislators are taught of the subjects over which they will someday be given considerable influence.
Must we, then, wait years until the intellectual culture in universities changes? Of course not. By further restricting the powers afforded to legislators, we rid ourselves of the need to restrict their terms. Remember: a US senator voted into office in 2008 would only have had to be in office thirteen months to vote through ObamaCare and cause every American citizen more hardship than a thousand backroom deals ever could. For a congressman elected in 2008, the time was even shorter at eleven months. It was not time that led them to such aberrations, but a government that is given undue powers over our national economy and the ability to influence nearly every arena of our lives in some fashion or another.
All is not lost, though. Much can be done to improve conditions in the short term by directly severing the ties and system of favors between legislators and private industry—namely by ending corporate welfare and subsidy programs, ending violations of individual rights perpetrated every day through the regulation of private industry, restricting legislators’ personal investments to broad index funds (as opposed to their current ability to invest in individual companies’ assets, leading to congressional insider trading), and shutting down the worst perpetrator of non-objective law in the United States government: the antitrust division of the Department of Justice.
There are short-term answers to rid our government of “career politicians who are more concerned with their own gain than the interests of the American people”, but the answers lie in severing the ties between government and private industry—not in term-limit policies that distort legislative incentives and rid our government of good and bad alike.