Why Term Limits Don't Quite Strengthen Democracy

A constituent letter to Seattle Mayor Charles Royer stating, "Here's hoping you will have a SHORT RULE!"
Constituent Sara Jones expresses succinct, polite disdain for Seattle Mayor Charles Royer in a 1981 letter. Source

There is a bumper sticker I see from time to time: "Congress isn't a nursing home. Support term limits."

With 65 members (15%) of the U.S. House and 34 members (34%) of the Senate over 70, Congress does appear to lead the country in workplace anti-age discrimination.

A few stats to wow your friends and impress your enemies: Seven members of Congress served over half a century. As of this writing, the late Michigan Congressman John Dingell still tops the leaderboard at 59 years of service.

More than 50 members have served 40+ years, including nine currently in office: Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley with 49 years and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey at 47 years top the list.

Term limits have been with us since the jump. George Washington set his own, announcing them in his Farewell Address after serving eight years.

In a fine bit of irony, each year on Washington's birthday, a U.S. Senator reads the Farewell Address to a chamber populated by members who have notoriously struggled to bid farewell.

Jog forward a few centuries and term limit fever swept the nation at the end of the 20th century, with a slew of state legislatures adopting them. Today, 16 statehouses have term limits, including my own Maine. Congressional term limits are more popular, more bipartisan than sunshine and puppies.

And it makes a certain kind of sense, doesn't it? Get fresh blood into this rickety, broken political system. Kick those polarizing, do-nothing pranksters to the curb. It appears to be an elegant solution to a complex snarl of problems.

So on the one hand, legislative term limits seem like they could solve a real problem. But on the other hand...

President Truman famously asked for a one-handed economist after getting fed up with economists saying to him, "On the one hand, Mr. President... But on the other hand..."

...term limits have some consequences.

Kneecap Legislative Capacity
Legislatures run on institutional knowledge. To get anything done, you have to know the Committee process, cultural norms, floor procedure, precedents, appropriations, how to interface with the Executive Branch.

To say nothing of developing subject matter expertise – tech policy alone could take years to get a handle on, at which point, the technology's totally changed – to craft informed policy so there aren't unintended consequences or loopholes that can be exploited.

Any legislator who's honest will say you need a few sessions under your belt to learn how the place actually works. But right around the time you're getting the hang of it, you're booted out, which creates real brain drain.

An obvious answer is to rely on staff for institutional knowledge. Alas, Congressional staff positions turn over every 1-2 years and most staff leave the Hill after 4-5 years, often the consequence of high demands and low compensation.

There's also a shift afoot in Congressional Committees towards increasing communications staff, meaning more folks for social media and press scrums, but fewer folks who know how to move a bill down the legislative highway.

Over in state legislatures, it appears that with high member turnover, there is also high staff turnover, especially among partisan staff whom legislators often work more closely with.

So relying on staff - fantastic though they are (quoth this former staffer) - isn't a guaranteed option.

Some state legislatures have consecutive term limits, like Maine, where you can only serve a certain number of terms in a row. Then you take a one-term breather - or more - and you can get back in the game. Legislators who decide to run again after sitting out a season or so will bring a knowledge base back to the statehouse, though some of the players have changed.

Some state legislatures have lifetime term limits, like California, meaning you can only run a certain number of times from cradle to grave. See which state does what here.

Lobbyist Empowerment
Lobbyists typically have institutional know-how and can present rookie legislators with ready-made bills or amendments and a strategy to block and tackle them through the legislative process.

For some part-time legislators hoping to show constituents real deliverables in a time-limited window, that could be a seductive option. This doesn't always happen - term limits also mean lobbyists have less time to build rapport with legislators - but outsized lobbyist influence is a real possibility in a term limited world.

Quick Hit Policy Wins Over Long-Term Policy Needs
If you don't have much time to deliver for your constituents, you may be over-incentivized to push visible, quick-return policy like a flashy road repaving project over knotty long-term policy, like reforming parts of our healthcare system. Both are needed. But over-reliance on the former means the latter can become harder to fix the longer it's unaddressed.

Executive Branch Empowerment
With less institutional know-how in the Legislative Branch, oversight of the Executive Branch can be diminished, potentially emboldening governors and agencies to get a little foot loose and fancy free.

Political scientist Casey Burgat (owner of one of the jollier headshots in academia) suggests that what we find so troubling about Congress is largely the result of gerrymandering up the wazoo, the outsized influence of lobbyists, and polarization. Addressing that with term limits is a bit like taking Pepto-Bismol for a sprained ankle.

So what are we to do then?

I'll give Dr. Burgat the last word: "As constituents, we should rely on the most effective mechanism available to remove unresponsive, ineffectual members of Congress: elections."

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