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Power Corrupts: The Case for Term Limits

Interestingly enough, a number of members of Congress who supported the 1995 term limit proposals remain in office today.

Term limits may prove useful in disrupting the tendency to think in partisan lockstep, a phenomenon that results in the curious reality that nearly all Congressional Democrats should be convinced that climate change is the greatest peril facing the world while nearly all Republicans dismiss its risks.

It is of prime importance to encourage citizens to re-engage with their government and not become apathetic or defeatist in light of developments about corruption and inefficiency in the legislatures.

In 1994, the Republican Party, which had gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, promised “a first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.” The Republicans campaigned for the 1994 midterm election on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” promising to address deep-seated dissatisfaction with the federal government and the perception that legislators were more concerned with self-interest than in actively representing their constituents.

However, Mr. Gingrich’s efforts to amend the constitution to impose term limits failed to gain sufficient votes in the House. When it became apparent that it would be infeasible to impose term limits through constitutional changes, proponents of the policy altered their tactics. Term limits were placed as a proposition on ballots in 24 states. This strategy culminated in the 1995 Supreme Court case U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, in which the court ruled that states could not impose further qualifications on legislators than those already present in the constitution. As a consequence of this ruling, term limit statutes were struck down in 23 states. Although these efforts in the mid-1990’s failed to achieve the adoption of term limits, an objective held by many who view Washington as a bastion of entrenched interests that fail to serve adequately the American people, the issue was revived recently during the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump.

In this election year, Mr. Trump made a defining feature of his campaign limiting the benefits that typically follow those who hold federal office. In doing so, he drew a sharp distinction between the so-called governing class and working class Americans, the segment of the population that propelled him to his November victory. A core proposal of his agenda is term limits for Congress. And there are compelling reasons to favor this proposal, particularly, in our view, as it applies to the House of Representatives.

Mr. Trump’s “drain the swamp” message resonated strongly with voters, who have grown habitually dissatisfied with reports of members of Congress benefiting financially during both their tenure in office and afterwards. One glaring example of this, though admittedly now overshadowed by his recent sexual abuse admissions, was former House Speaker Dennis Hastert netting an estimated $3 million dollars from selling land investments, which had increased in value due to a federal highway project he actively supported and earmarked in 2005. Mr. Hastert’s financial dealings of questionable ethics are no anomaly. It is now all but expected that politicians will reap financial benefits while supposedly “serving the the public interest.”

In spite of this, incumbents in the House of Representatives enjoy re-election rates in excess of 90%, and there have been a number of instances of members of Congress being re-elected while embroiled in scandal. One particularly notable recent example concerns Chaka Fattah, a long-term Philadelphia Congressman. The uncovering of an illegal loan resulted in Mr. Fattah being handed a ten-year prison sentence in December of 2016. The fall of one of the longest-serving federally elected Pennsylvania politicians should come as no surprise. Mr. Fattah was well accustomed to a political climate where ethics is an afterthought, and his son was involved even in redirecting campaign funds to pay expenses for his college tuition. However, even in 2014 with reports of his corrupt dealings being uncovered, he was still re-elected with nearly 88% of the vote.

Members of Congress, being foremost human beings, can incline towards stagnation and the natural compulsions towards self-interest and consolidating power when they fear no reprisal. These are compulsions that must be kept in check. As John Adams did in the early days of our Republic, we acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of man, his tendency to do wrong when it seems to be more the advantageous path (however, as Cicero observed, perhaps this is always a false distinction; the moral path is also the personally advantageous one). If the role of government, as Adams suggested, is indeed to “to restrain the passions and vices of men,” reforms must be enacted to ensure that legislators never have too great of leeway to serve personal interests rather than those of their states, constituents, and the nation as a whole. And in the absence of creating truly competitive districts, term limits seem a plausible answer to this problem.

We expect that the introduction of term limits might select more for candidates who seek to enter Congress in order to pursue real policy goals or philosophical agendas rather than to reap the benefits of a job that carries with it remarkable economic benefits, including even seeming-details like extensive vacation time and unrivaled health care benefits. Term limits might, additionally, remedy, in part, the culture of constantly seeking re-election, a culture which results in members of Congress spending as much time fundraising as working on legislation or contributing to policy goals. Obviously, this still might be the case to some degree, even if term limits should exist, because incumbents would still have to seek re-election a couple of times. However, this phenomenon, we think, might be reduced by a change in mindset of viewing a congressional seat as an opportunity to contribute to policy and then return to one’s status as a private citizen rather than as a position of sinecure to be held for decades.

In fairness to those who criticize term limits on the basis of limiting experience in legislatures, we appreciate this argument, especially given that federal legislatures more so than ones at the state level tend to be more involved in matters of life and death, potentially on a global scale and such decisions require the special insights of those acquainted with history and the particulars of governance. To this effect, we advocate against the adoption of term limits in the Senate, the body of government  intended originally to serve as a bulwark against the at-times capricious whim of the masses and to be, in the Roman mold, a body of elders and experienced statesman, who have seen the world turn upside down and back again. These hard-earned insights ideally are reflected by more prudent decisionmaking. The word “Senate,” after all, even derives from the Latin word for “old man.” To the extent that we also value experience in the House, we would recommend permitting members of the House to serve six terms or twelve years, which is incidentally the amount of time that Mr. Gingrich had chosen in his proposed plan, rejected in the March 1995 House vote. (Interestingly enough, a number of members of Congress who supported the 1995 term limit proposals remain in office today).

However, on the other hand, previous occupation of political office is not the only legitimate means by which one can accumulate experience useful in governing. Fields such as business, education, and military, past occupations held by many representatives, offer much in the way of knowledge and insight.

Another legitimate criticism of this proposed change in constitutional design is to suggest that imposing term limits might cause legislators to act in the short term best interests of their legacy-building initiatives even if they are to the long detriment of the country. This might be exacerbated should legislators be selected more for being ideologues rather than those seeking long-term career benefits. This might be analogous to the case of a CEO acting in the short interests of his own stock options even if the policies he pursues should result in long-term harm to the corporation.

The introduction of term limits and its result, more turn-over to Congress, a term that, admittedly, has a negative connotation in private business or many other institutions, might have the potential to inject more optimism and faith into an institution that the public habitually assigns an approval rating below 20%. (Gallup, which has tracked confidence in Congress since 1973, shows that the number of Americans with Very Little or No confidence in the body has grown nearly four fold from 14% to 55%). Although some have theorized that lower approval ratings in Congress might encourage more voters to come to the polls to replace the representatives they hold in such low esteem, this does not seem to be taking place. Instead, it appears that voters are choosing to disengage, label politicians collectively as a group of crooks, and focus inwards. The 2014 midterm elections had the lowest voter turnout since 1942.

As those who study history know, there is perhaps no greater indication of the decline of a society than to observe its citizen electing not to participate in its civic institutions, processes of government or in supporting actively its military. The decline of civic virtue and the erosion of shared traditions or values causes perhaps irrevocable harm to any society. It is of prime importance to encourage citizens to re-engage with their government and not become apathetic or defeatist in light of developments about corruption and inefficiency in the legislatures.

We do think it is worthwhile to draw a distinction briefly between term limits in state as opposed to federal legislatures. At the present time, 15 states have laws mandating some form of term limits. Term limits in state legislatures are of, arguably, even greater importance, given that, at the federal level, many of the decisions are more consequential, especially those that pertain to foreign affairs and global conflict, and thus likely warrant greater experience. Furthermore, at the federal level, the smaller number of legislators allows the media sufficient time and ability to serve as a watchdog for particularly egregious abuses of power.

Few people dispute that term limits should exist for executives such as the president or a governor, and this is likely due to a longstanding American suspicion of executive authority, which can be traced to the distrust of the King of England and the inherent risk of centralized power. After all, the first government of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, did not even contain an office of President of the United States. The tendency for power to grow and for those holding it to do anything to avoid relinquishing it has been well-documented in history and examined through literature. In the words of Harry Truman while reflecting on Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to seek more than the traditional two terms of the presidency: “There is no indispensable man in a democracy…When a republic comes to a point where a man is indispensable, then we have a Caesar.” Although, the risk for abuse of power is not as acute for a member of the House as it is for a Head of State, the same impulses, which, as Adams suggested, might be foremost a product of being human, are still very much present.

As for a final word of argument, term limits may prove useful in disrupting the tendency to think in partisan lockstep, a phenomenon that results in the curious reality that nearly all Congressional Democrats should be convinced that climate change is the greatest peril facing the world while nearly all Republicans dismiss its risks. This groupthink is evident in a number of other issues. How is that nearly every Democrat thinks embryonic stem cell research is a remarkable practice while many Republicans believes precisely the opposite?

According to The Washington Post, 51 members of the House voted in accordance with the wishes of their party leaders 97% or more of the time. To claim that these officials are merely radical partisan ideologues would be, strangely enough, offering them too much credit. Elected officials often vote along party lines because they would face punishment by their party should they do otherwise. For example, committee appointments and fundraising resources are often distributed with partisan loyalty in mind. If the mindset of sinecure is broken by term limits, we might expect to see legislators acting more in national interest than in the interest of their status in the party hierarchy.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 1995 ruling, imposing term limits requires the high threshold of support needed for a constitutional amendment, and it is often difficult to ask people to vote themselves out of a job. This is not to say such a constitutional amendment ought not be pursued. However, in the meantime and in the absence of institutional changes, perhaps the citizens of the United States can take for themselves the initiative to consider seriously supporting a qualified primary challenger or an opponent in the general election if the incumbent has been in Congress for too long. Although we recognize that most Americans have busy lives and are unable to devote their days to watching constantly the actions of their elected officials, citizens ought to make an effort to monitor and penalize stagnating incumbents. The rise in this practice would result likely in a two-fold effect: bringing new individuals into Congress when an incumbent is indeed lacking and, even, if the incumbent should retain his seat, providing enough fire beneath his feet to require him to act responsibly, avoid dealings of questionable ethics, and assume foremost the interests of his constituents and the nation. And should he fail to meet these criteria, may the voters punish him at the next election cycle.

Lucas Elek is an undergraduate majoring in political science at Williams College. He worked this past summer on Katie McGinty’s senatorial campaign.

Erich Prince is an undergraduate studying political science at Yale University with a focus in political philosophy. He has recently co-taught a tutorial in ethics at the Indian University IISER Pune.