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Term Limits: A Bad Idea

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would impose term limits on members of Congress. If passed and ratified, the amendment would limit Senators to two terms of six years, and House members to three terms of two years. Cruz believes the amendment will provide a greater level of accountability in Washington.

For too long, members of Congress have abused their power and ignored the will of the American people. Term limits on members of Congress offer a solution to the brokenness we see in Washington, D.C. It is long past time for Congress to hold itself accountable. I urge my colleagues to submit this constitutional amendment to the states for speedy ratification.

Cruz's faith in the power of term limits puts him in full agreement with his 2018 general election opponent Beto O'Rourke. O'Rourke proposed term-limit legislation in 2013 as a member of the House of Representatives, but the bill failed to advance out of committee. O'Rourke expressed his support for term limits in less delicate language.

In part it was, ‘I just don't want you to be an asshole; I haven't met somebody in this line of work who doesn't become one, that doesn't think that they are so important only they can do it.

It's rare when representatives of opposite sides of the aisle agree on anything; when they do, it's even rarer that it's a good idea. The last time we saw major legislation with broad bipartisan support was late 2001, when Congress passed both the USA/PATRIOT Act (which gave the federal government broad power to spy on its citizens without a search warrant) and the No Child Left Behind Act (which created unrealistic goals for public schools, resulting in reduced federal funding when schools were unable to reach those goals.)

So when both parties sing the praises of term limits, it wouldn't hurt to question whether they are a good idea.

Congressional term limits have been floated since the early 1990s. Republicans, frustrated by four decades of inability to capture a majority in the House of Representatives, saw term limits as the way to break the Democratic majority.  But after the Republicans captured both houses of Congress in 1994, their enthusiam for term limits waned, and the mantle was passed to the nonpartisan nonprofit group U.S. Term Limits, Inc. The group has built an impressive level of support: polls consistently show between 75 and 80 percent of Americans favor term limits for Congress.

The organization has also been active on the state level. Since its founding in 1992, U.S. Term Limits has helped 21 states pass term limits for their state legislatures (fifteen still have them) and 23 set term limits for their congressional delegations. The Supreme Court would declare in 1995 that the states had no power to limit congressional term limits, because in doing so they infringed on the rights of the people to choose their representatives. Even though voters tell pollsters they favor term limits, they continue to reelect the same representative year after year. If they really wanted someone else, they would vote for someone else. The state does not have the right to impose limits on the voters' choices, beyond the limits already established by the Constitution. So term-limits proponents' newest proposal is to amend the Constitution.

But legality aside, there's still the question of whether term limits are a good idea. And the reality is, they're not just an idea. They already exist on the state level in fifteen states. And that might be a good place to see how term limits work in practice.

They don't work well.

The results are unambiguous. “Term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not,” concludes a 2006 study on the subject. The researchers, who compared legislators in all 50 states, found important behavioral shifts as well: Term-limited lawmakers spent less time on constituent services but equal time on campaigning and fundraising.

What's more, the inexperienced legislators more frequently turned to lobbyists for help getting up to speed on the issues. And once their own terms were up, they were more likely to go into lobbying themselves. Rather than giving legislators more independence, term limits forced them to become more dependent on a system that was already broken.

Beyond that, legal term limits are aimed at exactly the wrong people. An ineffective representative, or one who loses touch with the people they are sent to represent, is much more likely to be voted out of office at the next election. The ones who work hard for their constituents and get rewarded with another term, and another, and another...those are the people who are doing their jobs well. They shouldn't be punished for being effective.

If we imagined applying term limits to any other profession, we would see how silly the concept is. What would professional sports look like if it forced athletes to retire simply because they had played a certain number of seasons? What would the medical profession look like if doctors and nurses were sent packing because they had reached a specified level of expertise?

Our political system is a mess, but term limits would only make it worse.

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