By Lee H. Hamilton
It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.
Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular, and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could get thrown out automatically has great appeal.
I should say up front that you’re not going to hear a strong argument in favor of term limits from a guy who served 34 years in Congress. But I want to spell out the reasons for my bias, not because I think term limits are a burning issue in Washington—they’re not—but because I wish they were less of an issue for ordinary voters. Congress has a lot of problems right now, and term limits are a distraction from the truly hard work that needs to be done.
Term limits supporters believe that bringing in fresh thinking and new leaders on a regular basis will make Congress more representative. However, stripping voters of the right to re-elect a representative whom they’ve supported in the past does not make for a more democratic system; rather, it makes it less.
It also weakens Congress. If you take power away from a senior legislator, that power does not evaporate. Instead, it flows to the bureaucracy and the President. Serving productively in Congress is a tough, exacting task. It demands a deep knowledge of the issues that confront the country, a keen eye, backed by years of experience, for the ways in which executive agencies can go off track, insight into the ways in colleagues might be motivated to shift their positions, and the hard-earned wisdom to forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies.
Kicking members of Congress out of their seats just as they’re gaining the ability to legislate effectively and oversee the government responsibly is tantamount to demoting Congress to the status of a minor agency. Term limits are not the solution to the real dysfunction that besets Washington. They reduce the choices of voters, shift power to the executive branch, and move representative democracy in the wrong direction.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.