Congress Needs No Term Limits: Response to Rep. O’Rourke

We could force out every member of Congress with term limits, but at what cost?

Fellow Democrat and member of the United States House of Representatives, Rep. Beto O'Rourke, wrote recently about term limits for all members of Congress, arguing in favor of them. He stated:

If we truly have faith in those we serve — if we want our government to reflect the diversity and strength and creativity of our communities — then let’s help clear the way for new leaders to step up and bring their unique experiences, expertise, and energy to bear on the problems and opportunities before us.

I respect his intentions here. He, like so many among us today, is tired of “politics as usual” and the oligarchic, rather than democratic, quality that our national legislature has adorned. We live in era of political corruption comparable to that of the Gilded Age, and to allow it to continue is beyond consideration. Term limits are an easy answer but, in my view, fall short of being a proper solution.

We have to consider what we will lose if term limits are added to the Constitution. The most obvious trade-off appears to be the loss of quality statesmen. Yes, there is a lot of corruption, but we also have excellent legislators in the examples of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison. I am sure Rep. O’Rourke has a few he could add to the list as well. The experience that these people bring to the table, the knowledge that they are able to inject into their policy proposals, is difficult to get out of nowhere. It takes practice, so before we throw them out with the legislators that we dislike, we should ponder other methods to clean up our government.

Moving on, I think we should consider, for a moment, why we only currently have term limits on the Presidency. For starters, it was not originally written that way by the Founders. Some, such as Alexander Hamilton, wanted the President to serve for life, effectively creating an elective monarchy. Needless to say, this seemed too close to the system that they had fought to remove from their society, and so the Founders decided to give the President the opportunity to serve for life by winning re-election every four years. George Washington, however, quickly set a precedent of serving for two terms, a precedent that was followed without force of law until the crises of the 1930s and 40s propelled Franklin D. Roosevelt to being elected four times.

It was only after his Presidency that America had to contend with the reality of a President serving more than two terms. By that point, the office had changed significantly. With the nation larger, its military the mightiest in the world, and a massive federal bureaucracy, the office of President had become far more powerful than in the days of Washington. Similarly, as the nation grew, more seats were added to Congress, diminishing the power of individual legislators and making both houses easier to divide into factions. A President who could be perpetually re-elected could therefore accrue a lot of power over time, becoming nearly unstoppable.

Americans of both political parties perhaps correctly determined that we had begun to stray from the balance of powers that the Founders had written into the Constitution, and so they ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment in 1951. The two-term tradition of Washington was now the law of the land, and as more power has continued to trickle into the executive, plenty of us can probably be grateful that no person is able to wield that power for too long. As terrible as President Trump is, we can at least take solace in the fact that he will be required to leave one day.

I think a case for term limits as a check on power is a sound one. I have never heard it argued, however, that Congress is too powerful. No, the argument is generally that Congress is too corrupt or too out of touch. This is very different from arguing that Congress is too powerful, and before we impose term limits, we have to think about what they will mean for the power of the Legislative Branch, or else we could be walking into a disaster.

One of the chief advantages that Congress has over a President is that it can outlast him/her. We should not so hastily overlook this advantage and what it means about how our government functions. The ability to do this gives our legislature a special bargaining power that they would lose with the imposition of term limits. It would require a President to meet them halfway or finish their Presidency with no accomplishments. This would be true even of a President whose party controls both houses.

Moreover, since experience is lost, the quality of legislation and the efficiency of the legislative process would decline. Congress would continually have to re-learn how to do the job. This is more than mere speculation. Writing on behalf the Council of State Governments, Jennifer Drage Bowser explained the findings of three years of research of state governments who have imposed term limits on their legislators. They were not optimistic. Bowser wrote:

While one hears and reads much about the inexperience of new members in term limited legislatures,it is certainly not true that today’s new members are less experienced or knowledgeable than the new members of the pre-term limits era. The problem is instead that there are so many more new members each session under term limits, and they have less time to learn.

She went on to add:

The “lame duck” factor plays a critical role in the declining influence of party leaders in term limited legislatures. Since most leaders assume their leadership position during the last legislative session before they are termed out, members know their time is limited. They see less value in cooperating with a leader whose days are numbered, and leaders are less able to sanction members who challenge them. In short, members know that they can out-wait a leader, and they do. What all of this adds up to is less procedural orderliness and diminished party discipline.

The strategy of outlasting the executive is now turned on the legislature, causing lawmakers is to cannibalize their own branch of the government. One has to wonder in what world a Congress subjected to these factors would be more responsive and produce better legislation for the people.

When one looks at the potential for increased diversity, the outlook is still grim. Thad Kousser also discussed term limits in a piece in 2016 for The Washington Post, citing other areas of research. On whether or not legislatures become more diverse, Kousser found:

Term limits have also failed to open up more opportunities to female or minority candidates, with a few notable exceptions. For better or worse, the politicians who come to state capitols today look much like the term-limited veterans they replaced.

Bowser was concurrent in her own conclusions on the matter. Furthermore, both Bowser and Kousser have found that executives do indeed benefit from this change, noting that state budgets tend to reflect gubernatorial priorities far more than legislative priorities as a result.

By now, it would appear that there is a lot to lose by passing term limits and very little, perhaps nothing, to gain from them. As dysfunctional as Congress can be on some days, term limits appear like they would only add to the problem, not solve it.

We are currently under a President whose disdain for the norms of democracy is unlike anything we have ever seen in our 241-year-old Republic. When retaking the legislature is one of our only hopes at halting his dangerous agenda, to undermine the ability of that very legislature strikes one as an act of suicide. We must preserve the power of Congress, not only to oppose Trump, but to oppose any future President who may bring about tyranny. Term limits are simply the wrong answer to the problem.

Rep. O’Rourke does highlight some other areas where we can improve Congress, namely in tackling the issue of gerrymandering and money in politics. I share these priorities as well. In fact, I wrote about how to address gerrymandering right here. Before we can even talk about term limits, however, we need to address those two issues. Those are the true sources of corruption and dysfunction, in that they make elections less competitive and make legislators more beholden to donors.

Forcing a legislator out of office will only get them into the lobbyist industry faster, while their successor will go on to take the same checks from PACs and corporations. People elected under these conditions are not going to be in touch with their voters. They are certainly less likely to come from oppressed groups, like women and people of color, when they are being propped up by the same oligarchic interests, only under different rules.

I commend O’Rourke for his efforts to try and fix our legislative process. I also admire him for his commitment to leave office without the force of law. To set an example like that under no pressure but your own is a mark of integrity. On this matter, however, I deem that his efforts are misguided and that we continue to explore more viable, alternative solutions.

I discuss politics, economics, art, video games, and other interests.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store