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Term Limits: a Policy Proposal When The Barrel Is Empty, Part 1

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All but dead since the fizzling of the Tea Party between 2010 and 2012, the Republican populists have exhumed yet again the perennial token policy proposal that comes out whenever you need to get the attention of that niche of voters who care passionately about it, while not offending the rest of people who largely don’t care.

None other than the self-explanatory political reform that never seems to go away:

Term limits.

The 2016 election cycle has brought them the most attention they’ve received in awhile, both in Donald J. Trump’s Colorado, Springs, CO statement Tuesday that he would push for a constitutional amendment to that effect, and, perhaps even more importantly, in the growing support for an Article V Convention of States to amend the Constitution.

For our purposes, I will leave out both the fact that very few presidents have successfully pushed for constitutional amendments (seriously, Congressional movements have been behind almost all 27 of them), and the whole quagmire of debate about the merits of calling a Constitutional Convention.

Let’s talk specifically about this idea by itself.

The term limits idea is based on few basic premises:

  1. The individuals in government are the problem, or become corrupted over time by the system.
  2. The people will naturally tend to vote for smarter choices for their representatives if given open elections free of incumbents.
  3. Once term-limited out, retiring legislators will tend to fade into private life and the “real world,” never to interfere in the political process again.
  4. Any unintended consequences of the change would not make the problems in government worse.

It’s not enough for a policy argument to be well intentioned, sincerely meant, or directed toward a serious political problem. We have to judge policy choices by their results, not their intentions. If any of these premises are shaky, it calls the entire idea of term limits into question simply as a matter of whether or not it works.

So let’s look at these premises one at a time.

  1. The individuals in government are the problem.

It’s just not true. People in government overwhelmingly mean well and almost always tend to vote in office according to the perceived necessities of getting reelected. This means pleasing their base of support, pleasing the independent voters in their district, trying not to tick off the other party’s voters too badly, etc. If you want to change the way politicians vote, then work to make your vote more important to them.

Just telling them what you think about the issues puts you head and shoulders above the average constituent. Volunteer for their campaign or an opposing campaign. Write a letter to the editor praising or denouncing one of their votes. Politicians live and die by that (in career terms, of course).

If you think the system corrupts people in government over time, that really depends what you mean by that. If you mean it makes them harder to unseat, this is true. But it also makes them harder to intimidate or bully. Ask any lobbyist (which I am, might I add) who is easier to buy off: a freshman representative, or a resident Senate fossil who everyone’s pretty sure has been there since the state was a colony.

The fact remains that an established legislator who knows what they’re doing are harder to manipulate and harder to intimidate than a well-meaning Mr. Smith going to Washington.
Continued in Part 2 available here.

Luke is an attorney, campaign consultant, lobbyist, and historian with a passion for liberty and a nerdy sense of humor. He holds a Jurisdoctorate Degree in law and a Bachelors degree in communications.