Term limits on members of Congress have turned into one of the mainstay bipartisan policy appeals. Polls have shown as much as 80% of the country supports them. Politicians ranging from former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to former President Barack Obama and progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. have backed the policy. Proponents of the idea like the aforementioned politicians suggest that they could improve our democratic system by rooting out corruption, modernizing Congress and implementing fresh leadership. Younger candidates for the upcoming November 2022 midterms especially have clung to the idea, such as Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Abby Finkenauer, who has made term limits a main component of her campaign, likely in a direct attempt to attack veteran Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is currently running for his eighth term in the Senate.
However, congressional term limits are not as great as they may seem. Foremost is the fact that they are inherently undemocratic, and go against much of what American democracy stands for. A core ideal of democracy is that those who are elected are a reflection of the will of the people. If a majority of a district or state wants someone elected, voters can reflect that preference on the ballot and elect them.
Congressional term limits would take this all away. A congressperson could have done fantastic work for a district or state, be immensely popular and have a constituent base ready to support their re-election, only for the government to turn around and tell said constituents their candidate of choice is no longer valid. It makes little sense. While proponents of term limits decry a lack of new leadership, a cohort of extraordinarily old individuals and entrenched politicians, they fail to mention that there is a perfectly functional mechanism to rectify these issues, if indeed they fail to represent the majority of constituents, and that is for them to be voted out. Whether in office for three, 10 or 50 years, every congressperson is held to the same standard of re-election: win the most votes.
Additional problems include the fact that term limits, when they have been tried in state legislatures, have been shown to increase polarization, decrease familiarity between congresspeople — therefore hurting the chance to form bipartisan working relationships — and that legislative branches grow increasingly powerless in comparison to the executive brand and their underlying bureaucrats.
There is no reason to believe that new candidates would be any less corrupt, have any better intentions or be any better leaders than those who have steady, proven support among those they represent. This is the most popular reasoning invoked by proponents of term limits, yet there is little if any congruent evidence this policy would work as desired. Many term-limited members of Congress would simply go into occupations that cause the same problem most proponents are concerned about, such as political lobbying and advocating for shady special interests.
It has become popular as of late, spurred on in part by prominent republicans, to critique experience. Somehow having extensive knowledge and familiarity with government has become a bad thing, and being an ‘outsider’ with little if any government or political experience has become desirable. While in almost every professional field experience is looked at as a benefit, for politicians it has become somehow an inherent evil. Moreover, were politicians to be limited to shorter terms, they would be less effective at crafting legislation and struggle more to navigate the complexities of congressional action.
A harsh reality of those in favor of term limits is that their support is often rooted in ageist thinking. Some feel that those who are, for example, 75 years old and have been in Congress for decades no longer can be capable in their positions. While it is reasonable, and quite common, for individuals to prefer candidates based in part on their age, it is unfair and inaccurate to automatically surmise that those who are high in age are not competent or able enough to maintain their posture in Congress. Even if that were the case, there is a perfectly good system to remove these officeholders, through the democratic feature of voting.
Congressional term limits are a solution for a made-up issue and insult voters by insinuating that the electorate is not competent enough to hold its elected leaders accountable. Proponents of term limits exacerbate some of the exact issues they aim to rectify, and many of their ideas are often rooted in an immoral, ageist philosophy. While it is fair to be concerned about entrenched corruption and a lack of diverse generations in Congress, the solution is to elect better candidates, not take away the will of the people to vote as they please.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org