The Congressional Term Limits Con

CONGRESS IS BROKEN: TERM LIMITS IS NOT THE FIX

My governor, Rick Scott, is now running for higher office. He wants to take his particular brand of conservatism to the United States Senate. If Scott unseats longtime Senator Bill Nelson, Republican control of the Senate is almost assured.

Problem: Rick Scott is a crook. click here, here, here and here for just a sample.

He compensates for this blatant corruption by, well, lying through his teeth.

Rick Scott has presided over the hollowing out of state services in the name of tax cuts for his wealthy chums. Below is one example that was released by my hometown school district. Take a look at what Rick Scott and his GOP cohorts have done to education funding. Take careful note of what happened to state funding for schools. It’s clear that Rick Scott has no problem making our children pay for corporate largesse.

 

District Revenues
Rick Scott’s school funding in action. Notice the evisceration of state funds.

Scott’s deregulation agenda has served only to poison my hometown’s greatest asset, our beaches. Scott has tried to blame his opponent, but as the State Governor, he’s the elected steward of our resources. He exercised the stewardship by deregulating and turning his back on those who poison the environment. Here, in Lee County, we’ve been devastated by algal blooms poisoning our water and swamping our shores with dead fish. So much for cooling off at the beach for summer. Maybe this was a boon for swimming pool businesses, but not for anyone else.

True enough, Florida has experienced some significant economic growth since Rick Scott stepped into the Governor’s Mansion. Much of this has more to do with population growth and a resurgence in real estate than it does executive policy. Arguably, this growth would have happened regardless of who sat in the Governor’s office. However, Scott does have a reasonable expectation of credit. Unfortunately, the fruits of that growing economy managed to skip most Floridians. Under Rick Scott’s leadership, Florida has the honor of being among the top three states…in economic inequality. Florida lags behind the nation as a whole in Real Median Household Income.

 

RMHI US v FL
Florida lags behind the nation as a whole in Median Household Income. So much for all that economic growth. Scott’s rich friends get it. Not you or me.

Rick Scott doesn’t have much to run on, so he had to come up with something entirely unrelated to his performance as a governor. Fortunately for him, there’s an issue custom made for such a flawed candidate. It has everything a corrupt politician could want in an issue. It is unreasonably popular, with bi-partisan appeal, especially when wedded to the tried and true strategy of badmouthing career politicians–always a winner. It’s also totally unrealistic so blame can be deferred for failure to deliver.

The issue is Congressional Term Limits. Rick Scott has made this the central plank of his campaign. In his case, term limits can also be applied to political attacks against an incumbent who, if re-elected, will begin his fourth term in the high chamber. And what has he done in the 18 years he’s been a Senator? Well…um…ahem.  Never mind that. Term limits!

Don’t fall for it. Term limits as a national issue are a scam and candidates like Rick Scott know it. Limiting congressional terms may sound like a solution to government corruption–just get the corrupt ones out–but it’s not. It’s a straw man used to distract us from real solutions.

First, term limits are never going to happen at the national level. True term limits would have to be amended to the United States Constitution. In order to get term limits, two-thirds of Congressmen and women would have to be willing to limit their own terms and pass the amendment. The amendment would then have to be approved by three-fourths of the states. It’s not a simple matter of getting a bill through the House and Senate–though even that is exceedingly difficult at this point.

Not that getting bill through the House and Senate is going to happen, either. It turns out that my own representative, Francis Rooney, has devised a pretty innovative way to get around the whole “constitution” thing. He’s submitted legislation that would simply drop a legislator’s salary to $1 a year after 12 years in office. What? You’ve not heard of this legislation. Exactly. It will go nowhere. It’s naive to think that Rooney does not know this.

That being said, even if the political winds become unavoidable for term limits, and term limits are very popular, they are a very bad idea. Most obviously, as the Brookings Institute pointed out, term limits contradicts the whole point of representative democracy. We, as voters, are choosing people to represent us in our government. We should be able to choose whomever we want. If we find someone we like, we should be allowed to continue voting for them. In the event that we are dissatisfied with our representative, we can limit the term ourselves by voting for someone else. In essence, term limits already exist. They are called elections. An imposed term limit denies voters the right to the representation they want.

And, for the most part, we do have the representation that we want. Congress may have a phenomenally low approval rating, but that does not translate into disapproval for individual legislators. According to 270toWin, over 70% of House seats are considered “safe” or almost certain to remain in the hands of the incumbent or the related party. Only twenty-nine seats are seen as tossups. Historically, between the Senate and the House, 80-90 percent of elections respectively return the incumbent to office. This means that, though we may not approve of Congress, we largely approve of our own congress critter. Obviously, the problem is all those other districts that vote.

Look, I’d like nothing more than to see Francis Rooney sent packing. But he’s not going to be. Now let’s say we have term limits. I only have to deal with Francis Rooney for a few years and he’s out. Then what? Will the next person in that seat constitute an improvement? Probably not for me. I don’t like Francis Rooney, but I didn’t like Trey Radel, the druggie who preceded Rooney. And I didn’t like any of the Connie Macks that preceded him. What are the chances that the next person in Rooney’s seat is going to be just another clone of the standard creature from Southwest Florida? Mine is a minority position in my district. Sucks to be me, but that’s how democracy works in the United States. Term limits will not solve this problem. Nor is this an indicator, in and of itself, of corruption.

More important than the moral argument above, term limits will not do what supporters claim they will. The idea of term limits is based on a false premise. The idea is that Washington is, by virtue of some mystical quality of the capital city itself, corruptive. It’s like low dose radiation. The longer a representative is in D.C., the greater the probability of being corrupted. If one accepts this premise, without thinking about it, then term limits make sense.

The problem is that there is nothing inherently corruptive about “being in D.C.” Our system is corrupt because the one percent trade their wealth for influence through campaign finance and lobbying. In this case, term limits are exactly the opposite of what is needed. Yes, politicians in a perpetual state of fundraising for the next election are corruptible. However, they are no less corruptible than politicians who know that they are only a temporary fixture under the Dome. In fact, term limits may make such candidates even more corruptible when not checked by the next election.

Think about it. You are elected to the Senate. Rick Scott gets what he wants and, therefore, you are only going to be in office no more than two terms, or twelve years. Do you not plan ahead? Do you not spend that time thinking about the career you will enjoy once your terms are up? Do you not feather your nest while you have access to the big twigs?

So a pharmaceutical lobbyist comes to you and says, “you know, there might be a really great opportunity for you as a consultant (winkwinknudgenudge) when you leave office, which will happen in twelve years. It would be a shame if we couldn’t count on you to think about us on future legislation. During your second term, there is no pressure from your constituents holding you accountable. You are out the door no matter how you vote. You will be looking for a job. If nothing else, term limits will accelerate the very corruption it hopes to contest. There is some research suggesting that term limits make the swamp even swampier.

Furthermore, and I think this may be the driving force behind term limit advocacy, think about what it takes to elect someone to Congress who really does fight for working people. It’s easy to elect a corporate shill. It’s easy to develop party support and raise money for status quo politicians. The kind of ground game required to elect a true reformer, however, is far more difficult and complicated requiring a dedicated grassroots movement with an efficient ground game. The deck is stacked against such a candidate. In the event that a grassroots movement really does elect a representative, it would be nice to keep her in office. The probability of reproducing that success is minute.  We also have to consider how much incentive there is in organizing a grassroots movement to elect a candidate who will only be around no more than twelve years. Term limits, from this perspective, plays into the hands of the corporate elite, whose candidates are a dime a dozen, relatively speaking.

Term limits will also serve to make government less efficient and effective as its most experienced people will be left carrying their boxes to make room for those with little to no experience. Think about the complexity of the policies our politicians must deal with. We all have our own simple ideas for how the government should be run and the kinds of policies that would make things run smoothly. And those ideas always, always, always grossly underestimate the complexities of the issues. Yes, Medicare for All seems like a simple solution until one looks into the impossibly complex nature of health care for over 325 million people. So consider international trade, foreign policy, education policy, nuclear policy. Housing. Infrastructure. These things require experienced professionals who can craft policy in such a way that gives the bureaucracy enough room to function with enough guidance to be focused in their efforts. This takes practice. It’s not something a newbie can walk in and start doing.

After all, what other organization hires people, but only keeps them for twelve years before they are forced out the door and replaced with someone less experienced? No private company would ever do that. So why is this a good idea for our legislators? It’s not. Granted, our politicians are not exactly pumping out glowing policy lately. But this is due to how our party system has been transformed in the last decade. It has nothing to do with how long congressmen have warmed their chairs.

Term limits are popular because they play on our very real and understandable frustrations with our government. But they are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. Unless we address the corruptive influence of money in politics and the revolving door between government service and private boardrooms, we will never have the government we want. Term limits will not address this fundamental problem.

Anyone who is running on term limits either doesn’t know what he is talking about or is a shill for the corporate elite. Governor Scott is of the latter category.

 

4 thoughts on “The Congressional Term Limits Con

Add yours

  1. You raise a lot of good points and I know a lot more about Rick Scott and inequality in Florida now. I don’t even disagree with you about money in politics. But I don’t think term limits necessarily offer the fool’s choice you imply. I say that reluctantly, having written a thesis on the intellectual underpinnings of the US Constitution.
    Unlike many proponents of the idea I’ve waded through the historical record of the Constitutional Convention and while the idea of term limits was not really seriously entertained, it’s also pretty clear that the gentlemen involved in this endeavor never envisioned a career politician of the type we know. Their ideal was Cincinnatus, not Robert Byrd.
    There’s a hint of a false dichotomy in the way you frame the issue. You say there’s nothing inherently corrupting about D.C. but you also say the problem is money which flows more freely to incumbents than challengers. You even underscore that point when you discuss the obstacles a candidate oriented towards the bottom half of the income distribution faces.
    So, the troubles of amending the Constitution aside, why not limit time in office?
    It seems to me that whatever ideal one might personally hold, the reality is more important. And the reality is that with so much of the economy nationalized, if only in the regulatory sense, that a Francis Rooney or a Chales Grassley hanging on past their sell-by date impacts far more people than he or she represents.
    You say “If we find someone we like, we should be allowed to continue voting for them…” and in the best of all worlds I might agree. But we live in the here and now and men still are not angels; long-tenured incumbency has ceased to serve the commonweal.

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    1. I often wonder about the claim that the Founding Fathers did not want career politicians. I’m not an expert on the Founding Fathers, but among those whom I know about, it seems to me they were all career politicians. George Washington was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1765 and he retired from office in 1796, that’s a career of over thirty years. Jefferson began his career in 1768 and retired in 1801. Adams was about 30 years. Franklin 40 years. I’m not convinced that the Founders had any problem at all with career politicians. In fact, it was probably expected from land-owners to be actively involved in politics. Anyway, that’s an aside. As someone who once held the same view you elaborate above, I’m sympathetic. But looking at it structurally, I’m just not convinced about the mechanism by which term limits will deliver the promised result. How does limiting a representative’s term in office reduce corruption? I think we are making the assumption that the source of the corruption is in the office itself. I’m not convinced that that is true. The evidence suggests that the source of the corruption at this point is in the electoral process, the superstructure created by big money donors to campaigns that reinforces dependence of our elected officials to large, moneyed, interests. So reforms that limit terms are misdirected–at this point. Furthermore, I think the sacrifices, namely loss of voter voice and accountability to the constituency, far outweigh’s the benefits.

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  2. You ask “How does limiting a representative’s term in office reduce corruption?” and go on to answer yourself “I think we are making the assumption that the source of the corruption is in the office itself. I’m not convinced that that is true. The evidence suggests that the source of the corruption at this point is in the electoral process”

    Indulge me in the language I was taught long ago: monopoly capital cannot abide a limit. So it seeks to alleviate those limits. How? Among other things by supporting the campaigning activities of elected officials. The office is not itself the source of corruption. But it’s existence provides a convenient nexus for corruption to take root. So yes, I’m assuming but with a rationale.

    My friends in the economics department taught me to think of the time value of money. Reduce the term of the investment and the ultimate value is often reduced.

    For the record, though, I’d prefer to see grass roots organizing against bad incumbents. A friend worked on a big turnover in NY 19 and we need more of that.

    (As for the Founders, the folks you mentioned all were big on the Roman model. Washington and Jefferson were born rich. Franklin and Adams were more self-made. All did, as you note, believe in public service. You could have pointed to Elbridge Gerry, Democratic-Republican of Massachusetts, after whom an early form of corrupted behavior is named. Ca plus ca change…)

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  3. The time value of money is interesting, but I’d offer a variation of your model. What if, instead of the value being in the individual candidate, the value is in the office itself. For the corporate elite, the office holds value because of the access that it gives them to the power structure. It doesn’t matter who is in that office, so long as the power represented by the office is directed toward elite interests. If this is true, I’m offering a hypothesis, not being definitive, then there should be very little decrease in spending on the part of the corporate elite resulting from term limits. On the other hand, for grassroots movements, the candidate may be of more value, which may be reduced given term limits. I like the economic argument, I’m just not convinced that it supports the term limit thesis.

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