Commentary

Oops! That term limit pledge? Maybe I was wrong!

By Patrick Korten
January 7, 1999

Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) said on Tuesday that a pledge he made to voters back in 1992 to limit himself to four terms (eight years) was “a mistake.” With more than a million dollars in the bank, he’s thinking of running for a fifth term next time around.

Leaving aside for a moment the questionable wisdom of breaking promises to the voters (remember George Bush), the reason Meehan gave for sticking around a while longer was highly instructive: “I am obviously more effective today than I was when I arrived. And my district would be better off with a member of Congress who utilized his or her seniority to the advantage of the district.”

It may just be that Mr. Meehan has been reading a recently published study from the Cato Institute written by another Massachusetts resident, Harvard law professor Einer Elhauge (What Term Limits Do That Ordinary Voting Cannot, Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 328, December 16, 1998). In this exceptionally thoughtful paper, Elhauge explains the apparent contradiction between polls that show that people overwhelmingly favor term limits, and elections in which the same people consistently reelect senior incumbents (98 percent of those seeking reelection this past November won).

It’s simple, Elhauge points out. “No district wants to unilaterally cede the power it has. A district that ousts its senior incumbent suffers a loss of relative clout in the legislature.” Thus, voters act rationally when they reelect a long-time incumbent, even though they’d prefer that all legislators be term limited. “If any individual district ousts its incumbent, it suffers a huge loss of relative power,” because most other districts have longer serving members with the clout that comes with seniority.

On the other hand, “if all the districts collectively could agree to oust their senior incumbents simultaneously, no district would suffer a loss of relative power and each district would gain more accurate representation. Term limits are effectively just such an agreement. Term limits oust the most senior incumbents automatically. Term limits also lower the penalty on ousting the (less senior) incumbents that remain by limiting the seniority disadvantage of newcomers.”

In short, Meehan’s assertion that he can wield more clout for his district if he stays in Congress a while longer is true. His willingness to break his 1992 term limit promise on that account is proof that the term limits he once favored are the only way to fundamentally change a political culture in which professional politicians dominate our governmental institutions and the will of the people invariably suffers as a result.

The Elhauge policy analysis can be found in its entirety at http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-328es.html.

Patrick Korten is vice president for communications at the Cato Institute.