Bad Solutions: Term Limits Version

I received the following email from a family member today.

Congressional Reform Act of 2011

1. Term Limits.
12 years only, one of the possible options below.

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

2. No Tenure /No Pension.
A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

3. Congress (past, present and future) participates in Social Security.
All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

My response:

If you look at the politics of states where term limits have been enacted, you might see why this is a terrible idea. Michigan and California in particular have screwed themselves over with term limits. One of the effects is that politicians can’t afford patience–they have to get their policies enacted right now or never, so they all push their proposals as hard as possible at exactly the same time.

Another effect is to increase the influence of lobbyists. I asked a lobbyist in California once how term limits had affected them. Her reply was that they had to work harder to get to know the representatives and senators, since they had greater turnover, but that since nearly all of them came in with no idea of how the legislative process even worked, and very little substantive knowledge about particular policies, they needed expert advice from the get-go, and the lobbyists were in a position to provide that advice.

A better solution is to ban gerrymandering of districts. Have non-partisan redistricting commissions whose mandate is to maximize the number of competitive districts in their state. That will pull the national politicians back toward the center, where they can actually work together instead of being afraid to even approach the center isle. That proposal I would readily forward to other people.

Some of the ideas in that proposal might be ok, but the heart of it, term limits, is just a damned foolish idea that has only served to degrade the governance of states where it’s been enacted. Really, at this point, who in their right mind wants to follow the example set by California?

And the proposal assumes that pure citizen legislators would get into office. But in my own state legislative district when the former office-holder was term-limited out, we replaced him with one of his own staff members. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or consider the GOP’s current VP candidate, Paul Ryan. No citizen legislator he, he served as a staffer on Capitol Hill, became a speechwriter for an advocacy organization, then a speechwriter for a presidential candidate, then as a congressional staffer again. Is there really any hope that term limits would empower average citizens against people with that kind of love for political participation?

I’m really quite serious about maximizing the number of competitive districts. There’s no doubt that representatives from gerrymandered districts are quite responsive to and representative of their constituents’ interests, and that it’s actually harder to be responsive and representative to a more heterogeneous constituency. But if we think about who the median voter is, I want districts where the median voter is closer to the center, so that the median Congressmember is closer to the center, rather than districts where the median voters are well to the left or well to the right of center, resulting in a bimodal distribution of Congressmembers in which the concept of the median member becomes an irrelevancy. And it’s not that I’m at the median, by any means. A legislature that functions well and pivots on the median voter will do far too many things I would prefer it not do. But a country that finds a coherent center will in general be both better governed and more politically and social stable than one that doesn’t.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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14 Responses to Bad Solutions: Term Limits Version

  1. Pink says:

    This is a tough call area of concern.

  2. lancifer666 says:

    James Hanley,

    But a country that finds a coherent center will in general be both better governed and more politically and social stable than one that doesn’t.

    Are you sure about that? I’m really asking, since you are a studied policy guy I assume you have reasons to say this.

    What are they?

    When there are such stark contrasts between political parties I wonder if there really is a “center” position.

    I for one prefer “gridlock” to half measures. Of course I am at heart an anarchist.

  3. James Hanley says:


    That question goes beyond policy and into the realm of empirical political theory. I can’t say I’ve studied the question carefully, but I have a casual knowledge that I think bears on it. In some respects a physics analogy is appropriate–simple centrifugal vs. centripetal force. More directly, countries that are deeply divided tend to be more susceptible to political violence and splintering–the division promotes a stronger us against them attitude. For instance the U.S. Civil War. If the country is less deeply divided, their is more of a “we’re all legitimate, and not too terribly far apart” attitude that helps to hold us together. “We’re all Americans” is a more stabilizing claim than “We’re the Real AmericansTM” is.

    I think there’s a lot more political center in the U.S. than appears to be right now. The parties are so far apart in large measure as a consequence of partisan gerrymandering, which favors candidates farther from the center. Think of the population as distributed along an ideological bell curve. In one scenario, each party’s representatives are selected from that distribution, favoring centrist candidates–move too far right or left and you’re too far from the median. In another scenario, each candidate is selected from only half the distribution, meaning you can move further right or left and not be too far from that half’s median. So the elected officials who represent the parties are starkly contrasted, which makes the parties more starkly contrasted to each other. But that doesn’t mean the public is really that bimodally distributed (we can see that because we began with a normal distribution and didn’t change it), and a fairly simple rule change can bring the parties’ elected officials into closer proximity.

    As well, if we saw more bipartisan policymaking, the public would have much less of a sense that X policy is “the other side’s” policy, and could see it as “at least partly my side’s policy, even if I don’t personally like it.”

  4. lancifer666 says:

    Do your objections to term limits apply to the Presidency? I am kind’a glad that the two term limit is there. I must admit that I can find no great fault in your argument against term limits but I have seen what happens in other countries when a leader becomes entrenched.

    My wife’s native Ethiopia just lost its leader of over 20 years. There is a dangerous power vacuum there now. I know that we have a much stronger tradition of the rule of law and orderly succession in this country but I am still glad the 2 term limit is there.

    Also Malcam Encutatash! (Happy New Year!) It’s new year’s day in Ethiopia, and other countries that use the Orthodox calender. Happy first day of 2005.

  5. James Hanley says:

    2005, eh? I’m not sure what to say.

    I suppose the presidency could be viewed differently. Given that is a unitary office, entrenchment would be more harmful than entrenchment in the multi-person and multi-house legislature. The uncertain question is whether it would be more likely, and I think not, since the presidency represents the most diverse constituency. Senators have a lower reelection rate than Representatives, due to the greater diversity of their constituencies, and I think that would apply to presidents as well. And look at the regular trend of approval ratings.

    That said, we had a long standing norm of no more than two terms, which until radically unusual circumstances was as hard and fast as the formalized rule. And only one president since FDR might have won a 3rd term, Reagan, and he surely would not have won a fourth. So in a sense all we did was codify an existing rule–formalize an informal rule–rather than make a fundamental change. So while I think the 22nd amendment was unnecessary and would vote to repeal it, I don’t think it actually matters much.

    Mayb I’ll write in a few days about the Comvention debates against limiting prez terms, though, just to present that perspective.

  6. Lancifer says:

    I think Bubba might still be president if not for term limits.

  7. James Hanley says:

    You’re kidding, right?

  8. Lancifer says:

    Well, he was overwhelmingly re-elected after being impeached. If that didn’t sink him in the eyes of the electorate what would?

  9. Lancifer says:

    OK, so I’m only half serious but I fear that someone like the Clintons, with a savvy spin machine behind them, might be able to demagogue themselves into semi-permanence without term limits.

  10. James Hanley says:

    I think the impeachment actually helped Clinton. A majority of the public saw it as pure partisan politics and opposed it. And Bob Dole ran a remarkably lackadaisical campaign. My take is that he had been chasing the GOP nomination since 1980, and having finally got it was more or less satisfied; he no longer really had the drive to actually be president. And Clinton got 49% of the vote, which is not exactly overwhelming.

    Admittedly, though, his approval ratings were strong as he left office.

  11. Matty says:

    What about the other proposals regarding ending retirement and healthcare benefits for congress, would this align their interests more with voters or is it just punitive?

    Also point 7 “Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people. ” are there really laws that don’t apply to members of Congress but do to all other Americans?

  12. James Hanley says:


    I don’t have particular problems with the retirement and healthcare proposals. They’re a bit badly worded in that they make it sound like all Americans except Congress have the same health insurance and retirement plans. And its not clear, but they may think that Congressmembers don’t pay into Social Security, when in fact they do. But congressmembers deserve a decent retirement plan as much as anyone else; I just think it should be a defined-contribution plan instead of a defined-benefit plan.

    As to point 7, there are, but it’s only a few cases. E.g., they don’t have to abide by equal opportunity employment laws. There’s also a difficulty to be considered in the enforcement of law against the Congress, which is that it’s the Executive branch that does it, so it’s easy to slip into some separation of powers issues.

    Overall, though, the problem in the U.S. is the decline in the strength of Congress vis a vis the Presidency, and that’s come about in large part because the Presidency is a coherent institution, being organized around the purposes of a single person. It’s often said that the Supreme Court isn’t a coherent institution but 9 separate law offices–for Congress, multiple that problem by almost 60. The committee and party leadership structures create enough functional coherence for Congress to work most of the time–that is, work well enough to usually pass legislation, approve appointments, and so on (although what Congress does most well is constituent service, in which each office acts individually, no coordination needed), but those no longer create enough coherence for Congress to act coherently enough to check the President as an institution (bipartisan, institution-protecting approach) as opposed to checking him only as a majority party in Congress (partisan approach without actual concern for the institution of Congress).

    And nearly every damn proposal we ever see put forth will exacerbate that problem.

  13. Matty says:

    But congressmembers deserve a decent retirement plan as much as anyone else; I just think it should be a defined-contribution plan instead of a defined-benefit plan.

    I never quite understood how a defined benefit scheme can be sustainable anywhere unless you have pretty much limitless funds or the benefit is ‘a lump sum of exactly what you paid in’. Otherwise putting a pension fund into any kind of investments and offering a fixed return seems to involve promising to fix the outcome of something you can’t actually fix.

  14. James Hanley says:

    Or if the pensioners all die fairly young.

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