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The Case for Term Limits

By John F.M. Kocsis

Rare is the elected official who maintains his or her support for term limits after actually winning the job, a fact evidenced by the paltry number of co-sponsors on the amendment introduced by Pat J. Toomey ’84 at the beginning of this Congress. To the surprise of no one, these advocates are (almost) all newly elected Republicans, the demographic in the Senate with the least to lose from imposing limitations that would most immediately affect their more senior colleagues (perhaps putting some Democratic-held seats in play). While it is easy to mask political expediency sub specie boni, politicians of all stripes should embrace the principle of term limits, regardless of its impact on their career intentions.

The argument against term limits is so well known that it has become axiomatic. Such restrictions on the membership of legislative bodies, it is insisted, would eliminate officials just as they’ve grown knowledgeable about key issues and influential among their peers. Term limits also would be anathema to democracy, as they necessarily restrict the choices present to voters. “We already have term limits,” opponents assert, dutifully providing a civics lesson to the 75 percent of Americans that support curbing the amount of time their leaders can spend living off their dime. “They’re called elections!”

Anyone who makes this latter argument has either a jejune understanding of political science or, more plausibly, is an elected official himself. Only a starry-eyed tyro to the workings of the world could possibly contend with a straight face that elections currently provide citizens with the unrestrained ability to choose new representatives. After all, the advantage of incumbency is well documented throughout American history. To see it, one need look no further than the past election, when over three-fourths of those in Congress were reelected, despite the body’s 9 percent approval rating—a figure making it less popular than colonoscopies, used car salesmen, and lice. As it turns out, it is a lot easier to run for office when your living expenses are already footed by Uncle Sam.

The other argument in opposition to term limits is more difficult to discredit. The notion that a politician gets better at his job the longer he does it is intuitive—that’s true of every professional. However, one has to remember that public service is not just any profession but rather the embodiment of governing principles. Term limits would downplay the role of individuals’ influence in the legislative bodies. Do we really want our laws to be determined by which states have delegations most likely to be found in a Georgetown geriatric ward?

For years, Hawaii held outsize sway in the Senate due to the high positions held by superannuated veterans Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye, the latter of which had represented the islands since they achieved statehood in 1959. While citizens of the 11th-least populous state did not bemoan the importance of influence in Congress at any point during the last half-century, the simultaneity of Inouye’s death and Akaka’s retirement has put them in the precarious position in which no one in their entire Congressional delegation has served for longer than two years. This could pose a bit of an issue for the state that currently receives the fourth-most taxpayer dollars.

Opponents of term limits often paint the picture of a hapless naïf with big dreams walking into Congress unable to deal with the diversity and subtlety of issues that the experienced professionals have spent years learning. Again this viewpoint is both too idealistic and fundamentally dishonest about the real-world apparatus of the legislative branch of the United States government. Members of Congress do not live in some cloistered world, à la the Supreme Court, in which the ideas manifest in their policy proposals are purely their own. Rather, they turn to staff lawyers to craft bills on issues they want to support. Most don’t even read the bills they are supposed to be making informed decisions on. This is not because they are congressional tenderfoots, but rather because the current proceedings do not provide enough time to carefully examine the thousands of bills introduced each year.

The reason that term limit legislation continually dies in Congress is obvious. It is poison hemlock, and, unfortunately, so few of our elected officials are veritable Socratics. Too many politicians look at Congress as a way to increase their statuses and pad their pocketbooks. The argument that the Methuselahs of D.C. are the only ones who can tackle the nation’s problems is a sophomoric one. We manage to find a new and capable president every eight years; there is no reason we can’t find fresh blood from each state to protect the nation’s interests. Besides, it’s not like there isn’t already a professional government class in the district ready to help the newbies out.

John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.

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