Term Limits for Congress Pros and Cons List

Congressional term limits have become an increasingly contentious issue in American politics. This is amplified by the fact that many other countries, states, and organizations define the number of terms an elected official is allowed to serve for. In fact, the twenty second amendment to the constitution states that the President of the United States will not be allowed to seek election to the office more than twice. So why shouldn’t the same be true for members of the House of Representative or Senate?

The Pros of Term Limits for Congress

1. Encourages Active Representation
The inability of congress to take meaningful action on any number of issues is a frequent justification for the consistently low approval ratings of the institution among voters. While many bemoan the fact that nothing is done, legislators are often punished for proposing new ideas or taking controversial votes, creating an incentive to do nothing. The argument goes that term limits would motivate those who are eager to pursue an active agenda rather than office seekers who are more interested in holding onto their new positions by avoiding any troublesome votes or just keeping their heads down.

2. Promotes New Ideas
New additions to any organization bring fresh ideas and congress is no different. However, unlike many other institutions, the make up of congress does not change very much with each election. In fact, the great majority of representatives are elected time after time despite consistently low approval ratings for congress as a whole. With so many of the same actors repeatedly returning to the same offices, it should be no surprise that things do not change. Term limits are a simple solution to the problem by mandating in law that new entrants will join congress periodically and ensuring that the membership is completely renewed over a defined period of time.

3. Reduces Opportunities for Corruption
Although serving in the same office, representatives who are not encumbered by term limits have far more time to develop connections with interest groups as well as learn how to navigate the system for personal gain. This can lead to corruption and raise questions about the integrity of the system. Term limits reduce the time in office that representative have to pursue illicit gains as a result of their position or be corrupted by outside influences. Furthermore, it eliminates the immunity that many elected officials currently enjoy by ensuring they will soon be deprived of it.

4. Reduces Short Term Political Pressure
Office holders are required to respond to the interests of their constituency but this can at times be at odds with the representatives personal view of what would be best. Congressman and Senators are elected to use their discretion, not vote along the lines of popular opinion on any given issue. Term limits reduce the immediate pressure on elected officials who will soon face voters by limiting the amount of time defining the amount of time they will serve in the position ahead of time. This should allow them to focus on the long term needs of the country as opposed to the current political climate.

5. Empowers New Arrivals
One of the primary results of unlimited terms is the inevitable development of systems of seniority. This favors the politicians who are able to hold their jobs the longest while stifling the opportunities for more recent arrivals to bring up and debate new ideas. Term limits dismantle any defacto or defined systems of seniority by capping the number of years any representative will be able to serve. Representatives who have recently been elected should also find it easier to promote an agenda or make themselves heard by removing the control of more senior members.

6. Dismantles Political Machines
Political parties maintain their influence and exert pressure on members largely through the pressure placed on these individuals by running for office and staying there. This can allow these organizations to promote favored elected officials or those that most closely adhere to the part line. Term limits would greatly inhibit the control political parties have over the system by eliminating opportunities for patronage over time as well as reducing partisanship by empowering new entrants outside of the formal party system.

7. Reduces Fundraising Pressure
One of the frequent complaints among both legislators as well as voters is the role that money plays in the system. Representatives feel constrained by the amount of time and resources they must devote to election campaigns cycle after cycle. Voters are speculative of the undemocratic influence of outside money. Term limits would reduce this pressure by simply limiting the number of times an elected official will face voters. It is possible that term limits would not have much of an effect on the overall amount of money in the absence of other meaningful reforms but it should limit the amount of time elected officials will have to donate to fundraising.

The Cons of Term Limits for Congress

1. Undemocratic
Democracy requires voters have the opportunity to select their elected representatives but term limits control the choice. Many Americans like their representative and are willing to elect the same person time after time, as demonstrated by the number of incumbents returned each cycle. Why should these voters be deprived of their first choice simply because the person has already served? Because they control who can run for office, term limits are considered by many an undemocratic encroachment on the free will of citizens to select their own representatives.

2. Punishes Experience
Experience is something every employer looks for in a job applicants. Voters are electing an applicant to represent them in a position of power, so wouldn’t they want the most experienced candidate? The same logic that would lead an employer to hire the most qualified candidate also leads voters to keep electing the same politicians. In todays heated political climate, experience is often used as a derogatory insult by opponents. Term limits would respond to this by eliminating the opportunity for elected officials to gain the experience to be good at their job. Refreshing congress with a large proportion of new members after every election may sound appealing to those voters who are frustrated with the current state of affairs but it could lead to even more paralysis by preventing representative from learning how to navigate a complicated system.

3. Eliminates Constraints on Conduct
Elections are important opportunities for voters to police their representative by either returning them to office or not. Defined terms free politicians from the burden of facing voters by creating lame duck sessions when the limit has been reached. During this time, politicians may be motivated by personal interest or the outside influence of powerful organizations rather than the interests of their constituents. Elections create an incentive for representative to respond to the needs of the voters but term limits eliminate this at the end, creating moral hazard.

4. Reduces Familiarity among Members
Working with fellow members is an important part of being a successful legislator. Throughout the history of congress, there are many examples of enduring friendships formed across party lines that helped the institution function properly. As a result of getting to know each other over time, working and personal relationships are forged between members that allow them to overcome partisan or ideological divisions. Term limits reduce the opportunities for legislators to get to know who they are working with and use that relationship to make both parties more effective at their job in the future.