Most Americans are frustrated with the U.S. Congress — an attitude reflected in its abysmally low approval ratings that typically hover around 20% as reported by Gallup. Occasionally the ratings spike upward such as occurred after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, but otherwise they remain mired alongside the approval ratings given to murderous dictators and personal injury lawyers.
Many people have called for the imposition of term limits so that members would have to leave after serving a specified number of terms (e.g., six two-year terms for House members and two six-year terms for Senate members). Many believe that such limits would infuse the Congress with new blood and make it more reflective of the wishes of the electorate.
This sentiment is also fueled by angry voters who believe that the nation is run by inept or indifferent politicians who seem unconcerned about the nation's future. This "throw all the rascals out" mentality is understandable but it is not a panacea; if implemented, it might backfire and leave the Congress even more dysfunctional than it is at the current time.
Even though term limits are extremely popular with the general public with the Scott Rasmussen Poll showing a 4:1 margin in favor of specific limits, other entities such as the Brookings Institution have argued in favor of keeping the current system in place so that members can continue to serve in Congress until the day they are carried out of the chambers on a gurney.
Much of the concern expressed by Brookings stems from the idea that the more experienced members of Congress would constantly be shown the door so that it would always be left to be managed by neophytes who might struggle to operate the institution with any degree of cohesion.
If voters value having the widest possible choice of candidates for Congress, then term limits automatically reduce the number of potential choices for public office. Fewer choices means that extremely qualified politicians could be excluded from consideration by the voters even though these candidates would be easily reelected in the absence of those limits.
After all, term limits will apply across the board to all officeholders.
Another problem with tossing out experienced legislators is that it deprives Congress of individuals who have spent years and even decades learning how to become skilled policymakers. Today's lawmakers must draft complex legislation having hundreds or even thousands of pages.
The experience needed to craft legislation that satisfies the rules and procedures of each chamber is not obtained overnight. The absence of more-experienced members could also exacerbate the more radical tendencies of newcomers who might feel less constrained to work with moderate politicians.
Term limits may also create significant disincentives for legislators to spend the time needed to develop expertise in a given area — whether it be in agriculture or armed services or foreign affairs. One would expect that someone who could spend a lifetime in Congress would, in many cases, devote more time to learning about a particular area of policy than the member who will be booted out in 12 years.
Such a member might prefer to focus on burnishing his or her relationships with prospective future employers such as nefarious foreign governments with suitcases of cash. There might not be much incentive to do a lot of "homework" such as poring over thick briefing books detailing such things as the most recent efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to steal American technologies.
Although we might hope that the incoming freshman senator or representative would be full of enthusiasm and not already thinking about their retirement, it may too much to expect many of them to develop the expertise they might otherwise have obtained in the absence of term limits. Brookings suggest that the absence of policymaking experience that would come with longer tenures in office would cause many legislators to defer more to outside parties such as lobbyists.
One other argument against term limits is that we already have them in place to prevent our presidents from serving for more than two four-year terms.
If the commander-in-chief is intent on carrying out an agenda that many perceive to be hostile to basic American values, however, then the fact that there are term limits will not be very helpful. An incompetent or even indifferent American president can cause enormous damage to the country in a matter of months.
Term limits will not "fix" Congress so long as the voters continue to elect mediocre candidates. Indeed, it is the voters who are ultimately responsible for the quality of their representatives in Congress and it is the voters who must bear the blame if they keep returning the same people to Congress over and over again.
Jefferson Hane Weaver is a transactional lawyer residing in Florida. He received his undergraduate degree in Economics and Political Science from the University of North Carolina and his J.D. and Ph.D. in International Relations from Columbia University. Dr. Weaver is the author of numerous books on varied compelling subjects. Read more of his reports — Here.
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