The idea of limiting the number of terms anyone can serve in Congress has been around for a long time, but recently I have heard it proposed as a solution to gridlock in Washington. It would almost certainly have exactly the opposite effect, but I’ve also got other reasons to be against term limits.
First, do we really want to limit the choices of the voters? If they want to keep re-electing someone, I believe they should have the right to make that decision. Delaware has been well represented by people who served for a long time with overwhelming voter support: Roth, Castle, Carper, Biden, DuPont...
History, especially recent history, shows that voters are usually happy to return their own representatives. In the 2012 congressional elections, 91 percent of Senate and 90 percent of House incumbents were re-elected. That is in spite of the fact that in the final Gallup poll before the last election, Congress had a 21 percent approval rating nationally. The only way you can reconcile those statistics is by realizing that voters might want term limits for everybody else’s member of Congress but not for their own.
Of course that makes sense. To get elected in any state, a representative or senator has to reflect that state’s culture and share its voters’ beliefs on issues important to them. That’s why Alabamans keep voting for Sen. Richard Shelby, who they first elected in 1986. But they would probably like to limit the term of someone like Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland who was first elected in the same year.
In other words, when push comes to shove, many people who say they are for term limits don’t follow through on that belief when they get into the voting booth.
The second reason I am against term limits is because the federal government is incredibly complicated. The real work in both houses of Congress is done in committees, and there is a reason why seniority has always been important in them. It takes more than a term or two to fully understand the intricacies of tax law dealt with by members of the House Ways and Means Committee. The same kind of experience-driven expertise is needed in every major Congressional committee.
All members of Congress rely on Congressional staff to help them cope with the enormous volume of information they must process. I was proud to serve as senate staff for 22 years before becoming a senator, and the people I worked with were nearly all smart, dedicated and competent. But they were still staff, and I don’t believe unelected officials should make final voting decisions. That would happen far too often if term limits were instituted, and inexperienced legislators had to rely too heavily of staff that knew far more than they did about different areas of legislation.
Third, people who support term limits often say representatives who have served in Washington for a long time lose touch with their citizens back home. If anything, I believe the real problem is that people in Congress who keep running for office and getting re-elected become too much in touch with their constituents.
Why? Because they serve two-year terms and often face primary challenges in addition to elections, our House members are constantly in campaign mode. Legislators in countries like Germany and England must stand for election far less often than ours do. The result is that our politicians are often so eager to reflect the current majority opinions in their districts that they shy away from taking on difficult long-term problems that won’t help them in the next primary or the next election.
Finally, let me get back to the gridlock problem. My question to those who propose term limits is simple: Which group do you think is more responsible for today’s gridlock in Congress, new members or old? When they think about it, even term limit proponents agree it is the new members who refuse to compromise. The longer you spend in Congress, the more you understand that successful legislation nearly always requires compromise.
I agree with the goal of many who advocate term limits - a better-functioning, more responsive Congress. But the best way to achieve that is not by limiting terms, but through public financing of campaigns, which would level the playing field between incumbents and challengers. It is not a coincidence that not only are over 90 percent of congressional incumbents re-elected, but also that in 90 percent of congressional races the candidate with the most money wins.
That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Let’s let voters choose any candidates they want, but based on their ideas, not on how much money is backing them.
Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware, and writes regularly for the News Journal. Contact Ted and read more of his work at tedkaufman.com.
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