Term Limits For Legislators

Term Limits For Legislators
When the Constitution of the United States was adopted in 1789, it was
without direction regarding term limits for legislators.At the time,
professional politicians were unheard of, and the idea of someone serving for
more than one or two terms was unlikely.So the Constitution did not formally
address the issue of term limits, although it was understood that officeholders
would limit themselves to one or two terms and then return to private life (1).
With the advent of the modern state, however, came the making of Congress as a
career, and thus the voluntary removal of oneself from office, as envisioned by
the founders, is no longer regularly undertaken in the United States Congress.
The structure of the Congress supports members who have held office for several
terms thereby undermining the idea of the citizen-legislator put forth by the
founders.Instead of citizens who will soon return to the community that
elected them, professional Congress-people spend more time in Washington than in
t heir home states, and usually make Congress their career.What has developed
in recent years, in response to congressional careerism, is the drive to impose
limits on the length of time someone may serve in Congress.Currently,
advocates of term limits are calling for two terms in the Senate, and three in
the House.It is possible, then, for a member to serve six years in the House,
twelve years in the Senate, eight years as Vice President, and eight years as
President, a total of thirty-six years.It is not unlikely, therefore, that
there will continue to be career politicians.The issue is not about total time
that one may participate in government, rather it is about how long one may
serve in a particular capacity.Term limits enjoy popular, but not political,
support, thereby polarizing the electorate and the elected.This paper will
discuss the popular support for term limits, the arguments on both sides, and
draw conclusions about the need for Congressional term limits in the United
States
Support for term limits encompasses close to three-quarters of the
American population (2).The question is why.The simple answer is that the
American people no longer trust a system they view as corrupt and biased towards
the few.But the issue is really not this simple, nor is its basis of support.
While on the surface it is corruption and bias that feed the resolve for limits,
underneathit is too complex an issue to describe so succinctly.Rather the
issue includes Congressional scandals, allegations of bribery and sexual
harassment, questionable campaign contributions, and Congressional perks such as
no-interest loans and free, reserved parking at the airport (3).”To many, it
seems that one reason Congress has lost touch with ordinary people is
because so many members are in Congress too long.” (4)According to Ed Crane
of the Cato Institute, “Americans want to open up the political process.They
want their fellow citizens who live and work in the real world — the private
sector — to represent them.Not career legislators It would allow good people
from across the political spectrum toparticipate in the political process as
candidates, even if they happen to have spent most of their life outside the
limelight in the private sector like the rest of us.” (5)
Clearly voters support term limits for a variety of reasons, yet these
reasons all share a common feature: the desire for a more competitive electoral
process, and the hope that term limits will also limit corruption.

The strength of public support for term limits can be seen in the fact
that several states voted to limit the length of time their representatives can
serve in Congress.By the middle of 1995, almost half of the states had limited
the number of terms for their representatives.This success of the term limit
movement at the grass roots level faced a serious setback when the Supreme Court
ruled in a 5-4 majority that such restrictions were unconstitutional.They
argued that “allowing individual States to craft their own qualifications for
Congress would thus erode the structure envisioned by the Framers, a structure
that was designedto form a more perfect union’.”(6) The citizens and the
state are at the mercy, therefore, of Congress in terms of implementing limits.

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Congress must decide to amend the Constitution.Since members of
Congress face a conflict of interest on the issue of term limits, supporters of
this initiative are going to have to become more creative in their lobbying.An
example of how states may be able to get around this decision is the idea that
state representatives be asked to sign a statement regarding their support of
term limits for Congress.Those representatives who do not sign or agree to
work towards term limits will have a notation beside their name in the next
election cycle that indicates their disregard for public opinion.

Term limits is a policy that has a base of endorsement in two important
ways.First, it already has the support of the American people, and second, it
is an unofficial policy that has its roots in the Articles of Confederation, if
not the Constitution.Unfortunately, however these arguments alone are not
enough to compel career legislators to adopt term limits.There are several
other key arguments in favor of term limits that may prove persuasive in the
long run.

The power of incumbents in Congress is considered a reflection of the
professionalization of politics.It is all but impossible for challengers to
win against incumbents in the race for Congressional seats.The
professionalization of politics has “enhanced the electoral advantages of
careerists” (7), or incumbents.Conversely, “every enhancement of the power of
incumbency exacerbates careerism”(8).So a cycle is created wherein career
politicians are more likely to get elected thereby encouraging politicians to
become careerists. “Given the power of incumbency, proponents of term limits
argue that election to Congress, in essence, equals life tenure.” (9)
When the triumph of incumbency is coupled with the seniority system that
assigns positions of power based on length of service it creates an environment
where voters are afraid not to re-elect their representative in case their state
loses power.Ironically, the more senior a member becomes, the less
representative of his electorate and the more representative of special
interests he becomes. One need only look at Senator Thurmon who has been in
office since before Pearl Harbor.He is 93 years old and is already the oldest
serving Senator ever.As Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, his
position is important to his home state of South Carolina – a state with a large
defense industry (10).He is consistently re-elected because of his senior
status within the Senate.It is all but impossible for a candidate to launch a
serious campaign against Thurmon, as no one is South Carolina wants to lose the
power his Chairmanship brings.Advocates argue that term limits will destroy
the system of seniority and replace it with a system of meritocracy (11).Since
legislators will be serving a limited time, it is more likely that they will
adhere to the desires of their constituents since they will soon be returning to
live among them.

Opponents argue that limits already exist in theform of the electoral
process.People who do not feel their representative is doing an adequate job
can simply vote for someone else.Incumbents are as likely as any other
candidate not to get elected.The argument continues with the idea that term
limits will mean a loss of experience on the part of legislators.(12)Because
one serves in Congress for a potentially unlimited time, representatives are
more likely to “know about the rules, routines, and procedures that are
essential to survival in Congressand may also know a great deal about how to
use the federal bureaucracy to serve their constituents.” (13)Incumbents,
therefore, are necessary for Congress to run smoothly.

The argument that representatives must be in place for a long time in
order to fully appreciate how to get things done is inherently flawed.The
reason longer service in Congress is necessary now is that there are no limits
to terms.Therefore, Congress is controlled by its most powerful (or longest
standing) members.Term limits would remove the possibility of a seniority
system and the advantages of incumbency thus creatingconditions of equality
between member of Congress.

The incumbency and seniority systems have created conditions whereby
leadership positions “are peopled exclusively by white males” (14).Women and
minorities are underrepresented not only in actual numbers in Congress, but also
in terms of leadership.Term limits would create more competitive elections and
thus allow more women and minorities the opportunity for election.The system
as it currently exists discourages minorities from entering a race because in a
majority of seats the incumbent wins.Since the newcomers are not given the
financial support of an incumbent, candidates must either be independently
wealthy of stay out of the race (15).

Critics argue that there is considerable turnover at each election
without the imposition of term limits, and that talented people will not seek
office unless their political career possibilities are long-term (16). It is
difficult to counter the idea that women and minorities are underrepresented or
that these groups would benefit from more competitive elections.Rather, the
focus is on the inevitability of professional politicians and careerism as a
logical by-product of the electoral system; a productthat should simply be
accepted by the people with….. no attempt to change it. This argument avoids the
issues of minority representation and incumbency advantages and attempts to
divert attention away from the fact that minorities do not play an equal or even
proportional role in Congress.

Proponents of term limits argue for a return to citizen-legislators.
“With the professionalization of American politics, instead of public engagement,
we end up with public estrangement; instead of civic commitment, we foster civic
abandonment; and instead of political empowerment, we are left with political
confinement.” (17)A citizen-legislator is someone who has a career in the
private sector, spends a relatively short time in the public eye and then
returns home to live among his constituents again.Since the senior members of
Congress are most likely to be influenced by special interests, and are removed
from the people they represent, it can be argued that the citizen-legislator
will behave in the opposite manner.The short-term member will likely pass
fewer laws, and the laws he does support will be more reflective of his
constituents’ desires (18).

Critics argue that term limits would cause legislators to ignore their
constituents during their final terms, and that limits would simple shift power
from the incumbents to the staff members and the lobbyists (19).This shift
would take power from those elected and give it a non-partisan bureaucracy.New
members would be at the mercy of their staff, and be crippled by their own
inexperience.

It is highly unlikely that a member soon returning to live again in the
community that elected him would ignore what his constituents wanted, or become
so far removed from them that he was unaware of their needs.In terms of the
power shift “any Capitol Hill observer knows that it’s the most senior members
who are most dependent on staff and lobbyists, not the hot-shot young freshmen.”
(20) Therefore,Representatives serving a limited number of terms are not
likely to rely on their staffs to the extent that incumbents do currently,
thereby eliminating the fear that permanent staff members will really be running
the country.Additionally, senior members currently seek to remain in
Washington when they are no longer in office by locating a position as a
lobbyists or bureaucrat.With term limits this is also unlikely to happen
“because the turnover on Capitol Hill will quickly make their contacts obsolete
and their influence limited.” (21)
It can be argued that the term limits initiative is a solution looking
for a problem.Yet, it can also be argued that term limits is an issue whose
time is now.While term limits may not solve all that is wrong with the
American system, it certainly is a step in the right direction.The system as
is currently exists is rife with rank and privilege.In Congress, all members
are supposedly equal,yet it is quite obvious that some are more equal than
others.

Not only is the privlege of senior members a problem, but it also the
perceived corruption that goes along with it.As people see their legislators
moving farther away from them and closer to special interests it is easy to
become disillusioned with the system.Becauserepresentatives are constantly
aware or the need for re-election they will often support bills that
specifically help their state and in doing so appease the public enough to
ensure their re-election bid.But is this truly governing? According to
Ehrenhalt,
“Politics is, then, more than in the past, a job for people who prefer it to any
other line of work.About these people one more important point should be made:
They tend not only to enjoy politics but to believe in government as an
institution.The more somebody is required to sacrifice time and money and
private life to run for the city council, for the state legislature, or for
Congress, the more important it is for that person to believe that government is
a respectable enterprise with crucial work to do.” (22)
With term limits, politics will not be about a career.Rather, it will
be about a genuine intent to foster change.Term limits will government a
respectable and approachable institution for all people.

What term limits may accomplish, then is a leveling of the playing field
and the invitation for all to come play.A representative government must
reflect the people it represents.This is not to say that the Congress must
adopt a policy of affirmative action in order to have equal representation of
women and minorities, ratherCongress must adopt term limits in order to foster
competition and creativity in its members and its electoral process.

When somewhere near seventy-five percent of a population supports an
initiative, it would seem to be good government that would support it.But when
that initiative infringes on the length of time a member may serve in Congress
it becomes a conflict of interest that is unlikely to be passed.The very
structure of Congress itself encourages members to seek re-election for several
terms by rewarding the most senior members with positions of power and influence.

This makes incumbent politicians very difficult to beat in an election, and it
ensures that the most powerful people in the nation will continue to be white
males.But white males do not reflect the cultural and ethnic make up of the
United States.Nor do they represent the many and varied interests of their
constituents.Term limits would make it very difficult for one cultural group
to control the government.By fostering competition and by creating a system
where representatives must soon become the represented again, term limits set
up a more representative and equitable governing body.In addition, with the
removal of seniority one gets meritocracy; with the citizen-legislator one
becomes more aware of his constituents’ needs, as he is never far from returning
to them; with competition the United States Congress can be held up as a truly
representative arm of government that includes women, minorities, and white men
in equally powerful positions.”Whose government is it anyway? With term limits,
it’s the people’s.” (23)
Endnotes
1Fund, John H. “Term Limitations: An Idea Whose Time Has Come” Policy
Analysis No. 141October 30, 1996
2Editorial “Senate Tackles Term Limits” The Boston HeraldApril 23, 1996
3Levine, Herbert M.Point-Counterpoint: Reading in American Government
St.Martin’s Press, New York: 1995.208
4ibid, 208
5Crane, Ed”Campaign Reforms vs. Term Limits”The Washington TimesJune
26, 1996
6Bandow, Doug”The Political Revolution That Wasn’t: Why Term Limits Are
Needed Now More Than Ever”Policy Analysis No. 259September 5, 1996
7ibid
8Levine, 209
9O’Connor, Karen and Larry J. SabatoAmerican Government: Roots and Reform
Allyn and Bacon,Massachusetts.1996.198
10 “Thurmon-ator Looks Good to Break Senate Records”Time November 2, 1996
11 Petracca, Mark “The Poison of Professional Politics”Policy Analysis No.

151May 10, 1991
12 Bandow
13 Petracca
14 Ferry, Jonathan”Women Minorities and Term Limits: America’s Path to a
Representative Congress”U.S. Term Limits Foundation Outlook SeriesVol 3, No
2.July, 1994
15 ibid
16 Levine, 210
17 Petracca
18 Fund
19 ibid
20 ibid
21 ibid
22 Ehrenhalt, AlanThe United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the
Pursuit of OfficeRandom House, New York.1991:20
23 Jacob, Paul”Whose Government is it Anyway?”this article will appear in
the Journal of the West Los Angeles School of Law.


Bibliography
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