Commentary

A Long View of Short Careers: The Case for Voluntary Term Limits

By Patrick Basham
This article appeared on Reason.com on March 15, 2005

There’s nothing like the first weeks of a new Congress to demonstrate how conservatives embrace political tradition with all the air in their lungs. Each has his or her favorite quote from Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk bemoaning political change for change’s sake. If only we could go back to the good old days, sounds the familiar conservative refrain, when our elected officials both had modest policy ambitions and kept their public word.

Unfortunately, too few conservative officeholders uphold the political traditions they claim to carry around like sacred tablets, such as the traditional view that politics is not a career. The recent death of Tillie Fowler, former Republican congresswoman from Florida, is a reminder of the gulf between conservative rhetoric and record.

Fowler was elected to Congress in 1992 after promising to serve no more than four terms in Washington. Elected with a large majority of the vote, she was subsequently reelected three times without opposition.

In 1998, Fowler was elected vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. By 2000, she had climbed to the No. 5 position in the House Republican leadership. At a time when she was the most powerful woman in Congress, Fowler kept her eight year-old promise to her constituents and chose not to seek a fifth term.

Since Fowler’s first election victory, several dozen legislators have entered the halls of Congress promising to leave office voluntarily after three terms in the House of Representatives. They include Matt Salmon of Arizona, Bob Schaffer of Colorado, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Collectively, they are known as the self-limiters, who came to Washington not for a government career but to contribute to national policymaking before returning, like Tillie Fowler, to their former lives and (usually private sector) jobs.

In doing so, self-limiters uphold an important, if largely ignored, political tradition. Those who wrote our Constitution were confident that sufficient safeguards, such as a tradition of voluntary retirements, were in place to forestall careerism. Hence, they chose not to include a term limits provision in the new Constitution. At the federal level, a tradition of voluntary retirement after only one or two terms in the House lasted until nearly the end of the 19th century.

Congressional tenure became important when the introduction of the seniority principle for congressional committee membership changed the dynamics of obtaining leadership positions. Consequently, between 1860 and 1920 House members’ average tenure increased from four to eight years, and it has continued to rise ever since.

As the Framers suspected, the self-limiters’ collective experience suggests that self-limitation helps to discipline a politician’s legislative behavior. In practice, self-limiters exercise greater independence than their non-limited peers and appear less fearful of incurring the wrath of either party power brokers or special interest groups.

Over the past decade, many self-limiters stood out as the most fiscally conservative congressmen. They have been some of the most outspoken advocates for reform of flawed government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. It is increasingly clear that voluntary term limits contribute to a decline in political parochialism. In practice, this serves to reduce the growth in the size and scope of government. One hopes that more of the self-limiters’ avowedly conservative colleagues will follow their lead.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.