WASHINGTON ― In the final flailing weeks of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump took the time on Tuesday to announce a handful of ethics reforms he would push for as president. Trump called for the passage of a constitutional amendment instituting term limits for Congress on top of a handful of lobbying reforms.
“If I am elected President, I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Trump said in a statement. “Decades of failure in Washington, and decades of special interest dealing, must come to an end. We have to break the cycle of corruption, and we have to give new voices a chance to go into government service. The time for congressional term limits has arrived.”
Term limits are not a new policy proposal. They have been discussed since the founding, but in the recent era have been pushed aggressively and largely by conservatives and Republicans since the late 1970s as a supposed fix to the power of entrenched legislators. The length of service in Congress expanded greatly in the post-war period.
Spurred mostly by the passage of ballot initiatives, 15 states adopted legislative term limits in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Newt Gingrich included the passage of a term limit amendment in his Contract with America in 1994. The Congress he led, however, failed in 1995 to reach the necessary two-thirds vote threshold to successfully pass the amendment.
Over the years, the actual effect of term limits has come into more focus. What has been revealed is that term limits are no panacea for reducing of the power of entrenched interests. They have had quite the opposite effect. Term limits have reduced the knowledge base of legislatures, empowered lobbyists, encouraged short-term governing and reduced representation.
“Term limits are a terrible idea for a host of reasons,” said Jessica Levinson, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Levinson has watched firsthand as both Los Angeles and California enacted term limits by citizen referendum in the 1990s. State legislators are limited to a combined 12 years in the state House and Senate. That means that your elected representative has an incredibly short time to get up to speed, accrue the appropriate knowledge and pass legislation that they promised. Before you know it, they’re gone.
The only groups that stay are legislative staff and lobbyists. Staff and lobbyists may be a different cast, but they are both unelected. Term limits thus reduce the power of an elected representative (and therefore of the voters who elected her) while increasing the power of an unelected permanent class of staff and lobbyists.
California has faced numerous governance crises since enacting term limits, including repeated budget stalemates in the 2000s. (Not surprisingly, it took the election of the most experienced politician in the state, Jerry Brown, to the governorship in 2010 to turn the state in the right direction.)
Aside from empowering lobbyists and staff, term limits created an electoral merry-go-round in which politicians bounced from office to office both before and after reaching their term limits.
“You’re not getting citizen legislators,” Levinson said. “You’re getting people who go from the LA city council to the state legislature. They are position hopping.”
This was the finding of Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. Kousser studied the effect of state-level term limits and found that it did not elevate a new class of citizen legislators. Instead, professional politicians simply jumped from position to position, rarely ever gaining enough experience in one.
Lawmakers often quit their position early to run for a different office, making the state pay for expensive special elections. They often leave without having gained enough experience or understanding of the policies they vote on, only to bounce to another job where they will be forced out before they gain necessary experience.
The injection of inexperience is obviously part of the allure of term limits, as it is for Trump’s candidacy. Politics is one of the few occupations where inexperience is extremely fetishized ― sometimes for good! But term limits promise to eradicate experience from the choices available to voters. And in California, term limits haven’t eliminated professional politicians. They’ve just made them less experienced and more focused on their next job.
Another problem that cropped up in states with term limits is that of orphaned programs. Legislators work to pass new programs, often based on campaign promises, but after terming out of the legislature, they would leave those programs without a champion in the legislature.
This has happened in Maine to child care legislation. The lawmaker who enacted the program termed out of the legislature, and new members quickly moved to cut funding. In Arkansas, lawmakers created a solid waste fee to pay for environmental cleanups. The legislature largely termed out and the new legislature just took the money and used it for an entirely different purpose.
All of the problems with term limits point to their main downside: they are undemocratic.
Term limits mandate limits on whom voters can select to represent them. By empowering numerous unelected powers and favoring inexperience over knowledge, term limits reduce the power of the individual voter by reducing the power of the elected legislature.
Idaho and Utah ended the legislative term limits enacted in the 1990s in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
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Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.