The U.S. Congress is broken.
Partisan tensions are at an all time high. Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle is dominated by career politicians well over “retirement age,” who are often perceived to be out of touch with the American people. We have observed an increasing trend in recent years of political gridlock and ineffectuality. Politicians are more concerned about attacking their opposition for points and sound bites than working toward true legislative change. This lack of decisive action has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Nov. 1, 2020, RealClear Politics estimates a 17.7 percent congressional job approval rate. A Gallup poll from September has disapproval rates as high as 80 percent. Bottom line, constituents across the nation feel they are not being adequately represented by their elected representatives.
It is apparent that this system is failing us. Congress must change. But how? An often-suggested solution to the problems plaguing Congress today is the implementation of term limits. When Americans are frustrated with certain “establishment” politicians, who have been involved in Congress for decades, or the general state of affairs on Capitol Hill, term limits are touted as a panacea that will fix our nation’s political problems.
Rasmussen reports that 74 percent of likely U.S. voters were in support of term limits in 2016. Even some current elected officials, including sitting members of Congress, along with President Donald Trump, are in favor of such an amendment. In fact, Trump pledged to institute term limits as part of his push to “#DrainTheSwamp.” In April of 2018, Trump met with a bipartisan cohort of freshman legislators from the House of Representatives aiming to draft an amendment, later blessing them with his “full support and endorsement for their efforts.” Once the proposal was introduced, though, it ultimately went nowhere — as it has many times before.
“I would say we have term limits now. They’re called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said back in 2016, shortly after Trump had been elected President.
Supporters of congressional term limits often reason that such restrictions will effectively eliminate career politicians, encouraging the creation of a Congress that is more ethnically, religiously, economically, socially, politically and ideologically diverse. One might also contend that, constrained by these limits, sitting members can spend less time worrying about staying in office and more time legislating and representing their constituents. This argument often goes hand-in-hand with the claim that by introducing term limits, one can limit the reliance current members of Congress have on special interests and lobby groups.
While this would be ideal, observational studies over the years have ultimately determined this to not be the case. Congressional term limits may pose more negatives than positives when compared to our contemporary Congress.
Perhaps the most apparent downside to congressional term limits would be the inevitable termination of effective and experienced elected officials. Voters lose their ability to pick their best candidate, and are forced to defer to the best available candidate. Effectively, this is also a loss in human capital, or “brain drain” if you will, that will show a perennial decline in competence, skill, knowledge and experience that should be utilized. Government in the United States, especially within Congress, is confusing and complicated — it takes decades for politicians to be fully established in Washington, D.C. solidifying and defending their positions on countless issues.
These politicians will be replaced with inexperienced legislators who have not cultivated the same relationships their predecessors have in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Brookings writes it is these “member-to-member interactions that solidify a measure’s final details, build [coalitions] and ultimately get legislation passed.” A term-limited Congress may pass even fewer laws than the Congress we have now — after all, when one knows that one is operating on limited time, there is less incentive to build bipartisan bridges, collaborate on legislation or ultimately work toward any particular agenda. Moreover, given our current political climate, we should be wary of an alternative that would lead to further fragmentation and political division.
Additionally, a 2011 study in Legislative Studies Quarterly observed legislatures in all fifty states and ultimately found that term limits did not lead to a more “diverse” legislative body, finding “no preliminary effects of term limits on the race, ideology, age, religious or professional backgrounds or socioeconomic status of legislators elected after term limits were adopted.” In fact, without these limits, our Congress has continued to diversify over the years. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that “[for] the fifth time in a row, the [116th] Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever.”
Congressional term limits would also likely lead to an increase in the sway of powers off Capitol Hill, such as federal agencies, bureaucrats and special interest groups. A 2001survey from State Politics & Policy Quarterly in five states with term-limited legislatures found “strong consensus … that term limits have caused the state political influence structure to shift away from the legislature and toward the governor, administrative agencies, and interest groups.” This is backed by the Legislative Studies Quarterly survey, which asserted that “removing longstanding incumbents en masse would weaken state legislatures by creating, or enhancing, the informational advantage of the executive branch, with its repository of permanent civil servants, and, for similar reasons, the advantage of interest groups.” While current members of Congress can spend decades in their seat gathering a comprehensive understanding of policy issues, term-limited politicians simply don’t have that luxury. Consequently, they will likely defer to agents outside of their own office, potentially further exacerbating the “corruptive” behavior so many Americans take issue with today.
Finally, term limits diminish the importance of a key component of what ideally makes a congressional representative “good:” an obligation to their constituents. If senators and representatives are faced with an imminent end to their time in office, there is less of an incentive to be beholden to those who elected them — instead, they are given the green light to pursue their personal agendas rather than those of their constituents.
In conclusion, while term limits are admirable in their desired outcome, hard evidence predicts a starkly different reality. Instead of a significantly more diverse Congress, which there is good reason to doubt we will see, we forsake experience, networks, knowledge and skill in the name of new ideas and fresh faces. Instead of a reduced dependence of politicians on groups outside of Congress, like special interest groups, federal agencies and lobbyists, we would likely see the opposite: pressed for time, members must quickly form connections to fill gaps in their policy and garner support for their initiatives. Congressional term limits are also liable to make representatives less dependent on their constituents for support, and more willing to act toward their own political agendas.
Instead of implementing term limits, we as a nation must place a greater emphasis on political participation and staying informed. We only have long-lasting, unpopular politicians in Congress because incumbents are favored in elections when a significant portion of the population arrives at the ballot box knowing little more than their political affiliation and what their candidates have been in the news for recently. This is an institutional issue that goes deeper than the House of Representatives and Senate and congressional term limits will not fix the problem.
As founding father Roger Sherman wrote, “nothing renders government more unstable than a frequent change of the persons that administer it.”
Instead, go out and vote.
Ahmed Sultan is a freshman double-majoring in computer science and philosophy, politics and law.