Give Me Term Limits

An issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that of term limits for our elected officials in Congress. I’ve watched the effectiveness of government — at solving problems, doing the big things that we can’t do ourselves as individuals or in business — deteriorate over the course of my adult life. The approval rating of Congress itself, which has for years hovered in the teens and twenties, is proof positive that the People think the system’s broken.

Heck, I remember right after I left college, back in 1994, a fresh wave swept the country, as Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” brought a Republican majority to bear in the House of Representatives, including a key promise to institute term limits. And we all celebrated shortly thereafter when the GOP successfully collaborated with Democrats to get term limits done. Oh, wait, that never happened. . .

Now, more than 20 years since Gingrich’s Contract with America, President Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, and others have called for term limits in some form. Still, we wait.

A Rasmussen poll taken right before last fall’s election showed that a full 74 percent of likely voters favored term limits for members of Congress (only 13 percent outright opposed the idea). If three-quarters of us want something done and feel strongly about it, isn’t the fact that it’s not getting done become a self-fulfilling prophecy of a better way of doing things than the present?

Let me say unequivocally that I’m not coming at this from a partisan perspective, but rather a patriotic point of view. I believe we should all want this great American experiment to improve over time, as it has in many ways.

But right now, government is so broken, and it’s not like we can simply rip it out and start over. The reasons we need term limits speak to the very problems that cause the need for them.

When you have the same leadership in place, year after year (even decade after decade), you deprive an enterprise of the fresh sets of eyes that bring new ideas and new ways of problem-solving to the fore. It’s why in business we have not only our executives and managers, but also our outside advisors and shareholders — a broad group of people, with depth and breadth of wisdom and experience — rotating at times for new leadership perspectives.

A recent Congressional Research Service report shows the problem of career politicians becoming more exacerbated over time. In the 19th century, the members of congress had an average tenure of three years. Now, that number has tripled, while the average tenure of U. S. Senators is more than 10 years. In our current Congress, nearly a fifth of all House members have more than 16 in office, with another fifth holding office between eight and 16 years. Nearly a fifth of Senators have more than 16 years of service, according to that report.

In addition to having entrenched, stale ways of doing business in place in Washington, the nature of our election cycles in the modern age has our officials immediately gearing up their re-election efforts the day they take office. According to some rather startling research from the Campaign Finance Institute, the average seat in the House “costs” successful candidates nearly just shy of $2 million, doubling over time since the 1980s. Senate seats currently run more than $10 million, on average!

Fundraising for members of Congress, with their two-year terms, take a notoriously harsh toll on well-intentioned people, making them beholden to people who not only get them elected with big dollars, but who can immediately turn on them at a moment’s notice. Thus, our congresspersons are always courting donors, so that they can career-build in office over multiple terms.

Not only do we need fresh eyes and less focus on donations to get elected, but also get back to the idea of public service as a part-time assignment and not a political career — at least not in the same office. In my view, if we restore this notion of the citizen-legislator at the expense of the career politicians, practical, prudent, and pragmatic approaches to governing will replace polarizing ideologies.

Public servants should be able to vote based on how they believe and solve problems with a long-term view, not one with short-term gratification and consequences rather than benefits for our republic. Freed of fundraising, I believe they will actually work for the common good with a worldview seen through the lens of party, versus the current state of working to score political points with diatribes and stunts meant to please extreme factions — which the founders warned us about — and the moneymen.

I’ve heard the arguments that we’ll lose the true statesmen and stateswomen in each chamber if we go this route. But I’m an adult, and I realize that with any decision for the greater good we may have to sacrifice some good as well. And if we lose those “lions of the Senate” and leaders of the house, perhaps by necessity we will simplify the workings of government with each successive cycle of mandated turnover. This simplification will yield greater efficiency and make governing more conducive to those looking to restore a congressional seat to the role of a part-time job — one that somehow became a full-time job for some, and sadly, a lifetime appointment for many.

Let’s reduce the power of big money, big egos, and stale thinking and refresh our democratic process with a revolutionary measure in the spirit of the Enlightenment thinking upon which our nation was based. Thomas Jefferson, unable to attend the Constitutional Convention, saw term limits as the most glaring omission of our nation’s formative documents; in his words, the lack of rotation of those in office would “end in abuse.”

Count me in with Jefferson and others. Let’s have term limits now and unleash the power of the American people by expanding the pool of leadership from which our democracy flourishes.