By Luke Parsnow
The people of the United States will always disagree on how large a role the federal government should have. But they’re much more likely to find common ground on how long that role should be played out.
At the beginning of this year, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spearheaded a resolution for a constitutional amendment that would impose term limits for both houses of Congress: two six-year terms for senators and three two-year terms for members of in the House of Representatives. Cruz’s resolution is one of at least nine proposals for term limits that have come forward in the new Congress, all varying in their specific restrictions. After years of dysfunction and historically low job approval ratings, and coming on the heels of the longest government shutdown in American history, there’s no better time to seriously address a problem that’s as old as the republic itself and create a solution that most people already support.
We’re taught very early in school that U.S. presidents can only serve two terms. Term limits also exist for governors in 38 states and for mayors in many cities, towns and villages across the country, as well as a slew of other offices at all levels of government. Last year, the Florida state Legislature even came close to putting a referendum on the ballot for establishing term limits for school boards.
Why should Congress be the exception? We already live under one of the oldest Congresses in history: It’s a good indication that many of our elected officials have been there for a very long time.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has notched 34. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch retired in January as the longest-serving Republican senator, being first elected in 1976.
Former Michigan Rep. John Dingell, who died two weeks ago, had the distinction of being the longest serving House member, from 1955 to 2015. While such a long tenure is admirable, it’s hard to imagine having been represented by the same congressman your entire life as you celebrate your 60th birthday.
There’s a reason beyond partisan politics why term limits are so prevalent in our representative society. It’s just plain healthy. And there are a lot of ills in our legislative branch that term limits would remedy.
Term limits would prevent lawmakers from becoming too entrenched in power in an era when the federal government is becoming more powerful all the time. They would force constant personnel changes to leadership positions, most notably House speaker and Senate majority leader, effectively changing the way government is operated.
They would encourage more people to run for office, making races more competitive by cracking down on the immense advantage of incumbency. They would even slow down the influence of partisan gerrymandering.
Term limits would help curb corruption by, at some point, terminating the constant need to campaign and raise money. That may actually help our leaders focus on legislating based on what they think is right instead of what is right politically, worrying about their constituents instead of worrying about getting re-elected.
They would greatly weaken lobbyists and special interests, who wouldn’t be able to spend years studying officeholders and knowing what gets their attention and their votes.
And most important, they would permanently eliminate career politicians and guarantee a revolving door of fresh faces after so many years instead of decades.
The only substantial argument that can be made against term limits is that they would take away valuable experience from such a crucial job and kick out well intentioned seasoned candidates, therefore eroding the congressional mental capacity and competence.
To that, all we have to do is look at the executive branch. In 1951, following Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented four presidential elections, the 22nd Amendment — limiting presidents to two terms — was added to the Constitution. But until Roosevelt, no president had ever been elected more than twice. More than just a precedent set by George Washington, it’s not like many never tried. They had either tired of the job, realized the political winds were against them and didn’t try running for another term, or did try and lost.
Term limits are healthy for our republic. Until 1951, we more or less set them ourselves for the office of president, and that hasn’t really changed much since. As popular as all were at one point, it’s extremely hard to see Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama winning a third term if it was allowed. Americans have a natural yearning for new leaders before too long.
Congress doesn’t get the attention or have the same constituencies as a president does, and therefore plays by a different set of rules to keep themselves in power. Regardless, a February 2018 McLaughlin & Associates poll found that 82 percent of Americans support term limits for Congress.
And if losing experienced lawmakers is the sole position against term limits, why do so many other levels of government have them? Cities and states, as well as the presidency, haven’t collapsed yet from constant changes in leadership. There’s no reason to believe Congress would.
This is hardly the first time term limits have been debated. They were proposed when the Constitution was being penned in 1787 and on Capitol Hill in 2017.
This certainly won’t be the last time, either. Despite their necessity and popularity, term limits unfortunately aren’t likely to become reality any time soon. We know what we’re up against: We’re asking the powerful to give up their power. We never expect that to be easy.
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