Commentary

Self-Limiters Practice What They Preach

By Patrick Basham
August 4, 2002

It’s been seven years since the Supreme Court narrowly decided to prohibit mandatory congressional term limits. Yet the term limits era on Capitol Hill continues apace. No, there hasn’t been a silent constitutional coup to appease the populists, who in 1994 appeared poised to topple a disengaged political establishment.

Rather, the good news for supporters of representative democracy and limited government is that since 1994 several dozen new faces have entered the halls of Congress promising to voluntarily leave office after three terms in the House of Representatives. Collectively, they are the unheralded self-limiters, who came to Washington not for a government career but to contribute to national policymaking before happily returning to their former lives and (usually private sector) jobs.

Those who wrote our Constitution debated the idea of mandatory congressional term limits but, confident that sufficient safeguards (such as voluntary retirements) were in place to forestall careerism, 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. From 1830 to 1850, turnover in the House averaged 51.5 percent.

After the Civil War, however, tenure gained new importance 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. During the past several years, many self-limiters stood out as the most fiscally conservative congressmen. Self-limiters have pioneered the political push for reform of flawed government programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) has regularly analyzed the legislative agendas of members of the House’s freshman class of 1994, including the self-limiters who stepped down from Congress in 2000. The NTUF compared the dollar cost of every piece of spending legislation introduced in Congress during each two-year session and cross-indexed these figures with the legislative sponsorship records of every congressman.

The NTUF found that self-limiters’ spending agendas were similar across their three terms. In 1995-1996, the average self-limiter proposed annual spending cuts of $17.3 billion. By the time his congressional tenure was wrapping up in 1999-2000, he was proposing annual spending cuts of $27.2 billion.

By contrast, non-self-limited congressmen significantly alter their spending agendas during their tenure. For example, in 1995-1996 the average non-self-limiter proposed $6.8 billion in annual spending increases. During his second term, however, the average non-self-limiter proposed additional government spending of $29.1 billion annually - a 428 percent increase in just one term. Furthermore, during 1999-2000 the 11 longest-serving congressmen wanted to increase spending by an average $59.5 billion a year.

In tandem with a growing body of evidence from the state level, it is increasingly clear that both mandatory and voluntary term limits contribute to a decline in political parochialism. In practice, this serves to halt, or at least reduce, the growth in the size and scope of government. The fact that term-limited politicians demonstrate greater respect than their non-limited colleagues for taxpayers’ money is a solid reason for hoping the self-limiting trend continues to gain momentum through the fall campaign season.

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