I’m holding my copy of The Federalist Papers. It’s the same one I’ve been referencing since I was an undergrad political science student.
I need it now because I want to invoke the reasoning of James Madison.
I don’t think there should be term limits.
Not for the House of Representatives.
Not for the Senate.
Not for the President.
Okay, I’m willing to bend my objection to term limits for the president, but that is as far as I’m willing to go.
There has been a push recently, and not so recently, for members of Congress to have term limits. I understand the desire. Some members of Congress stay in their seats for an extremely long amount of time.
Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia served in the senate for over 51 years.
Representative John Dingell has served for over 57 years.
There are many members of Congress who have served nearly as long, and they are rarely face any serious competition for their seats.
The reality of the length of tenure is actually much different.
In a 2013 Congressional Research Service study, it was found that the average period of time someone serves in the House is 9.1 years and the average Senator serves 10.2 years.
That is certainly not a lifetime appointment.
Term limits were discussed during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. They were rejected.
In Federalist No. 53, Madison said:
“[A] few of the members of Congress will possess superior talents; will by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves to those advantages. The greater proportion of new members of Congress, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they be to fall into the snares that may be laid before them.”
What Madison was arguing is that members of Congress who serve for longer periods of time gain expertise in areas of government that would be lost if term limits we imposed. Think of the chairpersons and ranking members of the many committees in Congress. They thoroughly understand their given areas and are able to make decisions and understand information that a newer member of Congress might not.
That information doesn’t come quickly or easily and it shouldn’t be assumed that a new member of Congress would do as good of a job.
Experience is valuable. Think about the job that you do. How long have you been doing it? Could someone fresh out of training come in and do as good a job as you have after years of experience?
A veteran teacher has built up expertise. They know how to teach their material and they know how to get through to students. They understand which ones are hungry and which ones are tired. More importantly, they know why they are hungry and tired.
A new teacher doesn’t have that understanding yet. It takes time.
Term limits would not only rid Congress of any corrupt members, but it would also throw out the good and honest ones. The members who have fought for their constituents and country for a long time.
Term limits would ensure that there we are always governed by the inexperienced.
The Pros of Term Limits
Certainly, there are arguments for term limits, with the main being to limit public corruption. The longer someone serves as a member of Congress, the more tempting it is for lawmakers to become self-interested and turn away from the best interests of the public. Lobbyists can ensnare them with promises of wealth and privileges. PACs gain traction and can sway them.
It is argued that members of Congress who hold their office for a long period of time fail to bring new ideas into the government and that new members would do so. Sure, most new members of Congress are filled with new ideas. That’s because they are fresh from understanding what the electorate wants from them. As voters, we should constantly be letting our legislators know what we expect, even if they have been in their seats for a decade.
Also, term limits would reduce the need to constantly fundraise, to constantly appeal to a base of voters, and would allow them for focus on what is best for all of their constituents for the amount of time they know they have.
We Already Have Term Limits
Elections, whether they are every 2, 4, or 6 years, are term limits. Are we so dumb as a political body that we can’t get rid of members of Congress who aren’t doing their job? If we are, then we need to fix that. There are 535 members of Congress and over 325 million people in the US. Who really has control?
I know that incumbents have an extreme advantage. They have franking privileges and have fundraising advantages that far outweigh their challengers, but they can still be voted out of office.
Remember 2010 when the Tea Party swept many long-serving members of Congress out of office?
Our democracy, our Constitution, gave us term limits. It is up to us to exercise our power.
The people choose to elect FDR four times. He led the country through the Great Depression and WWII and the people wanted him to stay in power.
He was the first president to be elected more than twice. He was also the first one to choose to run more than twice, but we had a good track record of democratic transitions of power.
It was the Republican Party that, fearing another Democratic leader holding power that long, pushed for the twenty second Amendment limiting a president to two terms.
But, like I said, I can get behind limiting the terms of the president. He is one man with an extreme amount of power.
In Congress, there are 535 members total. Power is diluted and there is no chance of any one person taking control and keeping it.
Term limits sound good, but remember that there are unintended consequences to every decision.
Amending the Constitution to change our election process may not be in our best interest in the long run.
If you think that your member of Congress has been there too long, and they aren’t doing a good job, do something about it.
Don’t think it can be done?
Of course it can.
If enough people decide that enough is enough, change will happen.
If they don’t want to change their elected representative, then that’s a consequence of democracy – not a failure.