Proposed Constitutional Amendment:
No Senator shall serve no more than two consecutive terms and no Representative shall serve more than five consecutive terms in office. There shall be no limit on the total number of terms served by either a Senator or a Representative.
Terms limits are a popular remedy for the frustration most Americans have with their government. Congress is widely unpopular, yet most incumbents win re-election. In 2012 for example, fully 97% of the incumbents running for re-election won. So term limits seems like a good way to get old and entrenched members of Congress out of office, and to ensure that new people are able to participate.
There is an organization called U.S. Term Limits (www.termlimits.org) that is pushing for a Constitutional Amendment to restrict the number of terms a person may serve in the House and the Senate. For many years the issue was very popular among Republicans and Conservatives who were unable to break the Democratic lock on Congress. But now that Republicans control both houses of Congress interest in the Amendment has waned.
One problem with straight term limits is that there is a great deal of power and political influence that comes with seniority, and this would be lost. But seniority also creates institutional knowledge, knowledge of how Congress and the government works, and substantive knowledge about specific areas of public policy. There are Senators and Congressmen who are experts in agriculture policy, commerce issues, international trade, and any number of different topics. A good deal of that knowledge would be lost if those members were forced out with straight term limits. The problem that this creates is that member of Congress would no longer be able to rely on the knowledge and expertise of other elected politicians. They would have to rely on others for this information. They could rely on their staff for a great deal of information, but they would also be forced to rely on experts within the executive department (i.e. the Presidential administration). So for insight into agriculture policy a Congressman might turn to someone within the Agriculture Department. This reliance on the executive branch for substantive expertise would shift the balance of power in Washington, from Congress to the Executive. If the Congressman does not want to turn to experts within government, he or she could rely on someone within the private sector, and the halls of Congress are full of lobbyists ready to offer their policy expertise. The problem with this is that lobbyists are not offering unbiased expertise.
Straight term limits would dramatically shift power to the executive, to unelected bureaucrats, and to self-interested lobbyists. This would be a loss for Congress and the American people.
My proposed amendment would limit the number consecutive terms – two for Senators, five for Representatives – with no limit on total terms. This would break the incumbent lock, since a Senator would only be an incumbent once and a Representative four times. This would allow new people into the system. Both are the goal of most of the supporters of term limits.
But this system would not totally strip Congress of institutional or subject matter expertise, since a Congressman or Senator could return to Washington after sitting out a term.
I believe this system would have other benefits as well. If a person is truly civic minded and wants to serve in government, they could run for Congress, hold a seat for 5 terms (or 2 in the Senate), and then run for Governor of their state, and after serving as Governor, return to Congress. This would allow talented politicians or civic minded public servants to gain expertise at various levels, which would make their more effective in any office. It would increase the cumulative knowledge of national affairs in state government, and improve the understanding of state issues at the federal level. Other politicians could return to the private sector for a while, and then return to public life with increased knowledge and expertise in the real world economy. Both would be of benefit to government and public life.
(Note: I wrote an Op/Ed for the Herald-Leader on this issue in January 2013: Term Limits Without Drawbacks.)