Congressional Term Limits


Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to address theSubcommittee on the subject of congressional term limitation, anissue that is essential to the restoration of public confidence inthe institution of Congress. It is also an issue that I havesupported for many years, actively so beginning in 1990 withProposition 140 in California and as a member of the boards ofAmericans to Limit Congressional Terms and U.S. Term Limits. I amalso the co‐​editor of the Cato Institute book, The Politics and Lawof Term Limits.

We know from election results and from poll after poll thatAmericans overwhelmingly support congressional term limitation.About 80 percent of Americans support the concept, and pollstersfind the breadth of that support remarkable. Republicans,Democrats, and independents, men and women, African‐​Americans andwhites, virtually any demographic group you can name supports termlimits by huge margins. The only negative poll I am aware of wasconducted by the Gallup organization a year or so ago. It foundthat a majority of congressional aides, corporate lobbyists, andmid‐​level federal bureaucrats, as a group, oppose congressionalterm limits. And that, I would suggest, is a finding that wouldonly intensify public support for the idea.

What I would like to do today is make the case for real termlimits, by which I mean three terms in the House of Representativesand two terms in the Senate. Virtually all supporters of termlimits, including those in Congress, favor two‐​term limits in theSenate. The conflict is over the House limits. A Luntz poll showsupporters of the concept favor three terms over six terms in theHouse by a margin of 82 percent to 14 percent. (Indeed, a 1993 pollby Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates found that a solidplurality of Americans actually favor only a two term limit for theHouse.) Within Congress, the majority of term limit supportersfavor six terms, although most of the freshmen class, swept intooffice by what some observers believe is a sea change in Americanpolitics, favor three terms.

With that by way of background, I would make the point that thedebate over three terms versus six terms is not mere quibbling overa technical issue. It is significant and substantive. It is aquestion of the people’s term limits versus the politiciansdisingenuous limits. The political energy behind the term limitmovement is predicated on the need for a citizen legislature.Americans believe that career legislators and professionalpoliticians have created a gaping chasm between themselves andtheir government. For democracy to work, it must be representativedemocracy — a government of, by, and for the people. That means acitizen legislature.

To achieve a citizen legislature it is imperative that ourrepresentatives in Congress — particularly in the House, which theFramers clearly intended to be the arm of government closest to thepeople — be not far removed from the private sector which, afterall, they are elected to represent. As Rhode Island’s Roger Shermanwrote at the time of our nation’s founding, “Representatives oughtto return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat ofgovernment, they would acquire the habits of the place, which mightdiffer from those of their constituents.” In the era of year‐​roundlegislative sessions, the only way to achieve that objective isthrough term limits.

Three terms for the House is preferable to six terms for avariety of reasons, which I will discuss below. The most importantone, however, deals with the question of who seeks to become amember of Congress in the first place. The fact is that America isbest served by a Congress populated with members who are there outof a sense of civic duty, but who would rather live their lives inthe private sector, holding productive jobs in civil society,outside the governmental world of political society. Suchindividuals might be willing to spend two, four, or even six yearsin Washington, but not if the legislative agenda is being set byothers, who’ve gained their authority through seniority. Twelveyear “limits,” which these days amount to a mini‐​career, do littleto remove this major obstacle to a more diverse and representativegroup of Americans seeking office.

We already have hard evidence that short, three‐​term limits willenhance the democratic process. I mentioned Proposition 140 inCalifornia, which was passed by the voters there in 1990 andlimited the state Assembly to three two‐​year terms. The 1992Assembly elections witnessed a sharp increase in the number ofcitizens seeking office, with a remarkable 27 freshmen elected inthe 80‐​member lower house of the California legislature. In anarticle on that freshman class, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Amongthe things making the group unusual is that most of them are trueoutsiders. For the first time in years, the freshman class does notinclude an abundance of former legislative aides who moved up theladder to become members.…Among the 27 are a former U.S. AirForce fighter pilot, a former sheriff‐​coroner, a paralegal, aretired teacher, a video store owner, a businesswoman‐​homemaker, achildren’s advocate, an interior designer, a retired sheriff’slieutenant, and a number of businessmen, lawyers, and former citycouncil members.”

Similarly, a three term limit for the United States House ofRepresentatives will return control of the House — not just throughvoting, but through participation — to the people. We must make thepossibility of serving in Congress a more attractive option formillions more Americans.

A second major reason for the need for a three term limit isthat it ensures that the majority of those serving in the Housewill not be far removed from their experiences in the privatesector. They will bring to the policy issues of the day the commonsense and practical experience of living in the real world thatwill lead to decisions that are truly in the public interest.Several times in debating the issue of term limits I’ve had anopponent suggest that limits will cost America its most experiencedlegislators. Invariably, such a comment draws loud applause fromthe audience. Which should not be necessarily be interpreted asdisrespect for those in Congress who have been in office a longtime, as much as a uniquely American response to the idea of aruling elite.

Besides, many people reason, it was the experienced legislatorswho have brought us the huge deficit and such undesirable episodesas the $300 billion S&L bailout. The latter incident is a goodexample of why the common sense of Americans rooted in the privatesector is needed in Congress. I could imagine a Congress picked bylottery that would have refused to pass federal deposit insuranceas part of the necessary move to deregulate the thrift industry.They would have said, in effect, yes, do deregulate, but forgoodness sake don’t ask the American taxpayer to pay for any badinvestments they make — that’s a license to speculate. But ourexperienced legislators apparently thought they could repeal thelaws of economics, raising the level of federal deposit insuranceand extending it to the deposit rather than the depositor, thusallowing the wealthiest people in the nation to spread theirdeposits around with utter indifference to the financial soundnessof the institutions in which they invested. We are still paying theprice for such legislative hubris.

A third reason for the shorter limits is related to the second.And that is that the longer one is in Congress, the more one isexposed to and influenced by the “culture of ruling” that permeateslife inside the Beltway. Groups like the National Taxpayers Unionhave documented the fact the longer people serve in Congress, thebigger spenders and regulators they become. This is just as true ofconservatives as it is of liberals. It is also understandable.Congressmen are surrounded in work and socially by people whosejobs are to spend other people’s money and regulate their lives. Itis the unusual individual — although they do exist — who is notsubtlety but surely affected by this culture.

As an example of this somewhat insidious process, let me relatean incident that occurred at the first organized term limit meetingI ever attended. It was back in 1990 and Americans to LimitCongressional Terms had brought together about 40 term limitactivists from around the country. We had just voted on the lengthof terms we thought the House should be limited to. It turned outthat we favored three terms, with two term running a very closesecond. I believe six terms received only one vote. At about thattime Rep. Bill McCollum, who is now the lead sponsor of the sixterm bill before Congress, swept into the meeting with hisentourage, and sat down apparently expecting to be lavished withpraise for his long and futile effort to get 12 year limits passedin the House. Instead, he was informed that the group did notconsider 12 year limits to be effective term limits and that wesupported three‐​term limits. Rep. McCollum was taken aback andsuggested that we would “discredit the term limit movement” byadvocating three terms. Subsequently, of course, 15 of the of the22 states that have passed term limits have three‐​term limits forthe House. Only one state (North Dakota) has voted by initiativefor six‐​term limits.

Viewing himself as a leader of the grassroots term limitmovement, Rep. McCollum, just elected to his eighth term, insteadvery much reflects an inside the Beltway mentality with respect tothe issue. As Michael Kramer wrote in the January 23, 1995 issue ofTime, “The dissonance between the people and their leaders on termlimits is deafening.”

A fourth reason to support three terms over six terms is thatthe shorter limits are an antidote to the growing“professionalization” of the legislative process. As politicalscientist Mark P. Petracca of the University of California, Irvine,has written, “Whereas representative government aspires to maintaina proximity of sympathy and interests between representative andrepresented, professionalism creates authority, autonomy, andhierarchy, distancing the expert from the client. Though thisdistance may be necessary and functional for lawyers, nurses,physicians, accountants, and social scientists, the qualities andcharacteristics associated with being a ‘professional’ legislatorrun counter to the supposed goals of a representative democracy.Professionalism encourages an independence of ambition, judgementand behavior that is squarely at odds with the inherently dependentnature of representative government.”

Finally, the shorter limits for the House are guaranteed toenhance the competitiveness of elections and, as noted above,increase the number and diversity of Americans choosing to run forCongress. As Paul Jacob of U.S. Term Limits has pointed out, themost competitive races (and the ones that bring out the largestnumber of primary candidacies) are for open seats. At least a thirdof all House seats will be open under three term limits eachelection, with the likelihood that as many as half will not featurean incumbent seeking reelection. We also know from past experiencethat women and minorities have greater electoral success in openseat races.

I would argue, as well, that the incentives for a citizenlegislature are significantly stronger under the shorter limits.Six-term limits are long enough to induce incumbents to stickaround for the entire twelve years. Three‐​term limits are shortenough to prompt incumbents to return to the private sector beforespending six years in the House. I believe that under a three‐​termlimit we will witness a return to the Nineteenth century norm ofhalf the House being freshman — a true citizen legislature.

In addition, the next most competitive races are the incumbentsfirst attempt at reelection and the race prior to retirement. Thus,under a three‐​term limit virtually all races for the House ofRepresentatives will be more competitive than is the case today orwould be the case under six‐​term limits.

In order for the concept of a citizen legislature to havemeaning, it is imperative that those serving in the legislatureliterally view their time in office as a leave of absence fromtheir real jobs or careers. This is the key to a successful citizenlegislature. The incentives facing a congressman should neverinvolve a concern over what other legislators might do inretaliation, or what special interests might do to one’s politicalcareer. I might add that these are not new ideas. I’ve attached tothis testimony the text of a section from Cato’s Letters,Eighteenth century pamphlets that are said to have helped lay thephilosophical groundwork for the American revolution, that dealsspecifically with term limits. I commend it to you attention.

Let me close by quoting from the introductory essay in ThePolitics and Law of Term Limits that I co‐​authored with RogerPilon, director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies:“Stepping back from these policy arguments, however, one sees adeeper issue in the term‐​limits debate, an issue that takes us toour very foundations as a nation. No one can doubt that America wasdedicated to the proposition that each of us is and ought to befree — free to plan, and live his own life, as a privateindividual, under a government instituted to secure that freedom.Thus, implicit in our founding vision is the idea that most humanaffairs take place in what today we call the private sector. Thatsector — and this is the crucial point — is primary: governmentcomes from it, not the other way around. When we send men and womento Congress to ‘represent’ us, therefore, we want them tounderstand that they represent us, the overwhelming number ofAmericans who live our daily lives in that private sector.Moreover, we want them to remember that it is to that private worldthat they must return, to live under the laws they have made as ourrepresentatives. That, in essence, is the message implicit in thegrowing call for term limits. It is not simply or even primarily amessage about ‘good government.’ Rather, it is a message about thevery place of government in the larger scheme of things. Governmentis meant to be our servant, to assist us by securing our liberty aswe live our essentially private lives. It is not meant to be ourmaster in some grand public adventure.”

Mr. Chairman, as the “Contract with America” notes, at itsSalisbury conference, “House Republicans talked about governing thecountry with the will of the people in the U.S. House ofRepresentatives.” This is a non‐​partisan objective that Democratsshould embrace with equal enthusiasm. With respect to term limits,as the attached Luntz poll demonstrates, the will of the peoplecould not be any clearer. They want a return to a citizenlegislature, and that means three‐​term limits in the House ofRepresentatives. Thank you for this opportunity to share mythoughts with the Subcommittee.

Edward H. Crane

Subcommittee on the Constitution
Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate