Stop ten people on the street and ask if they support term limits for members of Congress. You’ll get eleven votes in favor. You’d also get an earful from folks on the issue and what they think of Congress in general. And note, it matters not which party controls that branch.
Gallup polls Americans monthly by asking, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?” The Dec 2020 response was 15% approve 82% disapprove. https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx Interestingly, in only one month since summer 2009 did Congress ever hit 30% approval. With marks like these one would expect lots of congressional turnover. We hear lines like “throw the bums out” every two years.
But alas, members don’t get defeated as you would expect. The power of incumbency is strong with over 90% of House incumbents winning another term in every election year but one since 1994. https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/reelection-rates What few seats do change hands (whether they change parties or not) are open seats, meaning no incumbent is running due to retirement, resignation, or a death.
Do you see the contradiction? We detest Congress as an institution but keep sending the same bodies back every two years, to the House at least, only to criticize them once they get there and be disappointed all over again. Of course, this phenomenon is not new. Political scientists have been studying and writing about it for decades. It’s the old “I hate Congress but love my Congressman.” Think of it. If you’re a conservative and have a GOP Congressman, you almost certainly like him/her and don’t want that particular person going anywhere. So, that means everyone else’s Congressman must be the problem.
No wonder term limits wins in nearly every poll ever asked. It’s a way to save us from ourselves and “doing the dirty work” of throwing our own well-liked House member out at any two year interval. Better they all be forced to hit the road after say six, eight, or twelve years maximum.
Would a term limits rule, law, or constitutional amendment for Congress make sense? After all, the president is limited to two terms. We don’t want a permanent executive. The answer is maybe. This is not a dodge but an acknowledgement that there are two (or more) sides, and one must be careful what one wishes for.
First, some truth in advertising. I personally have no strong position on term limits. I’ve probably gone back and forth more on this than any issue in my life. If you forced me to take a side, I’d probably say I favor them. New blood is good. A new broom sweeps clean. Fresh perspectives are important. You get the idea.
The most basic argument is that we already have term limits. They’re called elections. House members have two year term limits and Senators six year term limits. We the voters make the conscious choice to extend or reject at election time. Of course this is easily countered with the incumbent advantage argument. Indeed, members themselves write the rules that help get them reelected. The franking privilege is but one—members can send unlimited free mail telling you all the wonderful things they’ve done. It’s campaign propaganda sent out free. That is true. No regular candidate gets this. Then there’s free air time and the huge campaign war chests.
So maybe the issue is campaign finance reform then. It’ll level the playing field some. Others argue for public financing of elections. That’s a subject for another article, but don’t hold your breath that Congress will pass anything to disadvantage itself.
An argument against term limits is it takes time for members to learn the ropes and to develop expertise in our undoubtedly big, complex federal government with its myriad of programs and regulations. Members’ staffs do much of the work helping constituents navigate veterans’ benefits, immigration issues, Social Security, and the like, and it takes them time to get up to speed as well.
Few know this but since 1994 House Republicans have self-imposed term limits on their own caucus. It states, “No member can lead a committee for more than six years unless they obtain a waiver from the Republican Steering Committee. Time served as both ranking member and chair count toward the six-year limit.” Democrats have no such rule. More in the GOP are starting to question if this rule is self-defeating, as it may drive some to depart Congress earlier than they might otherwise.
Finally, taking a position on term limits is a tough one for an organization like AMAC that lobbies on Capitol Hill. We polled on it many years ago, and predictably members favored the idea. We even wrote about our support. But to advocate for the position means dictating that members leave Congress earlier that they would like when we need their good will and support to advance legislation in the best interest of mature Americans. And there’s the rub.
Given the difficult issues facing our country at this time, it doesn’t appear likely term limits will advance any time soon. But that doesn’t mean the issue is dead. Voters have only so much patience with an issue that consistently has majority support. Therefore, only time will tell when it is appropriate to open this old wine in a new bottle and finally enjoy it.
Jeff Szymanski works in political communications for AMAC, a senior benefits organization with over 2.3 million members.