It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.
I know a lot of people to whom this is good news. I know them, because I hear from them every time I speak at a public event that allows for a give-and-take with the audience. Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could be thrown out automatically has great appeal.
Yet as popular as the idea might be among the public at large, it has no traction on Capitol Hill. The fundamental problem is that any measures imposing limits will need the support of leaders who, almost by definition, have served a long time. They’re not going to put themselves out of a job they like. Small surprise that bills calling for term limits don’t even make it out of committee.
Now, I should say right up front that you’re not going to hear a strong argument in favor of term limits from a guy who served 34 years in Congress. I’m biased. But I want to spell out the reasons for my bias, not because I think term limits are a burning issue in Washington — they’re not — but because I wish they were less of an issue for ordinary voters.
Congress has a lot of problems right now, and the American people have a role to play in fixing them, but term limits are a distraction from the truly hard work that needs to be done.
When you boil down all the debating points for and against term limits, there are two that bear the crux of the argument. The first has to do with the nature of our democracy. Supporters of the idea believe that bringing in fresh thinking and new leaders on a regular basis will make Congress more representative. However, stripping voters of the right to re-elect a representative whom they’ve supported in the past does not make for a more democratic system — rather, less.
Representative government rests on the notion that voters get to choose their legislators. Telling them that this is true for all candidates but one — the incumbent — does not strengthen voters’ rights; it reduces their choices.
It also weakens Congress. And that’s the other key issue.
The most important point to remember in all this is that if you take power away from a senior legislator, that power does not evaporate. Instead, it flows to the bureaucracy and the president. Serving productively in Congress is a tough, exacting task. It demands a deep knowledge of the issues that confront the country; a keen eye — backed by years of experience — for the ways in which executive agencies can go off track and then seek to hide that fact; insight into the ways in which both allies and opponents on any given issue might be motivated to shift their positions; and the hard-earned wisdom to forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies.
These traits come neither quickly nor easily. Kicking members of Congress out of their seats just as they’re gaining the ability to legislate effectively and oversee the government responsibly demotes Congress to the status of a minor agency. A politician elected to a limited term immediately begins looking for another job, which reduces his or her effectiveness and attention to the job at hand.
Moreover, in government, information is power. Legislators constantly come up against executive branch expertise backed by thousands of employees and big budgets. Legislators without expertise are at a strong disadvantage.
Term limits are not the solution to the real dysfunction that besets Washington. They reduce the choices of voters and accelerate the accumulation of power in the executive branch. They move representative democracy in the wrong direction.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.