The Blog


11:00 PM, Oct 29, 1995 • By CHARLES R. KESLER
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The battle for congressional term limits was lost this year, on two fronts. In the House of Representatives, four versions of a constitutional amendment to limit congressional tenure went down to defeat. Soon after, the Supreme Court, in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, struck down the attempt by state legislatures and popular majorities in the states to impose their own limits on the tenure of their federal legislators. As if to add an exclamation point, the Senate in mid-October turned back a resolution that would merely have expressed support for the concept.

Despite these losses, the war for congressional term limits goes on. Republican presidential candidates are hotly disputing the title of Most Eager to Limit Terms-witness Steve Forbes's recent attacks on Bob Dole for allegedly dragging his feet; and House Speaker Newt Gingrich has promised to take up the issue promptly in the next Congress. Even so, the odds against passing a constitutional amendment (the only avenue left to reformers) are enormous; and before plunging the country into yet another futile, protracted struggle to amend the Constitution, conservatives ought to pause and rethink their strategy.

After all, the campaign for term limits has, in one sense, already achieved victory. As a political idea, term limits have been taken to heart by millions of Americans fed up with incorrigible politicians. Partly as a result, over the past six years congressional turnover has increased enormously (more than half of all House members have been elected since 1990), and, mirabile dictu, in 1994 Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The fondest dreams of many term-limits backers were thus realized.

Though I have always opposed term limits, I must admit that considerable good probably came from the agitation for them. The American people awakened to the danger of "permanent government" and recovered an active sense of the prerogatives of "citizenship. At the same time, however, they implicitly rejected the rigid consequences of formal term limlts by choosing, as if for emphasis, to re-elect every Republican incumbent running for national or gubernatorial office last year. In dramatic fashion, the voters warned politicians against developing a class interest separate from and hostile to the public's, but they merrily indulged their freedom to re-elect veteran legislators in whom they had confidence. Thus, we now seem to have the best of both worlds: the ethos of term limits without the inconvenience of a constitutional restriction.

What then is left of the case for formalizing -- for constitutionalizing -- term limits? Why is this laborious, grave, and irrevocable step thought necessary, given that the anxiety over a permanent Congress has been allayed?

The case for formal term limits rests now on two attractive but dubious propositions: first, that they are needed in order to replace professionals with citizen-politicians; and second, that they are needed to restrict the power and scope of government. Neither proposition holds up under careful examination.

In the first place, the effect of formal term limits would not be to bring forth citizen-politicians but to breed a new species of itinerant professionals, switching from one political office to another. Even under term limits, the neophyte congressman would be eligilble for re-election up to five times and so would have to master the skills required to retain office. He would face the usual incentives to pour resources and attention into casework, constitutent service, and fundraising instead of lawmaking. Such an electoral gantlet would quickly beat the amateurism out of the most determined non-professional.

But with the clock running on his current office, the politician under term limits will inevitably be thinking of his next one. This itinerant disposition promotes most of the disadvantages of professionalism and few of its benefits. On the House floor, Rep. Henry Hyde criticized the dissipation of talent and experience that term limits would produce, when he denounced the "dumbing down of democracy."

In exchange for a hecatomb of legislative talent, what advantages could term limits offer the country? It is claimed that term-limited legislators would be more likely to rise above the politics of immediate self-interest and seek to advance the common good. But surely it is more likely that they would feel less attached to long-term, arduous projects for the public good, because they would not be around to shape them and to take credit for them.