A conservative audience hardly needs an introduction to the benefits of term limits. It is one of the two most often proposed political panaceas, second only to the Convention of States. Support is not only nearly universal, but enthusiastic, it being impossible to find any with even mild criticism of the policy. Whether as a logical continuation of presidential term limits, or an outgrowth of anti-incumbent frustration and “throw the rascals out” movement, it seems everyone on the right is in agreement that term limits will be entirely beneficial. Though there is very little in the way of theoretical foundation to support this belief, or anything more than a faith that incumbency leads to all manner of negative outcomes, it seems there is near unanimity in the belief term limits will bring benefits without any cost.
But will it be without cost? And will the benefits be as significant as everyone assumes?
I suppose I should begin by pointing out that, strictly speak, term limits are an effort to thwart popular will, as if the majority want to limit elected officials to a set number of terms, they could do so at the ballot box. Thus term limits either represent an effort by a minority to prevent a majority from selecting their chosen candidates (as one could argue were the post-FDR presidential limits), or something akin to hiding one’s cigarettes to quit smoking, an effort to impose upon ourselves by law discipline we believe we cannot keep otherwise. Not that either is in itself an argument against term limits — a number of our governmental processes thwart to some degree the popular will — but we need to recognize if the majority truly supports term limits, then term limits would be unnecessary.
What does argue against term limits is an examination of the assumed benefits, as well as the often ignored costs. While popular opinion sees nothing but positive outcomes from term limits, I would argue that there are considerable costs, while at the same time the benefits are nowhere near as great as generally assumed. One could even argue that term limits may be, on the whole, more harmful than beneficial.
The most common benefit argued for term limits is that it would allow politicians to stop worrying about perpetual reelection and concentrate on principled legislation, returning them to the mythical “citizen legislator” who would serve a few years in Washington and then go home. But this is a terribly naive position. Granted, politicians may be freed from worries about reelection to their present position, but there remain a host of comparable pressures. First, there is the pressure to help their party keep the seat, which is close enough to running for reelection as to make little difference. Second, there is the fact that many politicians may have aspirations to hold a different office, meaning the “endless campaign” would hardly disappear. Finally, with politicians routinely going into lobbying, law and other fields where political record remains relevant, it is unlikely they would ever evolve into the imaginary disinterested citizen legislator. Far more likely, with higher turnover and more former office holders, politicking would become ever more cut-throat and conscious of public opinion as those seeking higher office grow more numerous.
It is only the other, secondary benefit, which is likely to be realized, that of removing undesirable politicians from office quickly, and even that is far less beneficial than is claimed. Consistent with a political philosophy having grown out of the “throw the rascals out” anti-incumbent movement, the assumption behind term limits is that there is some benefit to turning out office holders who are found wanting, but this seems a dubious proposition. After all, the entire anti-incumbent movement seems predicated upon the idea that bad politicians outnumber good, so turning out bad politicians is more likely to result in replacing bad with equally bad or worse than with good, while at the same time replacing the few good politicians with someone much worse. Unless we posit the good to outnumber the bad, term limits will accomplish little but speed up the turnover among bad politicians.
The relative ratio of good and bad politicians is one of the two best arguments against term limits. As long as we assume good politicians are a rarity, it would make sense to retain them in office for the greatest time possible. Even if we assume there is some corrupting force which causes politicians to be less beneficial over time in office, there is still benefit to keeping a “stale” good politician rather than risk replacing him with a new, and likely much worse, replacement. Or, as I put it in concrete terms, would it not have been worth a third term of Clinton to have had a third term of Reagan? By focusing on the bad politicians, term limit proponents overlook the much greater harm done by forcing the removal of the rare good politician.
They also overlook less obvious consequences.
For example, as we have seen in the Trump administration, politics is a complex enough field it takes time to learn the ropes, to make connections, to discover all the ins and outs of a position. Even those with experience in state government, in comparable offices, tend to have a lengthy period of relative inactivity when first coming to Washington. Nor is it simply a matter of a learning curve where after a set opening period one is fully functional, as we can see looking at politicians of varying experience, time in office does increase efficiency long beyond the first or second term in office.
Term limits will interfere with this process, ensuring a regular flow of inexperienced and ineffective members of congress. This might be harmless were congress the whole of the government, but there are also countless bureaucratic bodies, state government, executive and judicial bodies and so on. All staffed with those having much more experience than the incoming congress members. With congress becoming less efficient, their power will not simply disappear, it will simply shift to some other location. Possibly it will result in ephemeral congressmen becoming more reliant on persistent career congressional staffers. Perhaps it will result in more power being held by the bureaucracies. Whatever the outcome, the most likely result will be one contrary to the goals espoused by the term limits movement. Rather than returning a great voice to the people, power will be shifted more and more to unelected officials.
I expect at this point the objection will be raised that presidential term limits have not resulted in any harm, so why would congressional term limits. However, that overlooks two issues. First, we do not know that the presidential term limits have been harmless. We have experience only of a world where such limits existed, whether one without such limits would have been better or worse is unknown, and unknowable, so it is impossible to evaluate this claim.
Even if it were, it is not necessarily true that term limits would work the same way in both branches. The presidency is a singular position, with a relatively broad overview of issues. The president himself tends to operate on “big picture” items, relying upon a long term executive bureaucracy, with only the top offices changing hands following an election. The congress tends to deal in minute detail, and, being made up of many members, needs to pay more attention to interactions, connections and process. Thus, one cannot extrapolate from one to the other.
Of course, I do not expect this single essay to persuade all those convinced of the benefits of term limits to change overnight. I only ask that they take a second look at their faith in term limits and ask if it founded on reasonable assumptions or an emotional argument based on frustration with incumbents.
This essay is based loosely on several of my earlier essays, “Why Term Limits Will Fail (And Should)“, “The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True “Ousider” Candidate“, “Critique of a Congressional Reform“.