Term Limits: Right Problem, Wrong Solution

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Voters are very concerned about our dysfunctional elected bodies. Approval ratings of the US Congress have averaged below 20% for quite some time. Yet in 2016, of the 422 members of the US House and Senate who sought re-election, only 15 (< 4%) failed to retain their seat.

How is it that 96% of our representatives get re-elected when less than 20% of us think that they’re collectively doing a good job. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this paradox, among them:

  • Voters seem to like their representative but not others. Perhaps this reflects pork-barrel politics. Let’s hope this isn’t the only cause.
  • Voting in down-ballot races tend to be party driven rather than person driven. Split-ticket voting has been declining for some time. Political polarization is clearly high. There is definitely a tendency for voters to choose party over person.
  • Gerrymandering has created too many safe districts. Though this certainly would not explain Senatorial incumbency advantage.
  • In an era of massive advertising and expensive campaigns, incumbents tend to have an unfair advantage over challengers. In terms of raising campaign funds, and even press coverage, the advantage clearly goes to incumbents.

Most important trends in human behavior tend to be over-determined. It’s likely true in this case. The question, of course, is what can be done to improve the responsiveness and functionality of our governing institutions.

Voters can already turn over members of Congress anytime they wish. They just don’t. When this pattern persists from election to election, though, it’s certainly pertinent to determine if there are structural changes that might help.

One idea that is regularly floated is term limits. Many believe if we force turnover of Representatives and Senators (perhaps to a 12-year maximum tenure), the result will be less entrenched power bases and a return to citizen legislators.

I’m not so sure this is a good idea or that it will even work.

Voting for a representative is effectively a vote to entrust power. It’s an affirmative declaration that voters believe they will use that power wisely and in ways that further the common good. The election of representatives should be thought of as the fundamental transaction of a representative form of government.

Withholding our consent is perhaps the only effective check we have on bad government. Agreed, the electorate doesn’t seem to be exercising that check. But implementing term limits will merely substitute a rule for actual political choice.

There’s another reason. It’s counter-intuitive that reducing voter choice will result in better governance. Though many argue against term limits based on the virtue of “legislative experience”, I would argue against term limits based on the virtue of “legislative competence”. Why should a Congressional district be required to retire a representative who’s doing an outstanding job of representing their district? This would effectively override district choice for some notion of a greater good. No thank you.

Term limits at the federal level would require a constitutional amendment, a very high hurdle. But there are several things that can be done at the state level to improve the selection of representatives. We should recall the many important changes that happened first at the state level — women’s suffrage, same-sex marriage rights, and increasingly, cannabis legalization.

Here are a few of those possibilities, all designed to increase competition and reduce incumbent advantage.

  • Reduce ballot access barriers for challengers. Most states have restrictive measures for both independent and alternative party candidates. Minimization of these barriers would surely lead to increased competition.
  • Remove the gerrymander bias to incumbents and parties in power. Gerrymandering is done to protect both political parties in power as well as incumbents. Far too many districts have little or no effective competition because of gerrymandering.
  • Limit campaign activities of incumbents vs challengers. This would surely be opposed by those in power. But it would make sense to limit the ability of incumbents to use their re-election as a fundraising and campaigning advantage.
  • Change voting methods. Methods such as approval voting or ranked-choice (instant-runoff) voting would likely lead to more competition, better voter engagement, and increased voter consideration of dark horse challengers.

Surely there are other good ideas.

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