Guillaume LeBlanc from New American Perspective takes issue with President Trump’s suggestion of adding Congressional term limits.
In what was certainly a bid to win more good will with the populist right (and perhaps even the populist left), President Trump recently called for term limits on Congress. The reaction was much more subdued than I expected, although it did play out more or less as this sort of thing normally does: with the populists sharing articles about it, complete with complaints about “career politicians”, while only a few skeptics bothered to chime in to oppose it. And when it comes to the issue of term limits for Congress, put me firmly in the opposition camp.
To begin with, there is almost no chance of term limits for Congress passing. In order to impose term limits, a Constitutional amendment would have to be passed, and, as both right and left refuse to learn, with their respective crusades against same-sex marriage and guns, Constitutional amendments are very hard to pass. There is a reason why the Constitution has only been amended 27 times, and 10 of those came right at once with the Bill of Rights, with three others only after a long and bloody war. Take those out, and the number of amendments passed drops to 14. Not a great track record.
For an amendment to pass, it must be approved by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, and then two-thirds of the state legislatures. What this means is that amendments can only be passed after a large consensus has been reached – and there is no reason to think there is that kind of will to impose term limits. Proponents will assert that term limits on the president was passed this way, but there is a key difference: for over 150 years, the US was more or less in agreement that, following Washington, the president should only serve two terms. Although it was unofficial, it also was an agreement shared by a large majority of Americans, so when it came time to actually pass the amendment, it was more or less a matter of making what already was a consensus official. Franklin Roosevelt had been able to get around this largely because of events: a major war that was already happening that would soon engulf the United States. But with that out of the way, the consensus was easy to utilize to pass an amendment limiting the president to two terms.
No such consensus exists for Congress, and to make matters even worse for the populists, even among those who want term limits, no consensus exists as to how long they should be. Ask people who support term limits how long these limits will be and see how many answers you get. This will likely prevent them from being able to build a large enough movement to even draft an amendment. The populists have been calling for term limits on Congress for years, and it never goes anywhere. I see no reason to think this trend will stop.
Even if there were enough of a consensus to pass such an amendment, though, it would still be a horrible idea. Seniority is needed in the legislature so it can properly function. As members of the legislature remain in office, they gain “informal powers” that can help bills be passed, stopped, or in some cases, even help spur on other action. All this is vital for a properly functioning legislature. A legislative body that does not have enough senior members lacks an informal governing system that aids day to day operations. Without this, we are left with a bunch of legislators running wild, and no one is around to guide them or to help smooth out problems. This means greater polarization, which makes it harder for a bill to be passed, and also assures that if a bill is passed it will have major problems. Seniority is needed to sooth the passions of the newer members.
But seniority is also helpful in other ways, as it can influence the actions of politicians not in the legislature. One of my favorite examples of this is from the Watergate scandal. Richard Nixon was originally planning to fight Watergate — until he had a meeting with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Now, at this time, despite Goldwater’s own crushing defeat in the 1964 Presidential election and the rising star of then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, Goldwater was still the leader of the Republican Party’s conservative wing, a title Reagan would take three years later when he came very close to taking the presidential nomination from sitting President Gerald Ford. During the meeting, Goldwater informed Nixon that he should resign, and that it he fought Watergate he would go down and would take the Republican Party – and possibly the country — down with him. At that point Nixon knew that he had lost the conservatives and had no chance. Shortly after that meeting, he would resign, and thus the country was able to avoid a very divisive trial that could have very well caused even more damage to the unity of the country than Watergate did in itself. The bitter polarization we see today could have developed decades earlier. The fact that it didn’t was made possible by seniority.
Too much stagnation in the legislature is not good, but so is too much turnover. And, contrary to what the populists claim, Congress has seen far more turnover than normal during the past few years. Since 2006, Congress has been rocked with senior members of both parties falling like flies, and it has helped lead to a greater amount of dysfunction in Congress. Term limits have almost no chance of passing — thank God – but if they did, it would likely make all of our current problems with Congress even worse.