Texas Senator Ted Cruz has a plan that he says will ensure lawmakers can’t make a career out of serving in the same congressional seat by adding an amendment to the Constitution that would limit U.S. senators to two six-year terms and U.S. House Representatives to three two-year terms.
The proposed amendment was introduced in early 2019 and has only garnered support from Republican lawmakers thus far, though Cruz noted at a June 18 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the concept is supported by a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
“We do not have to speculate as the founders did that the prospect of a permanent tenure in Congress might tempt senators and representatives toward self-interested, short-term thinking. We know for a fact, especially in recent decades when control of Congress has been constantly up for grabs, this short-term thinking has become Congress’s defining defect,” said Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator and witness at the hearing.
“For individual members, short-term thinking warps incentives toward bringing home the bacon and fundraising and to the special interests who can deliver them both. Members spend less time legislating and more time raising money.”
But according to other witnesses at the hearing, studies of states that have instituted similar term restrictions have not always borne out the assumption that such limits reduce the prevalence of career politicians.
Lynda Powell, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester who has conducted research on term limits since 1995, said that term-limited state legislatures do not have significantly different demographics than non-term-limited legislatures; term-limited legislators statistically spend less time addressing constituent casework; and those elected officials have less time overall to form working relationships with their fellow lawmakers.
“Notably, there is no support for term limits significantly increasing the proportion of citizen legislatures, rather than career-oriented politicians. Term-limited newcomers, in the study after implementation, were more likely to have held other elected prior office than non-term limited newcomers,” said Powell.
She pointed to a specific study of the Michigan legislature conducted by researchers Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, Lyke Thompson, Charles Elder, John Strate and Richard Elling that found “tenure in office does not appear to sate legislators’ ambition, and legislators attracted to serve after term limits are more, not less politically ambitious. This increased political ambition is the most distinctive characteristic of the new breed of term-limited legislators.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, suggested that other types of election reforms may do a better job of imposing term limits on legislators that actual laws defining those limits.
“There are better and easier ways, and I would say more effective ways, to connect the government more directly and honestly to the people. In my view, the most effective term limits are elections, and the most knowledgeable term-limiters are voters,” she said, encouraging policies that support voting rights while keeping members of Congress from taking certain jobs after they retire from office.
“We should not be able to profit from our public service once we are finished with it, either. If, for example, you served as head of a department making decisions about detaining immigrants — like former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly — you should not be allowed immediately to go through a revolving door and get paid by a corporation building those detention facilities. Former members of Congress should not have floor privileges if they use them to lobby clients.”
But according to Nick Tomboulides, executive director of the U.S. Term Limits grassroots organization, the financial practicalities of elections give incumbents an outsized advantage.
“Elections may in theory be capable of dethroning incumbents, but that isn’t how it works in the real world: congressional incumbents have a 98 percent reelection rate,” said Tomboulides. “It’s predominantly made up of lawyers and politicians and is disproportionately old, white, rich and male. Term limits would give us a legislature that better reflects the diversity of our society.”
Lack of experience, Powell said, could also lead some legislators to defer to unelected think tank and research groups that have established themselves as experts in that area.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.