Term limits most directly prevent politicians from turning office‐holding into a career, spending 30 or 40 years as a congressman or senator, hanging on until they can barely function. Forcing rotation in office would also hinder the development of permanent relationships among members and interests/lobbyists. Even when these ties did develop, they would last only until the member’s term ends.
By churning offices and encouraging electoral competition, term limits discourage the creation of a permanent political class. Forced to run anew for different offices rather than for reelection as incumbents, a larger fraction of established candidates will be defeated. More contests will feature non‐incumbents, which will yield a greater focus on issues than on, say, constituent service. “Disruptive” candidates, of the sort seen in the new Democratic caucus in the House, are more likely to succeed.
Critics worry that legislative turnover just increases the power of congressional staffers, but having essentially permanent chairmen and ranking members leads to near‐permanent staff too. In practice, voters seem no better served by a 30‐year legislator than by a 30‐year staffer, since both tend to represent the political culture, influential interests, and the entrenched state more than anything approaching the public interest. Public‐choice economics warns us that institutions have interests too, and long‐serving legislators and staffers largely serve the institution to which they both belong. The argument that voters benefit from having more‐experienced legislators is belied by the hash such legislators have made of everything from exploding deficits and uncontrolled entitlement outlays to unconstrained presidential war‐making. Preventing lifetime legislators at least creates a possibility of change.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of the positive impact of term limits comes from Florida State University economists Randall Holcombe and Robert Gmeiner, who concluded that such restrictions in state legislatures slowed the growth of both spending and taxes. Growth rates ranged between 16 percent and 46 percent lower in states that imposed term limits.
The impact could be even greater at the federal level. Members consistently vote for more spending the longer they stay in Congress. Once‐radical critics of the federal government essentially “go native” after serving a few terms in the nation’s capital. The problem of politics turning into a permanent career is worse at the federal level, where legislating is highly professionalized and largely impervious to public influence, let alone control.
The Cruz‐Rooney constitutional amendment is similar to one proposed by Cruz two years ago. It would limit senators to two six‐year terms and congressmen to three two‐year terms. The measure has three Senate GOP co‐sponsors. President Donald Trump has endorsed the idea, as has Beto O’Rourke, Cruz’s Democratic opponent last November.
In promoting his legislation, Cruz explained: “For too long, members of Congress have abused their power and ignored the will of the American people.” Term limits, he argued, “offer a solution to the brokenness we see in Washington, D.C.” Rooney cited the “overwhelming” support of the American people.
The latter is true, of course, but matters naught when it comes to an issue like term limits. Any amendment would have to be approved by three‐fourths of the states, but that isn’t as high a barrier as it might seem. After all, 15 states already term‐limit their legislators. (Voters in another six states voted to impose term limits, but the legislatures or courts subsequently overturned the measures.) However, the likelihood that two‐thirds of the members of Congress will vote themselves out of a job by sending forth an amendment is only theoretically above zero. Satan’s demons are more likely to vote to close Hell.
There are other potential election fixes, but few would be any more palatable to current members. For instance, adding congressional seats — the number 435 is set by statute, not the Constitution —would make gerrymandering more difficult, increasing the number of competitive districts. More fundamental reforms, such as ranked‐choice voting, multi‐member districts, and proportional representation, and more, would add more diverse perspectives to the national legislature by enhancing the voting power of political minorities. But these would be even more radical departures from the status quo, and thus less likely to win both congressional and state legislative approval.
Article V of the Constitution does allow an alternative: Two‐thirds of the states can request that a constitutional convention be convened. However, debate rages over whether such a gathering could be limited to the subject at hand. That leads even some fervent supporters of change hesitant to employ such an uncertain remedy. Conservative activists hoping to rein in spending and taxes have long fought bitterly over the wisdom of employing this tactic.
The best chance is to push for state‐imposed term limits on members of Congress, usually through voter initiatives. By the mid‐1990s 23 states had enacted such limits. Alas, in 1995 a 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court tossed these measures out, ruling that state authority over congressional elections did not reach that far. In that case, U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Ray Thornton, et al., frustrated Arkansas officeholders (Thornton was a Democratic congressman) sued to overturn restrictions imposed by state voters. Justice John Paul Stevens authored the opinion, which declared that states could not impose an additional qualification on candidates for federal office. He was joined by David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Justice Anthony Kennedy completed the majority, penning a concurring opinion that included the hilarious complaint that the restriction would interfere with the “relationship between the people of the nation and their national government” and “disparage the republican character of the national government.” (It is jarring to realize that Republican presidents appointed Stevens, Souter, and Kennedy.)
Clarence Thomas authored the dissent, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor. They contended: