Congressional Term Limits

January 25, 1995 • Testimony

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to address the Subcommittee on the subject of congressional term limitation, an issue that is essential to the restoration of public confidence in the institution of Congress. It is also an issue that I have supported for many years, actively so beginning in 1990 with Proposition 140 in California and as a member of the boards of Americans to Limit Congressional Terms and U.S. Term Limits. I am also the co‐​editor of the Cato Institute book, The Politics and Law of Term Limits.

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

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

With that by way of background, I would make the point that the debate over three terms versus six terms is not mere quibbling over a technical issue. It is significant and substantive. It is a question of the people’s term limits versus the politicians disingenuous limits. The political energy behind the term limit movement is predicated on the need for a citizen legislature. Americans believe that career legislators and professional politicians have created a gaping chasm between themselves and their government. For democracy to work, it must be representative democracy — a government of, by, and for the people. That means a citizen legislature.

To achieve a citizen legislature it is imperative that our representatives in Congress — particularly in the House, which the Framers clearly intended to be the arm of government closest to the people — be not far removed from the private sector which, after all, they are elected to represent. As Rhode Island’s Roger Sherman wrote at the time of our nation’s founding, “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.” In the era of year‐​round legislative sessions, the only way to achieve that objective is through term limits.

Three terms for the House is preferable to six terms for a variety of reasons, which I will discuss below. The most important one, however, deals with the question of who seeks to become a member of Congress in the first place. The fact is that America is best served by a Congress populated with members who are there out of a sense of civic duty, but who would rather live their lives in the private sector, holding productive jobs in civil society, outside the governmental world of political society. Such individuals might be willing to spend two, four, or even six years in Washington, but not if the legislative agenda is being set by others, who’ve gained their authority through seniority. Twelve year “limits,” which these days amount to a mini‐​career, do little to remove this major obstacle to a more diverse and representative group of Americans seeking office.

We already have hard evidence that short, three‐​term limits will enhance the democratic process. I mentioned Proposition 140 in California, which was passed by the voters there in 1990 and limited the state Assembly to three two‐​year terms. The 1992 Assembly elections witnessed a sharp increase in the number of citizens seeking office, with a remarkable 27 freshmen elected in the 80‐​member lower house of the California legislature. In an article on that freshman class, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Among the things making the group unusual is that most of them are true outsiders. For the first time in years, the freshman class does not include an abundance of former legislative aides who moved up the ladder to become members.…Among the 27 are a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, a former sheriff‐​coroner, a paralegal, a retired teacher, a video store owner, a businesswoman‐​homemaker, a children’s advocate, an interior designer, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant, and a number of businessmen, lawyers, and former city council members.”

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

A second major reason for the need for a three term limit is that it ensures that the majority of those serving in the House will not be far removed from their experiences in the private sector. They will bring to the policy issues of the day the common sense and practical experience of living in the real world that will lead to decisions that are truly in the public interest. Several times in debating the issue of term limits I’ve had an opponent suggest that limits will cost America its most experienced legislators. Invariably, such a comment draws loud applause from the audience. Which should not be necessarily be interpreted as disrespect for those in Congress who have been in office a long time, as much as a uniquely American response to the idea of a ruling elite.

Besides, many people reason, it was the experienced legislators who have brought us the huge deficit and such undesirable episodes as the $300 billion S&L bailout. The latter incident is a good example of why the common sense of Americans rooted in the private sector is needed in Congress. I could imagine a Congress picked by lottery that would have refused to pass federal deposit insurance as part of the necessary move to deregulate the thrift industry. They would have said, in effect, yes, do deregulate, but for goodness sake don’t ask the American taxpayer to pay for any bad investments they make — that’s a license to speculate. But our experienced legislators apparently thought they could repeal the laws of economics, raising the level of federal deposit insurance and extending it to the deposit rather than the depositor, thus allowing the wealthiest people in the nation to spread their deposits around with utter indifference to the financial soundness of the institutions in which they invested. We are still paying the price 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 is exposed to and influenced by the “culture of ruling” that permeates life inside the Beltway. Groups like the National Taxpayers Union have documented the fact the longer people serve in Congress, the bigger spenders and regulators they become. This is just as true of conservatives as it is of liberals. It is also understandable. Congressmen are surrounded in work and socially by people whose jobs are to spend other people’s money and regulate their lives. It is the unusual individual — although they do exist — who is not subtlety but surely affected by this culture.

As an example of this somewhat insidious process, let me relate an incident that occurred at the first organized term limit meeting I ever attended. It was back in 1990 and Americans to Limit Congressional Terms had brought together about 40 term limit activists from around the country. We had just voted on the length of terms we thought the House should be limited to. It turned out that we favored three terms, with two term running a very close second. I believe six terms received only one vote. At about that time Rep. Bill McCollum, who is now the lead sponsor of the six term bill before Congress, swept into the meeting with his entourage, and sat down apparently expecting to be lavished with praise for his long and futile effort to get 12 year limits passed in the House. Instead, he was informed that the group did not consider 12 year limits to be effective term limits and that we supported three‐​term limits. Rep. McCollum was taken aback and suggested that we would “discredit the term limit movement” by advocating three terms. Subsequently, of course, 15 of the of the 22 states that have passed term limits have three‐​term limits for the House. Only one state (North Dakota) has voted by initiative for six‐​term limits.

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

A fourth reason to support three terms over six terms is that the shorter limits are an antidote to the growing “professionalization” of the legislative process. As political scientist Mark P. Petracca of the University of California, Irvine, has written, “Whereas representative government aspires to maintain a proximity of sympathy and interests between representative and represented, professionalism creates authority, autonomy, and hierarchy, distancing the expert from the client. Though this distance may be necessary and functional for lawyers, nurses, physicians, accountants, and social scientists, the qualities and characteristics associated with being a ‘professional’ legislator run counter to the supposed goals of a representative democracy. Professionalism encourages an independence of ambition, judgement and behavior that is squarely at odds with the inherently dependent nature of representative government.”

Finally, the shorter limits for the House are guaranteed to enhance the competitiveness of elections and, as noted above, increase the number and diversity of Americans choosing to run for Congress. As Paul Jacob of U.S. Term Limits has pointed out, the most competitive races (and the ones that bring out the largest number of primary candidacies) are for open seats. At least a third of all House seats will be open under three term limits each election, with the likelihood that as many as half will not feature an incumbent seeking reelection. We also know from past experience that women and minorities have greater electoral success in open seat races.

I would argue, as well, that the incentives for a citizen legislature are significantly stronger under the shorter limits. Six‐​term limits are long enough to induce incumbents to stick around for the entire twelve years. Three‐​term limits are short enough to prompt incumbents to return to the private sector before spending six years in the House. I believe that under a three‐​term limit we will witness a return to the Nineteenth century norm of half the House being freshman — a true citizen legislature.

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

In order for the concept of a citizen legislature to have meaning, it is imperative that those serving in the legislature literally view their time in office as a leave of absence from their real jobs or careers. This is the key to a successful citizen legislature. The incentives facing a congressman should never involve a concern over what other legislators might do in retaliation, or what special interests might do to one’s political career. I might add that these are not new ideas. I’ve attached to this testimony the text of a section from Cato’s Letters, Eighteenth century pamphlets that are said to have helped lay the philosophical groundwork for the American revolution, that deals specifically with term limits. I commend it to you attention.

Let me close by quoting from the introductory essay in The Politics and Law of Term Limits that I co‐​authored with Roger Pilon, director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies: “Stepping back from these policy arguments, however, one sees a deeper issue in the term‐​limits debate, an issue that takes us to our very foundations as a nation. No one can doubt that America was dedicated to the proposition that each of us is and ought to be free — free to plan, and live his own life, as a private individual, under a government instituted to secure that freedom. Thus, implicit in our founding vision is the idea that most human affairs take place in what today we call the private sector. That sector — and this is the crucial point — is primary: government comes from it, not the other way around. When we send men and women to Congress to ‘represent’ us, therefore, we want them to understand that they represent us, the overwhelming number of Americans who live our daily lives in that private sector. Moreover, we want them to remember that it is to that private world that they must return, to live under the laws they have made as our representatives. That, in essence, is the message implicit in the growing call for term limits. It is not simply or even primarily a message about ‘good government.’ Rather, it is a message about the very place of government in the larger scheme of things. Government is meant to be our servant, to assist us by securing our liberty as we live our essentially private lives. It is not meant to be our master in some grand public adventure.”

Mr. Chairman, as the “Contract with America” notes, at its Salisbury conference, “House Republicans talked about governing the country with the will of the people in the U.S. House of Representatives.” This is a non‐​partisan objective that Democrats should embrace with equal enthusiasm. With respect to term limits, as the attached Luntz poll demonstrates, the will of the people could not be any clearer. They want a return to a citizen legislature, and that means three‐​term limits in the House of Representatives. Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts with the Subcommittee.

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