Sunday, December 18, 2016

Term limits proposed for congress

December 18, 2016

In a December 9 Washington Post opinion, senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and representative Ron DeSantis (R-FL) stated that they plan to introduce a constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms that senators can serve to two terms (12 years) and three terms for representatives (6 years). They stated that this is a way for Congress to show it heard the voice of the people.

Cruz and DeSantis asserted that “on Election Day, the American people made a resounding call to “drain the swamp” that is modern Washington. . . . . Thankfully, there’s a solution available that, while stymied by the permanent political class, enjoys broad public support: congressional term limits. . . . . Passing term limits will demonstrate that Congress has actually heard the voice of the people. . . . . huge majorities of rank-and-file Republicans, Democrats and independents favor enacting this reform. Indeed, according to a Rasmussen survey conducted in October, 74 percent of likely voters support establishing term limits for all members of Congress. This is because the concept of a citizen legislature is integral to the model of our democratic republic.”

Normally, it’s reasonable to believe that any talk of amending the US constitution is idle chatter with essentially no chance of any amendment becoming law. But these aren’t normal times. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump called for term limits. House Speaker Paul Ryan also backs the idea. Maybe there's more than a vanishingly small chance that this could happen. Or, maybe not.

What do term limits do?: Since term limits have been in place in various state legislatures, it’s worth asking what impact, if any, that has on governance. The evidence suggests that term limits tend to have documented unintended, but presumably unwanted, consequences that don’t obviously outweigh whatever benefits there are to the people’s will or anything else other than beneficiaries of the change.

Pro-term limit politicians and partisans routinely ignore those consequences, while the public is basically unaware of them.

Unintended consequences of term limited legislators include:

1. Loss of state legislator influence to special interests, lobbyists and career bureaucrats who are not generally accessible to elections and voters.

2. A power shift from state legislative leaders to governors, legislative staffs and unelected bureaucrats.

3. A decrease in state legislator professionalism, e.g., because there simply isn’t time for a legislator to become specialized and expert in a policy area.

4. A decreased for state legislatures role in crafting state budgets because less sophisticated short term legislators are outmaneuvered by more experienced executive branches.

5. Less legislative innovation as evidenced by (i) a reduced capacity to take advantage of flexibility in federal program guidelines, and (ii) a lower rate of innovation awards from the Council of State Governments.

6. A failure to fill legislatures with citizen legislators, while experienced professional politicians are replaced with less experienced professional politicians who are climbing their career ladders.

As discussed before, democracy doesn’t work the way voters generally believe it does and/or should. According to the research data, unintended consequences of term limits on legislatures is another disconnect between voter ideals and reality.

Questions: Is there any reasonable chance that a constitutional amendment on term limits for congress (or anything else) might become law under current political conditions? If the effects of term limits found by political science research are true and apply to members of congress, is pushing for term limits desirable or not? Is the research data on the effects of term limits on legislatures credible or not? Is the concept of a citizen legislature is integral to your model of our democratic republic as Cruz and DeSantis argue?

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