The Power in Choosing Not to Run for Re-Election

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Members of Congress rarely decline to run for re-election. But might there be a special power in doing just that?

President Donald Trump announced late last year that he would make term limits for Congress a priority during his first 100 days in office. During a rally in Colorado in October of 2016, Mr. Trump said he would push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress. Of course, Trump’s first 100 days in office has looked quite different from what many expected, but the question remains: are (voluntary) term limits a good idea?

It is often the case that politicians choose not to seek additional terms because of a lack of popularity, not necessarily because of a political ideology. However, there have been a few notable exceptions. For example, now- Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey became famous for promising not to run for more than three terms in the House of Representatives (1999-2005) and then keeping that promise. Another example—and probably the most famous one—is Tillie Fowler. Fowler, a congresswoman from Florida, was elected to Congress in 1992 and promised to serve no more than four terms. By 2000 she was one of the most powerful woman in Congress but still honored her old promise to not campaign for a fifth term. These acts are so notable precisely because so few politicians do it; in fact, 79 members of Congress have been in office for at least 20 years and 16 members of Congress have been in office for at least 30 years.

While Congress is meant to serve the people, the average American knows little about the internal mechanisms of the Senate and House of Representatives. A push towards voluntary term limits may help solve that problem. In addition to creating more transparency within Congress and eliminating the need for big donors, term limits also have the potential to create fresh ideas and change in Washington every few years. This is necessary for an institution long perceived as old and stagnant. Also, there is less time for members of Congress to lose touch with the citizens they represent. 

Those in Congress who impose voluntary limits on themselves become quite powerful simply by doing so. They are disciplined in their legislation, do not fear (and often speak out against) special interest groups and big money donors, and strongly seek out positive change. For example, Tillie Fowler refused to take money from the National Rifle Association, despite being a Republican. This has the power to enshrine the legacies of these members of Congress as an ideal for which future politicians ought to strive. Look no further than the fact that the Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park in Jacksonville bears her name.

There is a long history since George Washington of great American politicians demonstrating that they do not want to continuously hold power. This is why Harry Truman kept a statue honoring Cincinnatus, a Roman general and statesman who left power to return to his farm, on his desk in the oval office. Voluntary term limits are a means by which members of Congress can build more trust with their constituents and work towards securing policy objectives that positively impact society. Most of all, it might dispel the notion that politicians only care about achieving and maintaining power rather than working on behalf of their constituents and the nation. 

Nikhil Kesarla is a student at Cornell University. 

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