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Term Limits – Old Wine in New Bottles?

term limitsStop 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.

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Randy P.
8 months ago

There was a time when being a congressman or senator was a sacrifice & they were anxious to get back to their farm. they couldn’t afford to serve more than a term or two before having to get back to business so the farm wouldn’t fail. They set their own term limits. Now that we have career politicians who do not limit themselves, there needs to be a change.

PaulE
8 months ago
Reply to  Randy P.

You answered your own question in a way. People used to elect other average people to represent them. The job didn’t pay all that much, so only successful people could afford to take away a few years to serve in public office. Then the idea of “professional politicians” came into vogue. Soon the public wanted to focus only on electing people who “looked and sounded the part” as defined by the media of the age. Basically that was defined as third rate lawyers, who couldn’t earn a decent living in the private sector, but who looked a certain way and who could recite a speech well enough to make it sound convincing. All while doing little to nothing for the people voting them into office.
When an occasional outsider comes along, that is more along the lines of the original model that our Founders envisioned, the profesional political class always does everything in its power to drive them out by any means necessary. Sound familiar?

Pat R
8 months ago

Two observations: 1) With the 2020 presidential election being what it was, dare we consider incumbents continually get voted back to Congress by same method or bribery? 2) While the GOP has instituted ethical action on the matter, the Dems take more advantage of re-election and the GOP. GOP is setting an good example on a constituent-pushed matter while the Dems continue taking advantage, constituents’ wishes be damned.

Kathy
8 months ago

I live in a state that has gerrymandering so the districts are favoring certain candidates. The term limits and elections are not equal in my state. It appears whoever has the most money to buy the election wins

Clark Kent
8 months ago

Politicians are voted into office. They don’t fall from outer space into their elected positions. The REAL problem is most citizens can’t get off of their collective fat azzes to bother to REGISTER to vote, much less cast a ballot. The problem is US, not THEM. ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’ – Pogo.

Sandy
8 months ago
Reply to  Clark Kent

Not only that, their votes are purchased and/or they let TV ads and other paraphernalia…and not their own research and common sense…guide their vote.

Emily C
8 months ago

I am all for term limits and we also definitly need an age limit! What we have now is a bunch of old, greedy, lazy people with a compromised mental capacity.

Rick Neault
8 months ago

There is currently a Convention of States effort going on to try and enact term limits and other constitutional amendments to try and rein in congress and their overreach. I doubt it will bring about anything, but they are gaining a lot of support; especially after the recent elections.

Barb
8 months ago
Reply to  Rick Neault

Thanks for info Rick. Interesting. I marched with Tea Party back in Sacramento, CA several years ago now and our signs were for term limits. Been a long time since then so what can the Convention of States do?

Ted
8 months ago
Reply to  Rick Neault

Convention of States is the only way we can amend the constitution. Article 5 gives states the right to call a convention, if 34 states sign on to do so. There is an active COS group now, they are gaining ground at the State level. That is where it has to originate. Check it out and sign up.

Miranda
8 months ago

Most people agree with term limits but unfortunately Congress is a big web of corporate connections that influences every policy and corrupts every member, the pressure comes from every where. Just now CCP is making all the rules and the Leftist are following it by the book, like puppets. The Right needs to fight hard against all this nonsense stablished corrupt ideas. Hope they will?

Arlene J Chance
8 months ago

They will never vote for term limits on themselves. The people will have to do it. There are too many “old bones” both in Congress and the Senate. They are all, for the most part, part of the swamp in Washington. Few of them do the will of the people they are supposed to represent.

Darlene
8 months ago

The well-established Congress will never vote term limits for themselves. Now that the corrupt party is in charge, elections will be pointless, as the left have figured out how to keep themselves in office with voter fraud. We need to take our country back from the politicians. The people need to vote for anything they want done.

Barb
8 months ago
Reply to  Darlene

Addressed to Darlene. And send in honest people at the ballot counting.

Rik
8 months ago

Expecting Legislators to enact “Term Limits” on their own jobs is just ludicrous!!! … We the People SHOULD VOTE making Term Limits Law at the ballot box! In fact, wasn’t there an Amendment that somehow disappeared that banned ANY ATTORNEYS from being Legislators? After all, why should Jackasses be allowed to make the laws with all these loopholes in them so that they financially benefit if forced to be in private practice? … But then again, they NEVER leave office like Biden, Obama and the Clintons to “work” ever again.

Julies
8 months ago

Before a person is allowed to run for public office they should be required to take a course in constitutional law and then pass a formal written test showing they have a deep understanding of the materials they just studied. I also believe the person running for office should have a psychological exam to make sure he or she is a good mental health. Looking at a lot of people who are in government now they either don’t have an understanding of constitutional law or don’t care to follow the constitution, and some seem like they are in poor Mental Health.

Barb
8 months ago
Reply to  Julies

In response to Julies. Sorry, I have to laugh at (with) your reference to “and some seem like they are in poor mental health”. That certainly fits Biden and Schumer and Pelosi. They have gone berserk if you watch them closely…..eyes blinking, shaking body, nervous twitch, on and on…..one does have to laugh at their antics even though the situation is seriously not funny. I really don’t know how they can operate with the pressures they have put themselves into and I believe they are close to nervous breakdowns or forfeiture to reprobate minds.

Dennis Jackson Sr
8 months ago

The thinking that we have term limits when we vote is true. The problem fore example is this.
If I want to get rid of my Republican congressman and there is someone else I like. How do I know that the majority of voters agree with me to vote the bum out and replace them. It boils down to fear of the unknown. If we split the vote by voting for new blood then we likely wind up with the other party in charge.
We are all afraid of that, so we are afraid of voting for new blood.
This is also one of the reasons third parties never really get off the ground and are a constant thorn in the butt for Republicans. They tend to split the Republican vote and give the seat away to the Democrat.

PaulE
8 months ago

So if you don’t know for sure that the challenger will win, your logic is to vote for the incompetent or corrupt incumbent? Wow! If everyone voted that way, no one new would ever be elected to Congress until the incumbents all just eventually died off while serving in office. You should validated my comment to Kim below as to what the root cause of the problem is.

JoeRox
8 months ago

Problem is if there is NOT a good candidate to oppose the incumbent, you probably will NOT vote for the other party.

American Believer
8 months ago

I support term limits. One term for Senators, two terms for Congressional Representatives. I also support financial reform, allowing only funds from within the state or district the candidates wish to represent. Of course, this is just a fantasy because we all know no one in politics, local, state, or national, has the people’s interests at heart. Actually they desire the power and can only succeed by falling in line with national party goals.
always remember their mantra, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help…myself “

James R Boling
8 months ago

The problem with allowing elections to work as term limits comes down to choice. Generally, the incumbent runs time after time and depending upon the political party in power and the general political belief of their constituents, they get elected repeatedly. Why is that? From my perspective, I’d rather re-elect an incumbent than vote for a candidate of a different political party. Rarely is the incumbent challenged in the primary, so the choices are limited, hence term limits would require a new candidate in my party of choice rather than the need to re-elect the incumbent.

Butch
8 months ago
Reply to  James R Boling

Great points! I think a lot of Americans across party lines are tired of the “best of America” not even being close and forced into a choice of the lesser undesirable. Offer Americans people of high moral character (and God fearing) as John Adams states in the Federalist Papers.

AnneW
8 months ago
Reply to  James R Boling

You hit the nail on the head. If no one in your choice of party will run against the incumbent, then voters are left only with the incumbent against the other party. I believe what we need is election reform–limits on money raised and the time frame for conducting election or re-election activities. I would like to see the current Congress spend their time doing their jobs rather than planning for then running for re-election partway through their term.

Scott Deatherage
8 months ago

I’ve heard your arguments against term limits 25 years or so ago in Missouri. Right before Missouri passed term limits. The ” learning curve” argument doesn’t hold water BECAUSE every new legislator like Congressman get a staff of assistants that have been in the game for years!!!! Those assistants do all the work anyway!!! Term limits would cut a lot of the pork Congress wastes our money on. Well at least feed it to a different group of people!!!

Mel
8 months ago

Mandatory term limits in Congress is needed. After all the highest office in the country is limited to two terms(Presidents). No one needs more years in office than our Presidents. Nobody!

Kim
8 months ago

I used to think elections served effectively as term limits. Now, I don’t, because people simply re-elect the names they’re familiar with or they vote for the R or the D. Most of us don’t do the research required to determine whether a candidate is worthy of our votes, or dismiss the need to do this by claiming “They’re all crooks”. Political self-flagellation… Doesn’t getting rid of old wood clear the forest and prevent conflagrations?

Cycling through politicians more often, as this country used to do, could help us arrive earlier at the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founding Fathers. When old timer career politicians, such as Pelosi, Schumer, Leahy, Frank, and Biden hang in there decade after decade, I feel we’re stalling, stumbling, not moving ahead. This makes many of us feel disenfranchised or alienated, as if our votes didn’t count. New blood = new ideas. And good ideas will sell.

Public financing of elections? No way! Why would we fork over our money to help the opposition? Does this fall into the category of “fairness”? Silly notion. Good candidates will be recognized and supported, but, in future elections, we need to come together to help them financially. We can’t keep leaving it up to those few who do contribute to campaigns. (At Sperling’s Best Places, you can see the data showing numbers of R and D contributors and the average amounts donated in each locality. D’s tend to contribute in greater numbers, although R’s give higher amounts, in the towns I’ve looked.) My point is that in order to regularly bring in qualified candidates from the private sector, with all their valuable experience, we need to support them, and we need to listen to their proposals. For me, bring on term limits.

Willie
8 months ago
Reply to  Kim

I’am with you Kim that term limits will help us all. Term limits should also be for Supreme Court judge’s. When a person knows his job or position is set for life then they will not do the job as well .Term limits will cut down on corruption in Washington and this country. We need term limits.

PaulE
8 months ago
Reply to  Kim

What you’re describing, whether you realize it or not Kim, is the voters are increasingly incapable of making rational, intelligent choices when it comes to voting. The electorate has frankly become too lazy and apathetic to do any research on the candidates or subjects or to pressure those in office to vote according to the the wishes of the people they represent.

The vast majority of the public doesn’t even know who their elected officials are and can’t tell you their positions on most subjects. You are correct that most people simply vote by which name looks familiar in the voting booth. That is NOT a failure of the system, but rather a failure of the voting public to do their part to remove unresponsive elected officials from office and elect responsible ones.

Term limits is effectively adopting the random number theory for political governance, nothing more. The blind hope that if we swap out all elected officials, both good and bad, at regular intervals, that somehow we will end up with better more qualified and responsive elected officials. Why? The voting public won’t make better choices, because they will have even less incentive to pay attention to politics in general. That doesn’t attract better qualified candidates, but rather more candidates who know they will only in be office for 2,4, or 6 years (or whatever the term limit law would allow) and they should simply grab as much for themselves as they can before being replaced at the end of their term. Term limits just transforms the voting process into an exercise in futility, where people pay even less attention to the candidates, their records and their qualifications and think “the system” will magically produce better results. It won’t.

You end your comment with “My point is that in order to regularly bring in qualified candidates from the private sector, with all their valuable experience, we need to support them, and we need to listen to their proposals.” You just made my point! The voting public is the reason why we have the dis-functional Congress we have today, because people are NOT making good, well-reasoned decisions in how they vote. They opt for the familiar looking name in the voting booth and that is about it. Term limits just eliminates even doing that. The two parties will just select who goes on the ballot next, with no input of influence from the voting public. People will end up voting by whoever has a (D) or an (R) after their name and know or care nothing about the person, his or her qualifications and where they stand on the issues. The exact opposite of what you hope to accomplish with term limits.

Kim
8 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

Yes, I agree, PaulE, that it is our own fault for not thoroughly vetting the candidates. I don’t think that will change any time soon. And that’s why I believe our country is better served when we can sweep out the dusty old cobwebs and bring in new blood, hopefully better than what just exited. Yes, it’s a gamble. At least we won’t be paying huge salaries for those career politicians who will continue to reap in the rewards for themselves. And they get better at it as time goes on! Maybe we should make salaries and pension packages a little less attractive so candidates truly interested in public service, instead of in self-enrichment, will enter the race.

“That is NOT a failure of the system, but rather a failure of the voting public to do their part to remove unresponsive elected officials from office and elect responsible ones.” Exactly! People will continue to vote for those “unresponsive elected officials” by name recognition, so why keep them around? With each election that brings back the old-timers, their names become even more ingrained in the voters’ brains.

I’m not necessarily advocating one-or even two-term Congressmen. But 40-50 year careers? A few of those Tea Party types that are still in Congress unfortunately have become less conservative over time.

In your last paragraph, people aren’t making informed decisions, agreed. And there aren’t that many people entering politics from the private sector, but there’s something to be said for the highest number of votes going to an incumbent who didn’t even enter politics until he was in his 70’s. As I wrote earlier, “…good ideas will sell.” Well, we bought a ticket on the Trump train, and it was a good ride.

PeteM
8 months ago
Reply to  Kim

Term limits effectively eliminate good office holders along with the bad ones. And whether they are newcomers or oldtimers, the people elected are a reflection of the citizens that vote them in. As PaulE suggests, when you have unfamiliar names running for and holding office, voters are even less likely to care who they’re voting for or to hold their representatives accountable.

Kim
8 months ago
Reply to  PeteM

I do see your point, PeteM, and PaulE’s. Maybe it’s my “inner gambler”, but I would rather take a chance on someone new, with good ideas, than to keep collecting cobwebs. We do value those with good records of achievement, so, sure keep them around for a few terms. It’s negotiable.

If term limits is on the table, then we should also consider the possibility that congressmen can again run for office after a specified absence…or, terms could be extended in the House of Representatives from 2 years to ‘?’ years. It’s all on the table, and deserves a serious look. But career politicians made wealthy by their office and slimy swamp creatures getting so comfortable through the decades that they can collude with equally slimy foreign nations? No, I’m tired of that.

Jason
8 months ago

Great article

Nina Rae
8 months ago

Considering the results of our recent Presidential Election I do not think you can believe the result of ANY election. Once a candidate is in office, if they’re following the ‘party line’ & producing as expected the Party will see to it that they are re-elected, repeatedly! That seems to be the name of their game. If they can scam a National Presidential election they can certainly handle the Locals!

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