US president-elect Donald Trump called for congressional term limits during his campaign. He’s not yet been sworn in, but Congress is already back in session and answering that call. On January 3, US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) — one of Trump’s opponents in last year’s GOP primaries — and US Representative Ron DeSantis (R-FL) proposed a constitutional amendment limiting Senators to two (six-year) terms and Representatives to three (two-year terms).
Term limits are incredibly popular. Voters enact them whenever given the opportunity to do so at the state level. In an October poll conducted by Rasmussen, 74% of likely voters supported congressional term limits, with only 13% opposed, and with super-majority support across party lines and among independents.
Are term limits a good idea? Sure. I personally hope this amendment gets the required 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress and is ratified by 3/4 of the states’ legislatures.
But don’t mistake term limits for a panacea.
As some wags would have it, we already enjoy term limits. They’re called “elections.” Voters are free to send politicians home at the end of any term (provided those politicians have election opponents, which is usually although not always the case). But they seldom do so. US House and Senate re-election rates bottom out at about 80% in a bad year for incumbents.
Two favorite arguments in favor of term limits are that they will replace the corruption and careerism of incumbency with wholesome “citizen legislators” who labor briefly in the political vineyards before returning to private life. But will that really work out?
Sure, a term-limited congressperson can’t leverage the power of seniority to reward backers and cronies with government favors like a “congressperson for life” can. On the other hand, a term-limited congressperson might just sell out more quickly and completely, making as much hay as possible while the sun briefly shines.
And in the face of term limits, the forces of corruption may focus more on the “farm team” strategy of shoveling graft at up-and-coming city council members and state legislators so that they arrive in Washington already primed to play ball after years of doing just that. Pre-corrupted, so to speak, before they even begin their maximum six years in the house and 12 years in the Senate, which is pretty much a career anyway.
Limit terms? OK. But don’t expect miracles. An expiration date may help, but it’s no substitute for sending politicians home for bad behavior.
Thomas L. Knapp
William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism