Congressional Term Limits: Three Perspectives and Solutions–Good, Bad, or Both?

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Article 1 of the Constitution states,

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, [chosen by the Legislature thereof,]* for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

The constitution, in other words, grants people the freedom to re-elect their state and federal legislators as many times as they want. There is no power above them to control their decisions.

Yet throughout the last hundred years constituents overwhelmingly voted for incumbents. In fact, to this day, the average incumbent re-election rate remains constant, between 89 and 95 percent.

This sizable electoral advantage has understandably ignited concerns. Many wonder: How do we create a level playing field for opposition candidates?

Well, one viable proposal is term limits, but as with almost any new approach, there are critics and proponents.

Proponents of term limits argue that politics is “quid pro quo corruption,” involving surreptitious exchanges of money for influence, or access to, officials. The longer incumbents are able to retain their seats without competition from others, the more susceptible they are at creating networks that increase opportunities for corruption in public, private, and governmental institutions.

These same proponents also point out that incumbents receive comparatively higher levels of media coverage, which unfairly allows them to mobilize public opinion on a myriad of issues. This is made easier by campaign war chests. If needed, incumbents can tap into large sums of money (raised and saved throughout the election cycle) to launch so-called “negative ads,” ones that paint skewed pictures of opponents. The ultimate goal here, of course, is to increase their overall odds of winning and to distinguish themselves from challengers (whether through ethical means or dirty hustling).

Critics of term limits assert the opposite. Instead of forming true relationships between staff and other members of Congress, the government’s ability to accomplish anything of significance becomes negligible. There is essentially a loss of leadership, experience, continuity, and institutional memory. They emphasize institutional memory, in particular, because–to them–it avoids the repeat of past mistakes. However, proponents would likely respond that history suggests otherwise; institutional memory has done little, if anything, except for a proliferation of deadly, deep-rooted conflicts around the world.

Another problem that critics have is a surge of inexperienced politicians who have never been elected to Congress before. Without the necessary skills and political resources at their disposal, they can’t fulfill their civic duty. One profound impediment in this regard is the introduction of bills that fail to gain traction, because it’s only when a politician is able to write legislation with actual substance that he or she can get enough partisan support to pass it in Congress.

If there is one thing critics and proponents agree on, it’s lobbyists; but, at the same time, they disagree on how lobbyists support their own reasoning. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that both incumbents and inexperienced politicians are susceptible to lobbyists’ influence, as well as being subject to broader themes of corruption.

While each side presents valid concerns in this ongoing debate, there is a third point of view, which many perhaps don’t take into account. And that is, although term limits are good, they cannot solve all of the problems ailing our political system.

Proponents of this more aggressive approach (referred to as “activists” from here on after) argue that instituting mandatory term limits will not bring on a tidal wave of change for the American people. Instead, it would produce contrary outcomes, first by limiting the ability of politicians to create networks that serve high-level corruption, then by incentivizing perverse and harmful short-run behaviors. Officials may start, for example, taking on as much as they can as quickly as they can, going beyond the norms of conventional practicalities.

Furthermore, it is also unclear whether such a framework will even be able to produce principled representatives who have the integrity to resist attempts of undue influence by the government and other private citizens. Even under the current regime, politicians still engage in systematic misuse by pandering to short-term electoral considerations. If term limits were enacted, it would expedite our current model of policy-making at the expense of all other people, all other issues, and anything related to the long term.

What truly needs to be “fixed,” according to activists, is the electorate–not how long the Constitution says legislators can hold or run for office.

More specifically, critics and proponents both ignore the fact that it’s the constituency’s selfish, short-term interests which impedes the development of future-oriented politicians. The best way to correct this distortion is for Americans to elect public servants who act responsibly toward future generations, which in time would necessitate a fundamental shift in how policy decisions are made. Otherwise, substantive reform will most likely end up as the work of the innovative few, and the next generation will be required to bear fully the consequences of our actions.

Critics, proponents, and activists of term limits provide an interdisciplinary lens to more thoroughly understand the enablers and barriers we must address in successfully combating political corruption. Through their efforts, we now know that corruption not only wreaks havoc on the global financial system, but it also undermines the integrity and effectiveness of our own government. The potential for it will continue for as long as incumbents have the monetary resources at their disposal to institute regulatory barriers that profoundly underestimate the importance of developing a level playing field in which individuals of all political affiliations can compete fairly.

Although regulations that favor entrants and limits incumbents are more likely to lead to lower levels of corruption, we arguably still need experienced politicians to chair committees, act as leaders of the houses, and build support for important legislative programs. Let’s not forget that the purpose of our elections is to choose representatives who are familiar with the full scope of government and are committed to fostering community involvement. If they are unable to liaise with others in shaping the nation’s future, how can we expect them to have the time and resources necessary to devote themselves intelligently to politics?

On the grand scheme of things, term limits are merely a stepping-stone toward realizing our aspirations. They attack the symptoms of careerism–that is,  internal ones within Congress–but leave all other issues involving corruption, lobbying, and the will of constituents unchanged. Rather than look for a “one-shot-fix” solution, we should focus on incremental reforms that cumulatively combat political corruption, especially those that help the electorate assess how the legislature and the chief executive are complexly intertwined with the policy decisions of local, state, and federal lawmakers.


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