BIDLACK: Term limits are un-American, a bad idea — and we already have them

Author: Hal Bidlack - October 11, 2017 - Updated: October 11, 2017

Hal Bidlack

We have just seen a week in which a Republican United States senator and our president engaged in a very strange and very public squabble, unthinkable in previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Sen. Corker from Tennessee took a swipe at the president, who promptly whipped out his phone to tweet a childish and petty attack at a senator of his own party. That senator then tweeted back a comment comparing the White House to a day care center without proper supervision.

As someone who has studied the American system of national governance for many years, let me assure you that these are remarkable and unprecedented public statements. We simply have not seen this before. Some people love it, others find it distasteful. And it appears that much of this recent squabble started when Sen. Corker announced he would not run for re-election to the Senate.

Americans are likely growing increasingly weary of these petty and childish antics coming from the White House and to a degree, from Capitol Hill. So what can or should be done about it? Some argue that one cause of this lack of both civility and productivity is the length of time some elected officials spend in Washington.  With the 22nd Amendment, term limits were created for the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but there are no other such limits in place for other elected national-level officials. Should there be?

A solid majority of Americans want term limits, for Congress, especially. A Rasmussen survey in 2016 found that fully 74 percent of respondents want term limits for all members of both the House and the Senate. A study by the Gallup organization in 2013 found similar numbers, with a whopping 82 percent of Republican respondents favoring such limits, while only 65 percent of Democrats agreed.

Not too many issues united the American electorate to the degree that term limits seem to. And yet, I am reminded of the words of James Madison, who noted:

“There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.”

After all, we do live in a democracy, don’t we? Shouldn’t the majority opinion rule? If Americans are so sure that term limits are such a good idea, one would have to be a bit daft to argue that term limits are un-American, a bad idea, plus we already have them.

And so I argue: term limits are Un-American, a bad idea, plus we already have them.

Further, I argue that what we need desperately is not term limits, but rather fundamental election reform.

The reason, I posit, that most people support the concept of term limits is because most people are tired, they think, of “career politicians” who, once elected, stay in office forever, and become less and less responsive to the people that elected them. Our own partisanship will inform the choice, but we can all name House members and senators who, we are quite certain, have overstayed their welcome. Why not introduce term limits then? Why not create a rule that prevents anyone from remaining in elective office too long. After all, we’ve seen term limits at the state level for a number of years now. A total of 15 state legislatures now operate under term limits. And as I mentioned above, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limits any president to no more than two terms. Shouldn’t what is good for the presidency be equally good for the House and Senate?

Let’s attack this issue one argument at a time:

Term limits are un-American: When the Founders gathered, in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776 to produce the Declaration of Independence, and later, when they again gathered in that fair city in 1787 to craft the U.S. Constitution, they created an entirely new system of governance. Explicit in this new system, was a clear intention that the government exists entirely to serve the needs of the people. The Founders, in the Constitution, put very few limits on who could be elected to office: US citizenship, a reasonable minimum age, and residency requirement to ensure a commitment to American values. That’s it. There was no mention of limiting service. Indeed, the Constitution actually allowed for longer terms in office than did the previous governing document, the Articles of Confederation. The Founders increased the terms in office of the House from one year to two, in an effort to create more continuity and expertise in office, while still keeping representatives subject to the will of the people through frequent elections (more on that in a bit).

So why does this make term limits un-American? Because the Founders specifically sought to create a government wherein the people could choose their own representatives. The minor limits placed on who could stand for office were to ensure a reasonable level of maturity (if one can be fully mature at 25, the minimum age for the House), and not to limit the choices of the people. Thus, term limits are an artificial and unfair restriction on the free choice of the people to choose their own representatives. Term limits are, therefore, un-American.

Which brings me to my second point,

Term limits are a Bad Idea: As with most things in life, the devil can be found in the details and in the unintended consequences of an action. The case of term limits is no exception. Supporters rarely consider the arguments in favor of having elected officials remain in office for a number of terms. The usual case in favor of term limits is that it will keep those elected from becoming too powerful, for example, by serving as a long-term chair of an important congressional committee. The “pro” case, as it is usually argued, says that it is better to have “new blood” regularly introduced to prevent stagnation and complacency in the form of Members and Senators who seem to fossilize in office and become unresponsive to those who elected them.

But this argument overlooks a vital and fundamental truth: governing is hard. Our government is a massive operation, with nearly $4 trillion in federal outlays per year. Depending on how you count, the federal government employs nearly 5 million people, and impacts the lives of many more. Like it or not, the federal government has a vast reach over remarkably wide areas of responsibility. And, for each of these areas, there is a House and a Senate committee with oversight responsibilities. From the U.S. tax code to health care to military readiness and war fighting, there are massive and complex issues to understand, evaluate, and control.

That means that currently, for example, the Ways and Means committee in the House, responsible for all taxation and revenue-raising legislation, is under the direction of current committee chair, Kevin Brady. Congressman Brady was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1997, meaning he has 20+ years in the Congress, learning its ways and means, so to speak. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his view on governance, it is clearly true that he is an expert on the U.S. tax code. Similarly, the chair of the Senate committee on the Armed Services is Senator John McCain, who arrived in the Senate in 1987, and who now has 30 years of Senate experience. The ranking member is Jack Reed, who also has 20+ years in the Senate. And very importantly, each of these individuals, with decades of expertise, is answerable to the citizens every time they run for reelection.

So, why is that a good thing? For one very simple reason — the unelected staff. While it seems like having fresh blood would be a good thing, there is a real cost to be paid when term limits (usually discussed as 12 years in the House and 6 or 12 in the Senate) kick in. As noted, the types of policies mentioned above are very complicated. It takes years to become an expert. Thus, with term limits, you are just starting to get the congressperson or senator up to speed on the nuances of the policymaking required, and, poof, they are gone. But who is not gone? The staff!

As a former Senate staffer myself, I know that there can be staffers in D.C. who have been there for many, many years. Thus, these unelected and largely unaccountable individuals have massive stores of knowledge about their particular policy process. This is not a danger when you also have elected representatives who also have massive stores of knowledge. The real danger would come, however, when (in a term-limited setting) committee members, and especially committee chairs, do not have the same background of information. This results in the elected committee members becoming hugely reliant on the input, and most dangerously, the guidance and advice of the unelected bureaucrats.

While I have no doubt that these individuals are almost universally honorable and seek to only advance what is best for the country, they can be wrong. And, if they are reporting to relatively new and inexperienced bosses, their mistakes (and frankly, their personal biases and goals) may become too influential in the policy making process. So, term limits are a bad idea because they empower an unelected staff beyond what is best for the country.

Plus, we already have term limits: We call them “elections,” and they happen every 2, 4, and 6 years. We have all the power we need to limit the terms of those we find not up to the task, while also keeping in office those representatives that have served us well. We need not throw out the congress with the bath water. Given that most Americans say they greatly dislike Congress, yet these same Americans return 9 in 10 of them to office every election, the evidence would suggest that we have a problem with our elections, and not with how long we let people hang around afterwards.

Term limits are the artificial instrument through which people want to achieve a larger, and very reasonable, goal. That goal is, simply put, to have a set of elected officials who are responsive to the electorate. We want congresspersons and senators to listen to, and care deeply about, those things that matter most to their constituents. Nothing wrong with that…

Term limits are an “after the fact” Band-Aid to “fix” the problem of elected representatives not seeming to care too much about the folks back home. Term limits are a response to a legitimate problem, but are like handing a firefighter an extra teacup of water. Far better to keep the fire from starting in the first place.

So, what do we do?

I argue that what we really need is not term limits, but rather election reform. We need to fix the way people run for, and are elected to, national office. When a member of the House finds her or his seat so safe due to an overwhelming partisan advantage, it is difficult to compel that member to care too much about a minority opinion in his/her district.

The first, and in my opinion the most critical problem to address, is the conundrum of gerrymandering and safe districts. Currently, out of the 435 congressional districts in the US, only about 33 are rated as being “truly competitive” in that a candidate from either major party could win. That’s only about 7 percent, meaning 93 percent of House seats are essentially decided not by the election, but by who get the district’s majority party’s nomination.  There have been a number of plans proposed to mitigate this problem. Some would have citizen-commissions created to draw the lines (though it’s not entirely clear how they would be free of partisan taint), other plans propose using computers to draw districts that balance a variety of demographic features, to create truly competitive districts. These would be a significant step forward, but, frankly, are not likely to occur until significant pressure is put on sitting elected officials. They currently have few motivations to decrease their own prospects for re-election.

Which therefore brings me to the final point – the need for electoral reform. There seem to be a number of very challenging roadblocks in the way of meaningful House and Senate reform. What might be achievable, if enough public pressure is created, is electoral reform that could serve to level the playing field for those candidates wishing to challenge sitting House or Senate members.

When I ran for the House in 2008, I raised roughly $250,000. That would appear to be a great deal of money. I spent an average of 6-8 hours per day, calling hundreds and hundreds of people, trying to convince them to donate to my campaign. I assure you, there are few experiences more humbling. With that quarter of a million bucks, I set out to buy the advertising and other stuff required to win a modern election. I remember when my media person came to me with “good news!” He reported that, due to the “small market” nature of the TV stations in my district, TV ads would “only” cost me about $68,000 per week. Major markets would run upwards of $500,000, and the really big cities could cost you a cool million per week. I was to be happy that it was “only” $68k here.

What that meant was, after paying for staff and all the other things that need to be paid for, I could afford roughly 3.5 days of TV. And, in running for federal office, TV advertising is the most important thing. So, what that really meant was that, after hours and hours on the phone begging for cash (it’s called “dialing for dollars” in the trade), I still came up short. Even though I was running against a fairly ineffective sitting member of the House, I couldn’t afford to become known to the electorate.

So what to do? I believe the answer is not term limits, but rather a series of actions to level the playing field to ensure that candidates for both the House and the Senate have a fighting chance, such as public funding of campaigns, limits on “outside” spending, and of course, addressing gerrymandering. True electoral reform will not be easy, nor will it come quickly. But we should not permit those difficulties to justify a system of term limits, which denies the American people the free choice that was at the core of the founding of this nation.

Term limits are like a good stiff drink – they may make the problem look better, but ultimately they make the real problem harder to see, and less likely to be addressed. I respectfully offer that when one says he or she wants term limits, what is truly desired is a more responsive and more compassionate set of elected officials and truly competitive elections. There is a path to that end that does not deny the American people their free choice of whom they wish to represent them. That path is true reform, creating truly competitive congressional districts wherein both parties (and any third parties that show up) must actually compete for votes, rather than just show up on election day. Just as the Founders intended.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.