Trump’s Right: It’s Time To Limit Congressional Terms

Patrick Basham | Director, Democracy Institute

In a better world, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin would be correct about term limits. Congress already would be subject to this common-sense reform. But, it’s not. Donald Trump is therefore correct to call for a constitutional amendment to impose congressional term limits. If elected, he would seek a six-year limit for House members and a 12-year limit for senators.

Trump appreciates that term limits are the most significant institutional change in American politics since the reform era of the 1960s. Many legal scholars consider this to be the largest grassroots movement in modern American history.

The passage of term limits legislation over the past 20 years continues to have a positive impact in state legislatures around the country. Overall, term limits foster more energetic, more ideological, and more effective deliberative legislative bodies.

The balance of the available research evidence supports the following conclusions: term limits stimulate electoral competition; term limits enable nontraditional candidates to run for legislative offices; term limits weaken the careerist leadership of legislatures because they weaken seniority systems in those bodies; and, term limits promote and advance public policies compatible with limited government.

Term limits improve democracy by addressing the problem of careerism. As politics has become more professional, Congress has attracted candidates who can and do spend their entire careers on Capitol Hill.  Careerism flourishes because incumbents are virtually certain to be re-elected, largely because of the inherent advantages of holding office.

Careerism poses several problems for our system of representative democracy.  Once in office, careerist legislators pay less attention to the needs and wishes of their constituents. Moreover, careerist elected officials become a political class attentive to their own interests.

Substantial and continuing public support for term limits suggests widespread distaste for careerism in politics, as well as a conviction that the continual infusion of fresh legislative blood will improve American government.

In states with term limits, there has been an increase in the number of candidates from outside the political establishment and the number of successful female and minority candidates has risen. For example, female and Hispanic-American candidates find it easier to enter term-limited legislatures than non-term limited bodies.

There’s no evidence that term limited legislators are any less representative of their constituents than are non-term limited legislators. These results are consistent with the “sorting model” found in the economics literature, in which elections are reasonably efficient at selecting leaders whose preferences align with those of their districts.

In fact, term limits – or even the mere threat of term limits – increases the responsiveness of politicians’ policy platforms.  Even in cases in which term limits don’t produce much partisan change, they are likely to produce legislators who are closer to the median voters in their districts than in situations in which term limits don’t apply.

The early advocates of modern-day term limits were largely correct. Term limits enable an elected official to gain the experience necessary to fulfill his or her role in legislative review and policy investigation while ensuring a renewal of ideas and perspectives on a regular basis.

Term limits also have the advantage of clarity, making them a relatively easy constitutional rule to enforce. As such, they should be considered an effective part of the arsenal of democratic institutions.

Term limits reward real-world experience over backroom experience. They have reformed state and local governments around the nation by replacing professional politicians with citizen legislators who participate in government largely out of a sense of civic duty.

The detractors are simply wrong. Term limits are changing our country’s political culture and paving the way to real reform. Trump is right: Congress should be next.

Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and authored the Our Generation study, “Term Limits: A Reform that Works.”

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