Congressional Terms Limited to Only One?
Unintended consequences of very restrictive term limits
Pilgrim recently sharpened his quill and delivered a very interesting diary titled, No Country for Old Men. Extra interesting because it didn’t mention immigration, Al Gore’s body, or Deepwater Horizon and BP. His thesis was that we should have age-based term limits, and the country would benefit because it would spare us the agony of listening to the final few years of quavering voices as about eleven still-living and future nonagenarian wannabes string out their swan songs through election after election. The comments all too quickly (would you believe comment #2?) made a sharp turn into the topic of old fashioned term limits–the kind based on number of terms, not the incumbent’s age. Maybe it was because everybody agreed with pilgrim but still wanted to argue about something.
Anyway, kowalski proposed that congressional terms should be limited to a maximum of only one, not based on age, and the floodgates opened. I started to enter into the fray, then decided I wanted to pontificate more than a comment would allow. NTTAWWT. I just felt that too many consequences were being overlooked, although Art Chance briefly hit one of them pretty good. I’ll try to expand a bit on it. I know I won’t touch on all of them. Please feel free to add your own.
One unintended consequence of one-term limits would be a resurgence of power wielded by the states. They would probably NOT term-limit their offices, which would then become more in demand among politically ambitious people. It might also reduce the cost of running a national campaign, as the congressional seats might be in less demand. I recognize that this is pure blue sky I’m selling. After all, it’s never been tried. (If it has, I’m sure you’ll tell me.)
Because of the “I’m new here” factor for every one in Congress, the federal government would tend to become less intrusive and more responsive to the people, as those elected wouldn’t have much time to be seduced by the wonders of DC. They would themselves have recently been one of “the people,” and they soon would be again. They also might be more interested in protecting the Constitution and less interested in extending their own power.
The country might turn back into a more representative Republic, rather than an all-powerful central government that treats its sovereign states as mere subdivisions of itself, which they were never intended to be. It might also become a lot less efficient in the things that it does (probably a good thing), which might make it tend to concentrate on the tasks and roles assigned to it by the Constitution rather than taking so much time and resources attempting to find new ways to control the people and the states with over-reaching legal maneuvers.
There would also be even more movement between political “jobs” than there is today. Congressmen would fight to become senators, senators would fight to become governors, governors would fight to become President. The only thing new is that there will be a much larger supply of ex-incumbents and other aspirants to choose from, and we should be able to tell the bad ones from the good fairly easily. Someone who is in it only for himself behaves differently from someone who is in it for the good of the country. “By their deeds ye shall know them.”
And of course many would stick around to become part of the bureaucracy or of subsequent congressional or senatorial staffs. That’s where some limited continuity would come from. As Art pointed out, “few Members could actually pour pee out of a boot with instructions on the heel, so they just mouth what staffers tell them even when the Member has been around awhile.” That seems to tell us that there wouldn’t be much difference between a one-term limit and the current situation.
Part of our greater problem today is that too few people are involved in government at all, and too many people are so involved for so long that they have become government. Representative government needs representatives who understand what those represented are facing. Single terms would help with that, I think.
A basic principle of democracy is that many (educated) minds together will make better decisions than just a few, and it’s true to a point that fits the discussion here. (It’s partly why a market-based economy runs rings around a centrally-directed one.) Thus, the House has 435 members rather than forty. The tricky part is that some of them have been there so long that they wield disproportionate power. The same for the 100 senators, only worse. And the pervasiveness of groupthink is abundantly obvious to anybody who listens to any congressman of any kind speak about any subject. They may not all agree, but they all frame the issues the same way. Yet if you read the comments on Redstate, you will see that it isn’t part of the human condition, it’s only part of the DC condition.
Many of them are also lawyers. And doctors. Some college professors. But how many are CPA’s? Bakers? Barbers? Businessmen? Many fewer, I think. Decide for yourself why that is. But the result is a skewed outlook on the world. Not necessarily a wrong one, but one that makes the Congress less imaginative than it needs to be when seeking solutions to problems that it should be trying to solve, and all too quick to apply a legalistic hammer to all those societal nails that it sees.
Of all these, to me the biggest advantage of greatly restricted congressional terms is the possibility of restoring power to the states as originally intended.
But there are drawbacks too, of course. Restricted terms may mean that, instead of running for office themselves, powerful, rich, connected people will instead cultivate a rotating stable of young sycophants to run for these offices. They’ll find them among office-holders at local and state levels, or lecturing at law schools, or working in community action groups. Not that it doesn’t happen now, but on the good side, they will be harder to recruit if only one term can be promised. Only the very ambitious will be tempted.
The Congress would become less powerful compared to the President, but they could mitigate this by enacting disabling legislation. This might be considered a serious problem, but the current Congress isn’t doing much to rein in the current President, partly because they want to be reelected. Maybe a Congress full of spit and vinegar would actually do better. A weaker President and Congress would also turn us back towards a Constitutionally-regulated government.
At the same time, political parties should become more important, in different ways, than they are today. Party platforms will finally mean more than talking points, because party platforms will be what tie one Congress to the next. It will be the parties which provide continuity, rather than the congressmen.
And finally, we have a real-life example of the benefits of one particular two-term limit. You fill in the rest.