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Debate: Term limits for legislators

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Background and context

Term limits for legislators has been a hot issue in the United States for a number of decades now. "Homesteading" in Congress, made possible by reelection rates that approached 100% by the end of the 20th century, brought about a popular insurgency known as the "term-limits movement". The elections of 1990-94 saw the adoption of term limits for state legislatures in almost every state where citizens had the power of the initiative.
In addition 23 states tried to limit service in their delegation to Congress, with the general formula being three terms [six years] in the U.S. House and two terms [twelve years] in the U.S. Senate (this was later disallowed by the Supreme Court). In the elections of 1994, part of the Republican platform was to pass legislation setting term limits in Congress. After winning the majority, they brought a constitutional amendment to the House floor, but it failed. Later, in April of 2011 amid a wave of Tea Party anti-government and anti-spending sentiments across the country, Senator Jim DeMint introduced term-limit legislation in Congress. He justified the legislation saying, “We need true citizen legislators who spend their time defending the constitution, not currying favor with lobbyists. We need new leaders continually coming to Congress to ensure every taxpayer dollar is spent wisely, not wasted on Washington special interests. We must end the era of permanent politicians that has led us to a $14 trillion debt and a pending fiscal crisis." These arguments and their counter arguments are outlined below.[1]
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Career politicians: Are career politicians more a liability than asset?

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Pro

  • Term limits counter career politicians, favors citizen leg. Paul Miller. "Arlen Specter and the Case for Term Limits." American Thinker. May 6th, 2009: "If Madison knew in 1788, when the Constitution was ratified, that the United States would be inundated with career politicians, at all levels of government, with similar stories as Arlen Specter, I am confident that he would have reconsidered the idea of term limits and it would have become part of our Constitution over 200 years ago."
  • Term limits let politicians make hard decisions then leave U.S. Term Limits President Philip Blumel: "Limiting terms will allow citizen legislators to come to Washington, DC, fix the problems and then go home to resume their lives, instead of becoming encamped in the cloistered world inside the DC Beltway."[2]
  • Political beliefs are more important than experience. The beliefs of a politician and the stances they take on certain issues are the most important factors in judging a candidate. This is more important than their experience. Difficult technical questions are handled by appointed specialists and most members of Congress have advisors on such issues.[3] This all diminishes the importance of valuing political experience against the imposition of term limits on legislators.
  • Washington falsely indoctrinates that government is good. James L. Payne, author of a 1991 book "The Culture of Spending", says: "What goes on is a socialization process: a nicer way of saying indoctrination. One is surrounded by people who have a biased reason for arguing that federal spending is good, necessary, wise and proper. There’s no reason for anyone to enter this process if he believes it’s unwise or unethical.”[4]
  • Politicians become increasingly arrogant/corrupt over time. "Charlie Rangel makes the case for term limits." USA Today. September 9th, 2010: "Seeing Rangel about to face an embarrassing public trial for his ethical lapses after 20 terms in Congress has caused me to look more suspiciously on the unlimited terms for members of Congress. Only a precious few can bask so continuously in the reverential deference of so many and manage to retain their honesty and, even more important, their humility."
  • Term-limits prevent switching parties to stay in power. Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, recently used "Common Sense'", said in response to news of Arlene Specter switching to the Democratic Party in 2009: "What most interests me, now, is that Specter's affiliation change shows how difficult it is to change currents in government. The old guard can flip, stay in power, and the power brokers switch chairs from friend to foe and vice versa. If senators served under term limits, this whole issue -- and the problem it reveals -- would not even come up."[5]
  • Term limits only prevent politicians holding same office. Term limits only prevent people from holding the same office for too long, not from staying in politics generally. People who are elected to important positions will, for example, likely have experience in similar areas from previous elected offices. So it does allow people to still make a career out of politics, but not with the same pernicious grip on singular offices and power.


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Con

  • Nothing wrong with career politicians. Those that demonize career politicians have it backwards. Politicians are public servants, making significantly less money than many other members of society in a largely self-less and thankless career field. This is more often than not driven by a desire to do good for one's country, state, community, etc. This should not be spat at, but celebrated. If a public servant does a good job, why not reward their service with a positive vote and more time in office.
  • Term limits undermine value of experience in governance Ezra Klein. "The folly of term limits." Washington Post. January 4th, 2010: "California already has term limits. And they're a disaster. Virtually everyone I interviewed for that piece named term limits as a contributor to California's fiscal crisis. Imagine, for instance, that you elect a well-liked local physician's assistant to the state Assembly. Doesn't matter the party. Our hypothetical legislator might know a lot about medical care. But she probably knows nothing about the budget. This stuff takes awhile to learn, after all. And remember, she's not studying budget politics full time: She's raising money and dealing with constituent service and reading up on other bills and traveling back-and-forth from her district. So how long till our doctor-legislator really gets the budget, understands the legislative process, and matures into the sort of seasoned assemblywoman we'd want responding to a devastating fiscal crisis? Eight years? Twelve years? More? Too bad. Six years and she's out."
  • No value in politicians returning to previous careers. There is a vague desire among term limit advocates for politicians to return to their previous careers. But why? What value does this add to legislating? None. Rather, it is simply based on a hatred of politicians and public servants, and a misunderstanding of the fact that their job title requires them to constantly try to understand the needs and desires of the people they represent. The more experience in this the better.
  • Long-time incumbents more efficiently execute voters' will. "Term limits: Yea or nay?" The News Star. April 14th, 2011: "there is great value to keeping someone in office who's done a good job and is executing a vision the voters support. We've seen the benefits and disadvantages of establishing term limits in the Louisiana Legislature. While it has infused new blood, new vision and new energy into the legislative process, career politicians merely switch chambers. And when you've got chambers filled with newly elected legislators, there can be a lot of wasted time and effort while these folks learn the ropes."
  • New politicians are always trying to make headlines. Politicians in their first or second terms are still trying frantically to prove themselves, and so spend alot of time trying to do things simply because it will get them attention and PR. This is not what good legislating is all about. Career politicians, by contrast, are able to focus more on long-term legislating, even when it's not so sexy.


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Governance: Do term limits improve governance, democracy?

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Pro

  • Term limits counter hierarchy, ensure equality, among politicians "Hear some arguments in favor of term limits.": "Our legislature is designed to be made up of politicians of equal importance, but under the current system lawmakers who have served for a long time are able to dominate. This is true for a number of reasons. First, their experience gives them more political savvy. Second, more time spent in Washington allows them to establish many important connections. Additionally, the near-inevitability of reelection allows them to operate with little concern for the opinions of their constituencies. Most importantly, seniority determines who holds important positions like chairmanships of Congressional subcommittees. The problem with concentrating power in senior politicians is that while such inequality is often good for their constituencies - powerful congressmen can help ensure that a lot of federal funding goes into plans that help their district - it is often detrimental to the country as a whole."
  • Career politicians get complacent; new ones work hard. Career politicians get complacent in their jobs after ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years in office. They feel that they are at less and less risk of losing their jobs, and generally just lose the impulse to try to work hard and impress their constituents with productivity. Newly elected politicians are much different, feeling a desire to work extremely hard and achieve great things. Term limits fosters this new energy, vitality, and work ethic.
  • Term limits create turnover that encourages new candidates Without term limits, Senators or Congressmen can stay in power for so long that younger generations sometimes give up hope of attaining these higher positions of power. This impairs the creation of a reserve of talent in politics and governance. This also increases competition among candidates, which is always good for the electoral process, democracy, and governance.
  • Term limits reduce power of staff, bureaucracy.
  • Term limits act as a natural campaign finance reform.
  • Term-limits reduce incentives "pork-barrel" spending for reelection.
  • Term-limits help return incumbent reelection to 50% vs 90% now.


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Con

  • Term limits driven by hatred of politicians/government. Term limits are driven by an odd hatred of government and politicians. They imagine that all politicians become corrupt over time, that they lose their moral compass to the influence of interests groups, that the process of understanding the various needs of citizens and companies through interests groups is evil, that only the private sector has virtue, and that government and government spending is generally bad. This perverse understanding of government and politicians is the core problem with the pro term limit movement. It forgets that all politicians are elected by voters and that voters can decide to boot out politicians if they cease to fulfill their promises and duties. In general, therefore, it perverts and diminishes our entire understanding of what democracy actually is, replacing the will of the people with arbitrary limits that may have nothing to do with what the people want and what is in the best interests of society in general.
  • Term limits will not change necessary committee hierarchies. Subcommittee heads will always have a lot of power. Term limits merely transfer this power to less experienced politicians, rather than limiting it. Furthermore, veteran politicians will continue to exist even with term limits: term limits will simply allow people to hold different offices subsequently rather than the same office for a long time.[6]
  • Term-limited politicians spend extra to win new offices. Kevin Price. "Congressional term limits may make you feel better, but will not solve power problem." Renew America. July 21, 2009: "An even bigger problem is [term limits'] potential impact on government spending. Take the lowly citizen (whom we will call 'Mr. Smith') who decides to run for his state's legislature. It takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and money to get elected. Upon getting to the House, he realizes he wants to do more and help more people, and do it without the pressure of having to run again every two years. He gets elected to his state Senate and before he knows it, Smith wants to put his sights on the US House in Washington, DC. Once he gets there, he notes the new term limits and he knows that eight years will be here in no time and he immediately begins to focus on statewide office... the US Senate, Governor, or other office. In order to have 'a name' through out the state and favors to bear, Mr. Smith will send pork to the entire state from day one. As candidates feel forced to run for higher office, they will feel forced to share the wealth."
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Special interests: Do term limits curb influence of special interests?

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Pro

  • Term-limits check special interest influence "Term limits sever from time to time the natural comfortable tie between members and special interests in their district. They bring government closer to the people and improve citizen access to the process," according to Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, the largest advocacy group in the field.[7]
  • Term-limits are the only way to change Washington. "If we really want to put an end to business as usual, we've got to have new leaders coming to Washington instead of rearranging the deck chairs as the ship goes down," Jim DeMint of South Carolina said in a 2009 press release.
  • Lobbyists fight term limits for a reason. The non-profit US Terms Limits notes on their website: "special interests and lobbyists continue to combat term limits, as they know term limits force out career politicians who are more concerned with their own gain than the interests of the American people."[8]
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Con

  • Lobbyists equally influence term-limited politicians. When term-limits exist, lobbyists simply adjust to the quickened timetable of finite terms in office. They are skilled enough to ensure that they maintain their influence despite the shorter term-limit.[9]
  • OK for politicians to listen to interest groups. Interests groups are often demonized, but they are, as a matter of fact, simply the mouth piece of citizens, citizen-organizations, and businesses expressing their various interests to politicians. Career politicians have a good sense of these many different interests, as they should. There is nothing wrong with this. It's a good thing. New politicians do not have the same grasp, and so are more likely to make decisions that do not consider all interests involved.


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Voter liberties: Do term limits help or hurt voter liberties?

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Pro

  • Not easy for voters to 'vote out' powerful incumbents. "Term limits: Yea or nay?" The News Star. April 14th, 2011: "In today's world, it's naive to say 'the voters term limit by their vote.' While 'throwing the bums out' is a popular term today, it's far more difficult than it looks. An incumbent who's done a fairly decent job usually has name recognition and a campaign fund that may scare off a political neophyte with great ideas and a passion to serve. And incumbents who've served multiple terms can become career politicians by virtue of the campaign funds they're able to build."


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Con

  • Term limits undermine voter liberties to choose The Democratic congressman from Maryland, who has received backing on his measure from some Republicans, says that in a democracy “the public ought to have the opportunity to retain or reject" politicians. Hoyer said in April 2005, when he introduced a congressional resolution on repeal, that overturning presidential term limits would restore to the American people “an essential democratic privilege to elect who they choose in the future.”



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History: Are term limits supported by history?

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Pro

  • Term limits existed in ancient democracies. The council of 500 in ancient Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Sparta. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates—tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls—who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years. (See Cursus honorum) Many of the founders of the United States were educated in the classics, and quite familiar with rotation in office during antiquity.
  • Term limits worked at state level, can work at federal level. In 2007, Professor Larry J. Sabato argued in A More Perfect Constitution that the success and popularity of term limits at the state level suggests that they should be adopted at the federal level as well. He specifically put forth the idea of congressional term limits and suggested a national constitutional convention be used to accomplish the amendment, since the Congress would be unlikely to propose and adopt any amendment that limits its own power.[10]
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Con

  • Founding fathers struck right balance with term sizes. Gregory A. Hession, "Term limits - still a bad idea." The New American. May 25th, 2010: "When our original constitutional Founders deliberated term limits 223 years ago, they decided that elections every two years for Representatives in the House, four years for the President, and six years for Senators would strike the right balance. They anticipated that these elected officials would often hold office for more than one term."
  • Founding politicians had other jobs, but now is different. It is true that the Founding Fathers had other careers and jobs outsize of government. But, this is hardly instructive. At that time, the government was just getting off of the ground, the country was in debt, and many politicians had careers spanning before the revolution (when British government made having a career in politics impossible). Now, in a mature democracy, a developed country such as the United States requires robust government services, which require politicians that spend an entire career focusing on these issues. Thank goodness that it is possible to be a career politician now. With all the issues we now face, the Founding Fathers would certainly approve of the level of focus and expertise career politicians are able to direct to national interests.
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Reality: Do term limits help ground politicians in reality?

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Pro

  • Term limits ensure politicians understand real world As Rhode Island's Roger Sherman wrote at the time of our nation's founding, "Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents."[11]
  • Term limits ensure politicians understand private sector In the introductory essay in The Politics and Law of Term Limits, coauthors Ed Crane and Roger Pilon wrote, "implicit in our founding vision is the idea that most human affairs take place in what today we call the private sector. That sector--and this is the crucial point--is primary: government comes from it, not the other way around. When we send men and women to Congress to `represent' us, therefore, we want them to understand that they represent us, the overwhelming number of Americans who live our daily lives in that private sector."[12]


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Con

  • Career public servants tasked with understanding citizens. There is a great deal of demonization of multi-term career politicians coming from the advocates of term limits. They believe that career politicans are disconnected from the reality of average citizens and of the businesses in the private sector. But, how could this be the case? If anything, career public servants spend their professional lives trying to speak with and understand the concerns of citizens, businesses, and organizations that they are charged with representing. Perhaps more than any other career, public servants are centrally tasked with understanding the real world faced by citizens. It is wrong to argue, therefore, that they are cloistered away and disconnected from reality.


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Public opinion: Where does public opinion stand?

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Pro

  • A majority of Americans support term limits in Congress. 78 percent of Americans support congressional term limits according to a September 2010 FoxNews Public Opinion Dynamics poll of registered voters. 74 percent of Democrats polled favored term limits with 84 percent of Republicans indicating support.[13]
  • Voters have consistently supported term limits. "Whenever statewide term limits is on a ballot, it wins overwhelmingly. This phenomenon may be due to the voter's native common sense. This may be the most powerful argument in its favor. In other words, it appears that voters instinctively know that term limits is better for voters than unlimited terms. In the 23 states that have the Initiative Process (where voters can petition to place issues on the ballot), 21 states have voted for and won statewide term limits. Whenever politicians have tried to end term limits, they have been resoundingly defeated."[14]
  • Term-limits would help restore respect for Congress.


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Con

  • Term limits pushed by those that don't like who voters elect David Averill. "Term limits still a bad idea." Tulsa World. December 8th, 2010: "Term limits are presumptuous. Turnover was not a problem in the Oklahoma Legislature, especially in the urban areas. In 1990 only 10 percent of House members and 20 percent of senators had served more than 12 years. The problem for the Republican proponents of term limits was that the senior-most members — those who kept getting re-elected over and over — tended to represent rural or small-town districts and they were mostly Democrats. The term-limits advocates were essentially telling rural voters, 'We don't like the people you keep electing to office so we are going to restrict your ability to elect them.' Term limits, for better or worse, have outlived their usefulness to their original advocates. The movement in Oklahoma was driven almost 100 percent by Republicans who wanted to root out entrenched Democrats who they hoped would be replaced by Republicans. That is exactly what happened, and there is no doubt that term limits helped speed the Republican takeover of the Legislature. It will be interesting to see if Republican zeal for term limits remains as strong as it was back before they were in control."


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