Kevin Hollinshead, Columnist
Ideology: Progressive | Writing from: Fort Collins, CO

In case you haven’t heard, incumbent politicians are sweating about their re-election prospects a little more than usual these days.

With an economy that may be flirting with a second recession, or even a depression, voters are angry. Hulk-angry in some cases. Enter the Tea Party, offering the disillusioned masses anti-establishment rhetoric that you’ve probably heard 20 times since yesterday: “The deficit is out of control!”; “We’re on the path to socialism!”; “We need to take our country back!” Such statements, of course, are intentionally devoid of any real information: They’re designed to get a crowd roaring and to keep the campaign contributions coming, nothing more.

Lately, however, anti-establishment candidates have been slightly more specific in their stump speeches, advocating “returning power to the people” by proposing Congressional term limits via a Constitutional amendment. Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul, Rhode Island Democratic House hopeful Bill Lynch and Maryland Republican congressional candidate Andy Harris have all pledged to serve no more than twelve years in office if elected.

This message polls well and gets applause at rallies. The sentiment behind such a proposal is noble; I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing some fresh bodies occupy a clearly gridlocked and corrupt Congress. Yet, term limits aren’t a good idea because enacting them would be like a drunken trip to Taco Bell — it may taste good at the moment, but it probably won’t satisfy you for long, and it may just make you feel worse later.

The main reason term limits don’t make sense is because we already have them in the form of elections. The logic is simple: If you like your representative or senator, you can vote to keep him. If not, you can vote for someone else. With term limits, if you want a good public servant to stay on, tough luck. If anything, term limits take power away from the voter by not allowing them to re-elect long-term incumbents if they so choose.

Voters in the 1994 Republican Revolution effectively imposed term limits on many members of Congress, including the Speaker of the House, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Majority Leader. This was the result of an engaged electorate angry with President Clinton and the Democrats.


Congress can also look to the 15 states with codified term limits for state legislators as evidence that it’s just not a great idea. In my home state of Colorado, term limits for the General Assembly were enacted via a ballot initiative in 1991; in 1998, the first group of legislators were forced out of office. Term limits have resulted in three major unforseen consequences that are largely mirrored elsewhere as well:

1. In a joint research project, Colorado State University political science professors Courtenay Daum and John Straayer note that, “as incumbents are forced out, our legislative bodies are losing some of the continuity, wisdom, and context that more experienced politicians are able to offer.”

Over the duration of my internship in the House Majority office at the Capitol this past spring, I was consistently surprised at how powerful lobbyists and staffers are under the gold dome. Everywhere I went, the two groups were constantly jockeying for legislators’ attention in Capitol offices, the cafeteria area, the library, even the restroom in one case.

Because legislators are now collectively less experienced than those who served before the implementation of term limits, they are more reliant on lobbyists and staffers when learning the complicated procedures of the Assembly, gathering information from which to base their vote on a bill and even writing bills. This makes these non-elected folks major power players in the legislative process. The idea of lobbyists dictating policy rightly rubs most people the wrong way, yet a majority of people essentially support enabling just that.

2. Term limits have resulted in politicians (both Democratic and Republican) who are more ideologically polarized. Primaries and caucuses from which nominees for a House or Senate seat emerge are now of greater importance and typically see a more ideologically extreme pool of participants, who sometimes elect more extreme candidates.

The gridlock in Congress right now is already beyond frustrating. Term limits could make this worse by causing deeper ideological division and, perhaps more importantly, by birthing Representatives and Senators trying to ram through legislation during their last term in office.

3. Despite initial expectations from political scientists that term limits would be advantageous to female candidates, women have actually been affected negatively by term limits.

Daum’s research found that in the years prior to term limits, women were well represented in the Colorado General Assembly (in 1998, 37 percent of the Assembly membership were women, making Colorado one of the top few states in this category). Now, many women incumbents who are term-limited are more often than not being replaced by men. Republican women in particular have been hit hard by term limits (currently, just one of the 14 Republicans in the Colorado Senate is female).

The lack of women in the General Assembly has resulted in what Daum calls the “loss of a different perspective.” Women tend to prioritize different policy issues (children, family, social welfare issues, women’s issues and rights, etc.) than men, and it has been shown that women are different actors and different leaders in legislative bodies.

Daum continues, “as committee chairs, [women] generally spend less time talking and more time listening to those giving testimony. It’s also known that males behave differently as women reach a sort of critical mass in terms of their presence in a legislative body. Men are often seen to re-evaluate their points of view as a result…. Any decrease in the number of women changes the nature of the dialogue and the legislative process.” Certainly not a good thing from a representative standpoint.


As for the problem of career politicians? According to Straayer, the average length of service in office has barely been affected by term limits. Before, the average length of service in the Colorado House was four years, and six in the Senate, well below the eight year limit in both cases. The average length of service, as well as the turnover rate, has remained steady in spite of term limits. In Congress, the average tenure is 11 years in the House and just over 13 years in the Senate. Term limits that are based upon average lengths of service ultimately don’t mean much.

Leadership positions, on the other hand, are drastically affected. Speakers, majority leaders, committee chairs, you name it: If these people are doing a good job, it ultimately doesn’t mean squat, as they’ll just be the latest to be forced out of office in favor of a less experienced legislator.


So, if term limits do more harm than good, what can be done to “return power to the people”? I say we should revamp Congress to become a proportionally representative body as is the case in many European parliaments. Alas, too many people stubbornly scoff at the thought of doing anything like Europe does, so we need to consider smaller, more realistic steps.

Campaign finance laws could be much stronger (another column for another day). Yearly retention elections giving voters a yes or no choice (a la judges in some states) would keep politicians on their toes a little more. This could potentially lead to a massive turnover rate, but it would not be a certainty like it would be with term limits. Such retention elections would need to come paired with limits on campaigning for these elections (e.g. candidates cannot do any campaign activities until, say, 30 days before the election) to avoid campaign seasons stretching even longer than they are already.

It’s ironic that it’s the Tea Party crowd making the most noise clamoring for Congressional term limits. Those who tend to identify with the movement crow on and on about, again, bringing power back to the people. Yet, proponents of term limits want to take the easy way out by essentially outsourcing their ability to oust incumbents (read: giving up power). Money plays far too large of a role in our elections, and too few resources enhancing voter knowledge about candidates and issues exist. Yet, every American eligible to vote has the opportunity to turn this system around. In the end, it’s on us.

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