Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called this week for term limits for congressional members as part of his pledge “to drain the swamp.” He would limit members of the House of Representatives to a maximum of six years and limit Senators to 12 years in office. I have long opposed such term limits as curtailing the power of voters to choose their own leaders while undermining the effectiveness of Congress, particularly in the House.
I served for a short time as the constitutional consultation to the Florida House of Representatives, which was subject to such term limits. The experience deepened my opposition to term limits. Most members have little knowledge or experience in governing. The result is that lobbyists play a dominant role in the drafting and passing of legislation. As soon as a member gathers experience, they have to leave. Even when a member is successful and popular, his or her constituents are denied the ability to keep their representative.
While Trump insists that “Decades of special interests, decades of failure must come to an end,” term limits increase the power of special interests and lobbyists who hold the experience in crafting and passing legislation. More importantly, it should be up to the voters whether a member stays or goes as a matter of representative democracy. These arguments have been made in campaigns against incumbents. I have previously argued argued that there are reforms that would help loosen the grip of incumbents. These reforms included but were not limited to the following:
Remove barriers to third parties. Independent and third-party candidates currently face an array of barriers, including registration rules and petition requirements, that should be removed. Moreover, we should require a federally funded electronic forum for qualified federal candidates to post their positions and material for voters. And in races for national office, all candidates on the ballot in the general election should submit to a minimum of three (for Congress) or five (for the presidency) debates that would be funded and made publicly available by the government.
End the practice of gerrymandering. We need a constitutional amendment requiring uniformity in districts to end gerrymandering, in which politicians distort the shape of districts to link pockets of Democratic or Republican voters. Districts should have geographic continuity, and should be established by a standard formula applied by an independent federal agency.
Change the primary system. The principal reason incumbents are returned to power is that voters have little choice in the general election. Incumbents tend to control their primaries, and in many districts electing the candidate of the opposing party is not an option. Under one alternative system that could be mandated in a constitutional amendment for all states, the two top vote-getters would go into the general election regardless of their party. If both of the top candidates are Republican or Democratic, so be it. All primaries would be open to allow voters to cast their ballots for any candidate appearing in the primary.
The change of the primary system would have particular impact on incumbents but actually increase the voice rather than limit the power of voters.
I also fail to see why House members would be limited to only six years as opposed to twelve years — the same as the Senate. Obviously, the terms reflect three terms under each of the houses but it should be the years of service not the terms that drive such limits. Six years is very little time for a House member who has to campaign heavily and continually for the first couple terms. That leaves little time to develop expertise and experience in actual government. Even if one were to support term limits, these specific limits are problematic in my view.
Despite my disagreement on term limits, some of Trump’s other suggestions would be helpful. He proposed re-instituted a ban to prevent Executive Branch officials from lobbying the government for five years after they leave government service and a similar five year ban for members and their staff. That would be an improvement.