I’m sure I’m on record somewhere about opposing term limits. In the past, I’ve argued that term limits are fundamentally antidemocratic: If “we the people” want to elect crooks, cads or dolts, that’s our right. If a politician is bad enough – venal, stupid, incompetent or slimy enough – the electorate, in its infinite wisdom, will vote him or her out of office, sooner or later. Not to worry: a better candidate will come along. Or so went my theory. Long live democracy!
Now, I’m convinced that H.L. Mencken was right: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” It’s time for a change, and the advantages of incumbency are considerable. The spectacle of dysfunctionality presented by the United States Congress, in its utterly feckless and craven approach to the fiscal and other problems facing our country, has proven me wrong.
Fiscal cliffs, possible government shutdowns, and sequesters are what we get for exercising the franchise to send the same clowns back to office time after time. Most Congressmen, in George Will’s terminology, are careerists, not noble political professionals. Most of their time is spent dialing for dollars. Relatively little effort goes into drafting or reviewing legislation, much less understanding it. After all, that’s what Congressional staffs are for.
U.S. presidents are limited to two terms by the 22nd Amendment , and the country is all the better for it. A president may be considered a “lame duck” in certain circles from the moment he or she wins a second term. Or a president may decide to press forward with the policy goals that were not achieved during the first term, undeterred by the need to raise funds for another campaign. That’s the altruistic perspective. But FDR’s experience and those of his term-limited successors reinforce the historical point that, whether for reasons of health, ennui or politics, second presidential terms generally produce less of value than the first.
The arguments against term limits for Congressfolk don’t ring true.
There is the canard that term-limited legislators will effectively turn control of the country over to special interest lobbyists and their regulatory henchmen. So how exactly would that be different from what’s happening right now? Logically, re-election fundraising pressures should diminish in direct proportion to the smaller number of terms, reducing Congressional susceptibility to the blandishments of Gucci Gulch.
A second argument against term limits is that the nation would be arbitrarily deprived of the benefits of experience and accumulated wisdom of veteran Congressmen and women. People like Mike Mansfield, Everett Dirksen, Sam Ervin and Margaret Chase Smith, for those of you old enough to remember them. Again, that argument is rebutted by a screenshot of the current bunch of seat-warmers: the few exceptions – and there are a handful – prove the rule. The keen interest of new candidates in succeeding legislators who either step down or die in office – the increasingly rare “open seat” – suggests that the nation will not run short of energetic, talented aspirants for public office if terms are limited.
And that may be an understatement. To be fair, there are counterarguments to the benefits of term limits, but the generally low quality of the current incumbents of both parties diminishes their persuasiveness.
So let’s amend the Constitution to limit representatives to six two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. That’s twelve years in the aggregate for each position. It’s plenty of time for conscientious public servants to make an impact before they return to private life. It might even result in a better legislative product, or in more reasoned decisions not to legislate.