President-Elect Trump continues to turn heads with how he is going to make America great again. One of those proposals is that of Congressional term limits. The argument goes something along the lines of "even with low approval ratings, incumbents have a high reelection rate, which means we have a problem with entrenched politicians." It sounds like a "common-sense" policy against politicians amassing too much power. As simple or neat as it might sound, it really is not.
Let's start off with the political feasibility. Back in 1995, 23 states tried imposing term limits for their Congressional delegations. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled term limits to be unconstitutional. The Court ruled that term limits would need to come in existence through a constitutional amendment. Per Article V of the Constitution, a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds approval from the House and the Senate. For whom are you trying to enact term limits? The House and Senate, the very same people that would need to approve the constitutional amendment. You see how Congress might not want to pass this amendment, especially with the number of "yea" votes required? Granted, the Seventeenth Amendment, which allows for Senators to be voted by popular vote, was adopted in 1913, but it's hardly considered politically viable.
But let's assume you have passed that major hurdle, and can somehow convince two-thirds of the legislators to curtail their power and influence in office. There is an assumption that term limits work, which is not necessarily the case. Many political scientists actually think that term limits are a bad idea. The state of California found that term limits really did not have an effect on incumbency. The study from the Public Policy Institute of California found that politicians largely behave the same, regardless of term limits. The Council of State Governments also found that term-limited legislatures "report more general chaos, a decline in civility, reduced influence of legislative leaders and communities, and in some states, a shift in power relationships....[but still] continue to function efficiently under term limits (Bowser, 2005)." A 2006 study from National Conference of State Legislatures shows that term limits do little to improve the diversity of chamber participants. It doesn't even seem that term limits have much of an impact on spending patterns. This is not me arguing for term limits, but pointing out that congressional term limits would not have the desired outcome.
There is a certain desire for professionalism, for legislators to develop their craft. If not, they end up being not as well-informed, as is observed in states such as Arizona, because they have neither the time nor the incentive to develop expertise on a number of issues. This lack of knowledge ironically leads to greater dependency on lobbyists, who would not be subject to term limits. Let's think about this: in order to stop corruption, we would limit legislators' power while expanding lobbyists' power (e.g., Sarbaugh-Thompson, 2010). Because that doesn't sound like a recipe for more corruption at all. Term limits also increase the power of the executive branch (Miller et al., 2011; Carey et al., 2006), as well as bureaucracy, and given how expansive executive power has been over the years on the federal level, do we really want to weaken the legislative branch?
Imposing congressional term limits might sound like dandy on the campaign trail, but it does not hold up to scrutiny. If we are worried about federal-level legislators, we can focus on other issues. There is a call from Republican legislators to re-introduce congressional earmarks, which would make it more difficult to stop corruption, so how about making sure that doesn't happen. Congress can also work on developing long-term staff instead of relying so heavily on lobbyists. I have another idea that would be even better: addressing gerrymandering. Not that it is within the scope of this blog entry, but in summation, it would be a better approach, and one I hope Trump ends up taking in lieu of the tenuous and politically inviable congressional term limits.
1-24-2018 Addendum: The Brookings Institution just came out with a list of five reasons to oppose term limits.