Term limits are one of the most common proposals in any discussion of government ethics. In fact, it is a policy that is impervious to partisanship. There is broad support within the electorates of all political parties and movements, perhaps due to how simple and easy the argument is to explain. If politicians can only be elected so many times, it must be more difficult for them to become corrupt, right? That certainly is how the Trump campaign sold it as a part of the “Drain the Swamp” pitch during the 2016 election. Even Senator Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) are pushing for an amendment to the Constitution to provide term limits for Congress. However, are term limits really the way to fix Congress, end corruption, and “Drain the Swamp?” I argue no. Term limits may only add problems rather than fix any.
Just like with any field, expertise comes with experience. Public policy is not immune to that saying. Politics, too, relies on our elected officials understanding how government works which comes with years of working within the federal government in Washington. Imposing term limits and creating a system of constant turnover among elected officials will remove experience that is key to passing good public policy and keeping the government running. The logic of term limits in this regard is that it will be an efficient measure to remove bad or poorly performing elected officials.
However, a system for that situation already exists: elections. When people support term limits, they are often thinking about legislators that they do not agree with and/or do not belong to their district or state. They believe that an effective way to rid Washington of lawmakers with policies that conflict with their personal ideals is to impose term limits. This perspective muddies the water, though. Elections require a plurality of voters from each district or state to approve of the work and policy of specific candidates and incumbents. By continuing to elect our congresspeople, we ultimately say that our representatives have earned our approval. So what need do term limits fulfill? If our incumbent is performing his or her job in a way that wins our support in both the primary and general elections, there is no need to place a limit on how many times he or she can perform the jobs well enough to win the support of the constituency. Additionally, if someone is performing poorly, those primary and general elections serve the purpose of facilitating their exit and replacing him or her with someone new that has won the support of the constituency.
When looking at the policy Senator Cruz and Representative DeSantis have proposed, more problems become evident. Their plan limits House members to three two-year terms and Senators to two six-year terms. Such short terms would be antithetical to getting anything accomplished in Washington because virtually every elected official would be a green newcomer in almost every Congress. Our country deserves the best representation possible as well as elected officials that fully understand the legislative process. While there might be value in newblood finding its way to D.C., there is far more value in allowing politicians to earn their stay by representing a district in a way that wins their approval instead of undermining that ability with term limits.
Another popular argument in favor of term limits is that they would reduce corruption in Washington by creating a high volatility rate among Congressmen. However, not only is that logic flawed, but a glance at history can contradict the notion that high turnover leads to less corruption.
The logic is that because Congressmen are only there for a short time, they are less vulnerable to corruption from special interests and other actors in D.C. However, due to high volatility politicians are more susceptible to corruption. Because elected officials would be limited in the amount of time they can serve and be in power, they will naturally be searching for their next move once they are prohibited from serving their office anymore. Therefore, due to the human nature of aspiration, the prospect of a promised position on a Board of Directors or other lucrative career move becomes all the more attractive to a lame duck Congressman.
However, do not only take my word for it, look at history. In the 19th Century, there was high turnover among most House members as well as widespread and rampant corruption. Dubbed the Gilded Age by Mark Twain in his book titled accordingly, this time in American history was filled with powerful political machines, buying of political seats, and scandal-ridden administrations. Voters employed the strategy of “Throw the Bums Out” and deemed all politicians as corrupt and evil. People like Mark Twain and Lincoln Steffens exposed why that logic does nothing to solve the problems that are truly at the center of the corruption. Steffens exposed that casting all politicians as the problem covered up the real issue which was the “structure” of the political system. In his book, Twain espoused the same sentiment with one of my favorite quotes, “[i]f you should rear a duck in the heart of the Sahara, no doubt it would swim if you brought it to the Nile,” meaning that no matter how wholesome the person being brought into the system is, the person will “swim” in the system once they are there.
Twain and Steffens were not making any arguments specifically for or against term limits when they engaged their readers, but rather that ad hominem stereotypes of politicians will not solve corruption issues. Term limits play into those same ad hominem fallacies, however. Term limits imply that the person is at the center of the problem. No matter how limited of a term is applied to Congressmen, the actors of D.C. will still corrupt even the Saharan duck.
Instead, we must focus our efforts on the system. Rather than imposing term limits that throw away vital experience and encourage the empowerment of lobbyists, we must transform the way that money influences our politics. The corruption in our government is not at the blame of our politicians but on the shoulders of the incredible amount of money that influences and directs our politics. Since the FEC v. Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2012, outside groups including super PACs have contributed more than $3 billion in support or opposition to candidates across the nation all in the name of free speech. In reality, these contributions have taken advantage of free speech and instead lead to the corruption of our government while making elected officials dependent on the unlimited donations of special interest groups towards their campaigns. The influence of this money has completely transformed the loyalties of every politician across the political spectrum.
We deserve better. The people of this nation deserve experienced, well-meaning elected officials that aren’t taken hostage by special interest groups with self-serving, anti-public agendas the moment they step in the door of the Capitol. As presented above, term limits will not solve the problems, but instead, add new issues while the true problem continues to undermine the integrity of our political system.