Reasonable term limits are needed

Image by Shutterstock.

The idea of term limits keeps bubbling up.

A recent proposal in the U.S. Senate seeks an amendment to the Constitution that would limit a representative to three terms (six years) and a senator to two terms (12 years.)

Not going to happen. It requires the support of too many in Congress who seem to prefer unlimited power. Not limits on power.

The problem is clear. The solution is fuzzy.

It’s not enough to say that we have term limits through voting. We have incumbency retention days. It’s the day that citizens vote for the name most recognized, thanks to media and money advantages that incumbents possess. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that during the 2016 election, about 87% of U.S. senators and 97% of U.S. representatives were re-elected.

And, yes, some decades-serving politicians have done a good job at representing their constituents. But they’re replaceable. Others are capable of leading. Washington should not be the permanent home for either the corrupt or the capable. Our founding fathers believed in self-government through citizen representatives, not career politicians.

We can’t count on incumbents of either political party to institute term limits. In Senate Report 104-158—a failed attempt to pass term limits about 25 years ago—it was shared that Rep. Thomas Tucker offered the very first term limit proposal in 1789. Also unsuccessful.

Sometimes, a good idea fails because it’s taken to the extreme. We go overboard.

This latest Senate proposal makes the same mistake that the 104th Congress made. Back then, its authors would have been happy with limiting representatives to six terms (12 years) and senators to two terms (12 years.) But when the current starting point is unlimited terms, negotiating it down to 6-12 years is a bit harsh.

Members of Congress who opposed these short term limits railed against them, in part, because of the time, money and energy it takes to run for public office and then govern. Many step away from successful careers or businesses when they travel to Washington.

A more reasonable approach could help. Even increasing limits to nine terms (18 years) for representatives and three terms (18 years) for senators could make the proposal more agreeable. If you begin your career in the House with a newborn and end it with a high school graduate, it would be hard to say that you just didn’t have enough time to serve.

And if you like it that much, challenge a Senate seat and stay in Washington for another 18 years if you can swing it.   

What’s important is the constant awareness of limited time to accomplish what’s important to your constituents, instead of unlimited time to pander to special interest groups.

Back in 1995, congressional proponents of term limits stated, “One reason the people seek term limits is they perceive a stunning lack of political courage in Washington. In their eyes, Congress cannot even vote to balance the government checkbook…To many Americans, the system is broken. The difficult vote to end wasteful programs is not cast because re-election depends on helping some special interest. Without term limits, there may never be the political courage to solve the nations’ most difficult problems.”

That’s as true today, as it was in 1995.

If we can’t get term limits through a constitutional amendment, perhaps we should just start a new political party where candidates agree to serve just 18 years in the House and/or 18 years in the Senate. We can call it the “Term Limiter” party. Voters who support term limits are likely people who want basic, common-sense governing in all areas. It’d be a great home for someone who doesn’t want to be a Socialist-leaning Democrat or a Libertarian-leaning Republican.

Be a “Limiter.”

Who’s with me?

We can unite behind term limits

term limits

The country is politically polarized, but one issue that Democrats, Republicans and Independents can unite behind is term limits for members of the U.S. Congress.

We wouldn’t need to have this conversation if Congress weren’t so dysfunctional. It passes highly consequential legislation without reading it (Obamacare), is incapable of managing our money ($20 trillion debt) and will not work together on an issue as bipartisan as term limits. What is good for the nation is many times pushed aside for what is, instead, good for the politician or party.

There are three common arguments against term limits, but they’re weak.

Some say that we already have term limits, and that it’s called voting. But we don’t really have primaries or elections anymore. We have incumbency retention days. It’s the day citizens go to the voting booth and pull the lever for the name most recognized, thanks to media and money advantages that incumbents possess.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that during the 2016 election, the average Senate incumbent raised nearly $13 million while the challenger raised about $1.6 million. The average House incumbent raised $1.6 million compared to $200,000 from the opponent. With the help of all that money, about 87 percent of U.S. senators and 97 percent of U.S. representatives were re-elected.

Money is helping to send the same people back to Washington D.C. over and over again, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing if citizens actually had confidence in these elected officials. But high re-election rates don’t equal high enthusiasm for the work of the incumbents. A recent Rasmussen survey found that only 15 percent of voters felt members of Congress did a good or excellent job.

The vote is no longer efficacious.

A second reason given to oppose term limits is that while it would purge the corrupt and power-driven, it would also kick out the good ones. For example, it could be argued that decades-serving U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has represented Iowa well and done a lot of good for our nation.

But it’s not that Grassley has done something wrong. It’s that there are lots of other people who are fully capable of doing something right. If we vote with the fearful belief that there’s a scarcity of intelligence and wisdom in our country, we’ve already become a nation at risk. There are more than 535 individuals, out of 200 million adults, who love this country and can do what is necessary to keep her safe and prosperous.

Lastly, it’s said that it’s just too difficult to pass term limits because it requires a constitutional amendment.

The last amendment was the 27th and it stopped Congress from giving itself a pay raise that became effective immediately. Now, pay raises don’t become effective until after the next election. But without term limits, all it means is that instead of 100 percent of the current session of Congress enjoying the pay raise, just incumbents or 87 – 97 percent get it.

The amendment was needed, but the lack of term limits is the loophole that keeps members of Congress voting for their pay raises without consequence. We passed an amendment that has done little to rein in the power of lifer legislators. It’s worth the effort to pass an amendment that could dramatically reshape Congress back into a staff of citizen legislators, as was originally intended by the founding fathers.

In 1776, the colonists had the crazy notion that people didn’t need a king and could self-govern. It was a radical idea at the time, but now we take for granted that it will always last.

There will be, though, opposing forces driven by the lure of power that will continuously challenge this great Republic and our ability to effectively govern ourselves.

In President Abraham Lincoln’s time, proponents of slavery—thinly disguised as a states’ rights issue—was the opposing force. But in the Gettysburg Address, we hear his concern not just for a nation in a civil war, but also for the fragile future of such a country when he laments, “…whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.”

Our “great task” is to ensure that it will endure.

For many today, there’s a sense that our government is no longer “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and part of the problem is the feeling that we’ve lost control of the political process.

Term limits could go a long way to bring power back to the people.