Republican John McCain says he will seek election to a sixth six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) built a power base over nearly 30 years before deciding this year to retire. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco has 27 years in the House of Representatives.
Politicians grow ancient and even die of old age in office. Democrat Robert Byrd spent more than half his life in the Senate, representing West Virginia from 1959 until his death in 2010 at age 92. Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina clocked 48 years in the Senate, retiring at age 100 and dying afterward. Nobody in Congress can match the 59 years of Democrat Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who retired in 2014 and was succeeded by his wife — the Bushes and the Clintons aren’t the only ones into dynastic politics.
You don’t hear much these days about term limits, once a rallying cry for conservatives. That’s too bad, because elective office in Washington, state capitals and city halls shouldn’t be the property of power-grasping politicians.
The case for term limits isn’t about individuals, no doubt many officeholders are well meaning. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a “career politician” — just with a politician who makes a career out of holding one office.
The strongest arguments for term limits center on the impact of entrenched politicians on governing and politics. Politicians clinging to office court special interests who can help them with money, like corporate and environmental lobbyists, or who have the influence to push large numbers of voters to the polls, like unions and gun rights groups. In return, the clout of special interests is magnified. Such relationships in turn breed corruption.
Getting re-elected time and again bolsters seniority over merit. Long incumbency rewards officeholders with powerful advantages in name recognition, in the influence and political machines they build, and in fund raising, to the point of discouraging strong challenges.
The quest to hold and enhance political power can distort and frustrate the legislative process. And that’s not just the exaggerated power given special interests. When Reid was majority leader, he decided it was in the interests of the Obama administration to bring the work of the Senate to a standstill. He paralyzed the legislative process, leaving Republicans with the filibuster as the only means to respond to Democrat initiatives.
Most talk about term limits focuses on 12 years of service, two terms in the Senate and six in the House. A politician could spend 24 years on Capitol Hill.
Term limits would afford politicians only a delineated amount of time to accomplish their goals. No entrenched leadership focused on holding on to office could trump the calendar’s deadline for getting work done. Special interests couldn’t build relationships with senators lasting longer than it takes to rear a child from birth through high school graduation. Seniority would fade as an avenue to leadership.
Of course, good people would be forced out. But the way would open for new people and new ideas to invigorate Congress.
Opponents argue limits would enhance the power of the permanent bureaucracy, the congressional staff who know the ropes on Capitol Hill. Most politicians I’ve known have had strong egos, strong wills and strong ambitions — and would be strong bosses.
Another claim is that institutional knowledge and loyalty would be lost. Reid used his familiarity with arcane rules to freeze Senate business and water down the reasonable need for bipartisan consensus over presidential appointments and most judicial nominations. Where was the loyalty to the Senate of his lieutenants, fourth-term Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and third-term Sen. Charles Schumer of New York? They did nothing to stop the diminution of senatorial power.
Term limits are not a magic bullet to solve all legislative dysfunction. After all, we’re talking about politics. Confronting gerrymandering is another challenge. But term limits could be a powerful step to reform the legislative branch.