It’s the policy idea that just won’t die, and seems to reanimate whenever legislators have run out of substantive issues to push. Case in point: Last week’s appallingly thin op-ed by 2016 hopeful Bobby Jindal, which argues that “structural reforms” are needed to get the United States back on the right path, and suggests term limits as one of, well, two structural reforms that would do the trick (the other is a multi-part budget plan).
Term limits for Congress, whatever its utility in chasing after the Republican nomination for president, is still an absolutely terrible idea on the merits.
To begin with, the idea that Congress is in desperate need of new blood is ridiculous. As it happens, we’ve been in a cycle of considerable change for some time now, with “wave” elections strongly favoring one party in 2006, 2008, and 2010 and then the usually heavy turnover of a redistricting-cycle election in 2012. The Congressional Research Service reports that the record for average House tenure at the beginning of a Congress, 10.3 years, was set back in 1991 and has only been matched twice—never beaten—in the last twenty years, and was at 9.8 years for the currently ending Congress. Indeed, that record year, following status-quo elections in 1988 and 1990, was also when the last serious movement for term limits gained momentum. Perhaps just as important is that there are plenty of new members in most Congresses; there were 13 new Senators and 93 new members of the House in the now-expiring 112th Congress, and there will be 12 new Senators and 67 new members of the House in the incoming 113th Congress. And that’s not counting the three seats, one in the Senate, which have recently opened up via resignations.
At any rate, the case against term limits doesn’t depend on current turnover.
Term limits are also a bad idea because they reduce congressional expertise. Legislating, oversight, and Congress’s other jobs are actually pretty difficult. Federal programs are complex, as are the problems they are designed to solve. Veteran members of Congress frequently report that it simply takes time to learn the issues—and to learn how to get reliable information from bureaucrats, the White House, and lobbyists.
Reducing congressional expertise won’t, as many conservatives claim, make government smaller; it will just mean that it doesn’t work as well. Term-limiting a legislature tends to make it less capable of policy innovation, as University of California San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser found in his study of state legislative term limits. At the same time, reducing legislative expertise just means that other permanent fixtures in the policy-making process such as bureaucrats and lobbyists gain in influence as members of Congress—the legislative actors with the closest ties to America outside the Beltway—lose theirs.
Moreover, democracy itself is damaged with term limits because it depends on representation, and term limits harm representation. As University of Rochester political scientist Richard Fenno points out, representation begins with promises made in one election cycle; continues with governing by elected officials with those promises in mind; and then culminates in a second election cycle in which those politicians explain what they’ve done in office to fulfill those promises, and then make a new set of promises. Without that re-election portion of the cycle, the representative relationship just doesn’t work. Members who do not face re-election no longer must think in terms of how they will explain their actions to their constituents. Governing can still happen, but representation breaks down, and with it representative democracy.
To be sure, term-limits advocates suppose that members of Congress themselves will be more like other citizens if they cannot stay in Congress indefinitely (also known as: as long as their constituents want them there!). It turns out, at least as Kousser found in the states he studied, that it didn’t work out that way; instead of so-called citizen legislators, constituents wound up with people who had careers in politics but only partially in elective office (i.e., bureaucrats). Term-limits advocates also have argued that these citizen legislators would be less prone to corruption. Unfortunately, the opposite is probably true; term-limited politicians would be eager to find new jobs, including jobs with interest groups who are lobbying them. But even if congressional term limits achieved those goals, the effect is to make members more like the rest of us—non-professionals, and lacking in influence.