It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.
I know a lot of people to whom this is good news. I know them, because I hear from them every time I speak at a public event that allows for a give-and-take with the audience. Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular, and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could be thrown out automatically has great appeal.
Yet as popular as the idea might be among the public at large, it has no traction on Capitol Hill. The fundamental problem is that any measures imposing limits will need the support of leaders who, almost by definition, have served a long time. They’re not going to put themselves out of a job they like. Small surprise that bills calling for term limits don’t even make it out of committee.
Now, I should say right up front that you’re not going to hear a strong argument in favor of term limits from a guy who served 34 years in Congress. I’m biased. But I want to spell out the reasons for my bias, not because I think term limits are a burning issue in Washington — they’re not — but because I wish they were less of an issue for ordinary voters.
Congress has a lot of problems right now, and the American people have a role to play in fixing them, but term limits are a distraction from the truly hard work that needs to be done.
Term limits are not the solution to the real dysfunction that besets Washington. They reduce the choices of voters and accelerate the accumulation of power in the executive branch. They move representative democracy in the wrong direction.