from the book, The Hokey Pokey of Politics by Frank Romans
Since America's founding in 1776, term limits have been a hotly debated issue in U.S. politics. Yet, even from the very beginning the power of term limits to guard against oligarchy and preserve representative government was well understood.
"I apprehend that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of president and senator will end in abuse." - Thomas Jefferson
"After a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants and no longer civil." - Winston Churchill
"Term limits would cure both senility and seniority-both terrible legislative diseases." - Harry Truman
And one more final quote from the infamous lobbyist, Jack Abramoff: "As a lobbyist, I was completely against term limits, and I know a lot of people are against term limits, and I was one of the leaders, because why? As a lobbyist, once you buy a congressional office, you don't have to re-buy that office in six years, right?"
The fears of our framers, today, have been realized. The rise of career politicians has removed the power from "We, The People" and transferred it to Congress.
One of the main arguments in favor of term limits is that the framers did not expect government to be run by professional politicians. This implies that there is some sort of evil in being a professional politician, and they wanted to guard against it. There is also an argument against imposing term limitations, and the real history of our founders does conflict with the notion of having limits.
Consider this, Thomas Jefferson was a professional politician by any definition. He served for over forty years combined in the Congress, the Virginia legislature, Governor of Virginia, U.S. Secretary of State, Vice-President, and finally as President. James Madison was also a career politician. Most of the founders were long-term officeholders. Connecticut's Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a drafter of the U.S. Constitution held office from 1769 until his death. He served seven consecutive terms in the Continental Congress, a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was in the U.S. Senate when he died. Under a term limits rule, these men could not have served so long. There are many other notables in our history that we may not have seen if there were term limitations. Opponents of term limits argue that our founders were more concerned that we have the most capable people running our government, that experience matters, and term limits could get in the way of that.
"Nothing renders government more unstable than a frequent change of the persons that administer it." - Roger Sherman, 1788
Even though there is widespread support (75% or more of the public) for limitations, there are a few downsides that should be considered.
Does it take power away from voters? If the voters really want someone, and that person is barred from being on the ballot, then you are restricting voter choice.
Policymaking and crafting legislative proposals, is a learned skill. Sometimes societal issues are complex things, without simple answers, and the public may not be best served by inexperienced lawmakers. It takes a long time to learn and master all the various rules and procedures of Congress, to form coalitions and alliances to get things done, and term limits forces the seasoned members out the door.
Another possible problem is members who know their time is limited may lack incentive to gain policy expertise. Fewer lawmakers with experience could result in even more influence by special interest groups rushing in to fill the information void for the inexperienced legislator.
Term limits could force the best employees out of a job. Doesn't it make more sense to keep them to utilize their skills and talent? It seems like a bad return on investment.
The big issue of course for many of us is the corruption and the revolving door of the lobbying industry. As mentioned previously, instead of curtailing influence, the opposite could occur as newbie lawmakers turn to special interests for information on a topic or industry. Since limits have never existed on the federal level, political scientists have studied state and foreign governments to judge the effects. What their studies find is that term limits have, unfortunately, served to exacerbate corruption.
Based upon these arguments, one might conclude that the best way to remove an ineffective or unresponsive member of Congress is with our current method: elections.
Term limits are opposed primarily by elected officials and the special-interest groups that depend on them. It is obvious why a member of Congress would not view term limitations favorably. They have a starting salary of $174,000 and up to 230 days off. (If you do the math, that is $1,289 per day worked)
There are other perks that most of us could not imagine. The senate dining room is a first-class, elite restaurant that the rest of us probably could not afford. They fly first-class and have free reserved parking at both Regan and Dulles airports. They are allowed $40,000 just for office furnishings. Have you heard of the "franking privilege?" It allows them to spend $50,000 for mass mailings, and that gives an advantage to any incumbent. Their annual expense accounts range from $1.2 million to as high as $4 million dollars. That is per member. It is supposed to cover staff salaries, food, and travel expenses. I can tell you as the CEO of a medium-sized company, never did I have such a perk.
Most of us know of their top-tier healthcare, but they also have a top-tier "wellness center" with an indoor tennis court, and other country-club amenities. By the way, the Senate Hair Care Services is a longstanding, taxpayer-subsidized barber shop and salon.
Wait, there is more. Maybe you did not know this one; they have a private subway, so they don't have to walk outside to get to their offices. You may have heard that they receive compensation for life, and that is not exactly true. But depending on age and length of service they could receive up to 80% of pay in their pension program.
Who would want to give all of that up?
The problem, as it exists today, is the best and brightest tend to not run since it is nearly impossible to defeat an incumbent. They must wait for the incumbent to retire, die, or go to prison. In 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "We have term limits. They're called elections." I would add, "but they're not fair elections." If we open the process by removing the barriers to entry, more candidates will run, and the public will get the kind of democracy it wants and deserves.
While we are on the subject, one area that has been debated is the lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the framers of our constitution did not want "nine old people in Washington sitting in robes telling everybody else how to live." Yet, that is what we have.
We have seen Justices stay on way past their prime, and we have seen the contentious political confirmation hearings. The fact is, these are the people making the decisions for us, and perhaps it would make sense for either a term limit or mandatory retirement age.
In the past, we have had politicians who had no business occupying a seat in the Senate or the House. The most obvious example was Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC). He served forty-seven years until 2003, the year he died. He was 100. He was so frail and under sedation, he needed assistance standing up from his chair. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is 87. There are many others well into their eighties still serving. I salute them for their service, but there must be a point in time where we usher in the fresh blood, fresh ideas, and vigor of the next generation. Do we want our highest court judges and congressional representatives making crucial decisions when they are past their prime?
Common sense dictates the need for changes to our current system. We need term limits for all government representatives. We need a cutoff age of 80 for the Supreme Court, and Presidential candidates need to be under 80 during their term. I do not say this to be cruel, just sensible. I don't think it matters how smart or experienced you are. Even if you are in great shape at 80, you have no business being President, a Supreme Court Justice, or a member of Congress.
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