The limitation of congressional terms is gaining tremendous popularity, but most experts argue that it would be a bad idea.

Politics / Thursday, 02 November 2023 14:36

Disillusionment with America's political system has led to a resurgence of interest in imposing restrictions on the terms of lawmakers, although experts widely oppose this idea.

Voters have long supported strict limits on how long a person can hold office, but recent disagreements among Republicans over who should be the Speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as health issues among aging members of Congress, have renewed calls for term limits at the federal level. (Ethical scandals in the Supreme Court of the United States have also led to individual calls for limiting judges' terms.)

A Pew Research Center poll conducted this summer showed that a whopping 87% of Americans support term limits in Congress.

And this is one of those rare issues that appeals to people across the political spectrum: Democratic and Republican respondents in the Pew poll equally support this policy.

Casey Burgat, Director of the Legislative Affairs Program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, says it's not surprising.

"In our politics, there are a lot of violations, especially within Congress," he says. "Congress is one of the least popular institutions we have. So, when we have something unpopular, it makes sense to refresh the people serving in that institution."

This idea has been proposed for many years by both Democratic and Republican candidates, including then-President Donald Trump.

"When you talk about the average American and why 87% of them support term limits, it's just storytelling," he says. "These are the loud examples you see when people either lose control or experience a decline in cognitive function... and they make the most important decisions in our country."

Advantage of the incumbent position Tombulides also cites stories of how legislators have remained in power despite scandals and ethical violations.

And he blames the power of the incumbent president for all of this.

"Ninety-seven percent of incumbent presidents are re-elected," he says. "In the last election cycle, 100% of U.S. senators listed on the ballot were re-elected. No sitting U.S. senator was defeated in the last cycle. So, from a democracy standpoint, from an election standpoint, our elections are not very democratic."

Although the advantage of the incumbent position is perhaps the most popular argument in favor of term limits, scholars studying this issue say it is not as clear-cut as many think.

Burgat says there are many factors that make it easier for incumbents to win elections, including redistricting. Most members of Congress hold non-competitive seats, favoring their own party.

"Over 90% of our elections are non-competitive, which means we essentially know which party will win these elections regardless of the candidates running," he says. "And the faster you replace these politicians, the more often you'll have to replace them."

The U.S. has a "fundamental problem," say advocates calling for new electoral systems ELECTIONS The U.S. has a "fundamental problem," say advocates calling for new electoral systems What research has found Burgat says term limits do not address the fundamental problems in American politics that make people dislike Congress, such as corruption, political polarization, the influence of special interests, and money in politics.

In fact, researchers have found that the consequences of term limits are often either ambiguous or do not align with the claims of supporters.

For example, supporters argue that term limits reduce polarization because lawmakers will be forced to listen to their constituents rather than political parties. However, researchers have found that term limits in some cases actually exacerbate polarization.

Burgat also points to evidence of unintended consequences in the 16 states where term limits are in place for their state legislators.

Institutional knowledge Susan Valdes, a Democratic representative from Florida, is one of those 16 states.

"I've seen how term limits have affected policy at the state level and how much time it takes to do good policy," she says.

As a member of the Florida House of Representatives, Valdes can serve a maximum of four two-year terms. She says she thinks of each term as one school year.

"I go into the next election, [thinking they] will be the final year of school," Valdes says. "And these six years in the Florida House have gone by so quickly that in reality, the first two sessions are really just getting to know the basics, understanding how the terrain works, if you will, in this arena."

She says this applies to almost everyone. Valdes says some people don't have the opportunity to get trained to become a legislator before taking office.