The Case for Term Limits: Shock and Surprise When an Incumbent Actually Retires

The Washington Post reports:

Del. David B. Albo … (R-Fairfax) surprised his party by announcing Wednesday that he won’t seek a 12th term [in the Virginia legislature].

Really? After 12 terms in office it’s a surprise when a politician doesn’t run for a 13th term? Or it’s “shocking” when an 80-year-old U.S. senator doesn’t seek to add to her 40 years in Congress?

Maybe it’s time to limit terms. The American Founders believed in rotation in office. They wanted lawmakers to live under the laws they passed—and wanted to draw the Congress from people who have been living under them. And polls show that contemporary Americans agree with them.

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. Yet in almost every election more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected. In fact, the most common reelection rate for House members over the past 30 years is 98 percent. Even when voters are angry, it’s hard to compete with the power of incumbency.

Americans don’t want a permanent ruling class of career politicians. But that’s what the power of incumbency and all the perks that incumbents give themselves are giving us.

We want a citizen legislature and a citizen Congress—a government of, by, and for the people.

To get that, we need term limits. We should limit members to three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. There must be more than one person in San Francisco capable of making laws. And more than one family in Detroit.

Term limits might result in the election of people who don’t want to make legislation a lifelong career.

Some say that term limits would deprive us of the skills of experienced lawmakers. Really? It’s the experienced legislators who gave us a $20 trillion national debt, and the endless war in Iraq (and Yemen and Syria), and a Veterans Affairs system that got no oversight, and massive government spying with no congressional oversight, and the Wall Street bailout.

Politicians go to Washington and they forget what it’s like to live under the laws they pass. As we’ve seen in some recent elections, they may not even keep a home in the district they represent.

When journalists and political insiders are surprised and shocked by the retirement of legislators who have served for decades, it’s time for new blood.

Political scientists say the evidence on the effect of term limits is mixed. But the evidence on the effects of the permanent congressional class is pretty clear.

For more on term limits, see the Cato Handbook for Congress, Ed Crane’s 1995 congressional testimony, or this very thoughtful article by Mark Petracca, “The Poison of Professional Politics.”