OPINION: Is it time for congressional term limits?

Recently, Sen. Ted Cruz proposed a constitutional amendment limiting Congressional terms as a way “to put an end to the cronyism and deceit that has transformed Washington into a graveyard of good intentions.” Sound familiar? It should.

Just a quarter century ago, "demosclerosis" was offered as the diagnosis describing the breakdown in government's ability to respond to society's challenges. Hyper-partisanship, gridlock, and the rising power of special interests had combined to clog America's vital arteries of democratic decision-making — our legislative institutions. This was especially true of Congress, although the disease had also taken hold and spread at the state level.

The antidote prescribed by many at that time was a periodic transfusion of new blood, via term limits for state and federal lawmakers, to reinvigorate the body politic. Ohio and 20 other states adopted limits on their legislators’ terms, including their Congress members. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Congressional term limit laws unconstitutional, and in the intervening years, six states repealed their limits on state lawmakers’ terms.

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Since these initial efforts, though, many believe the health of our system has deteriorated further. Congress’ approval rating tanked to a low of 9 percent at one point (who are those 9 percent, one wonders?), we’ve endured three more federal government shutdowns, many House districts are gerrymandered in favor of one party, and Congress has essentially ground to a halt. So, is Cruz’s prescription appropriate therapy for our systemic disease that is now in an advanced stage?

Based on our limited experience at the state level, the answer is probably no.

Several studies have examined the effects of state legislative term limits, and the findings are not promising. Consider the following. In spite of more open seats being produced through forced turnover, electoral competition has not increased — some data even show that competition has diminished — and voter turnout has not expanded.

In seats that are not term-limited, incumbents mostly go unchallenged, or face only token opposition. Legislator reliance on outside lobby groups for funds and information has increased, thereby augmenting the influence of special interests to the potential detriment of the public’s interest. Without the threat of defeat at the ballot box, term-limited lawmakers are much less likely to respond to constituent concerns.

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Inexperienced legislators in key leadership positions, e.g., committee chairs, are less able to broker compromise. Finally, term limits have led to a loss of institutional knowledge in the legislatures — thereby strengthening the policymaking power of permanent executive bureaucracies.

The framers did not advocate term limits for any federal officials; despite some reservations, they believed the ultimate term limit was the people's vote. Recent events seem to support the wisdom in this thinking. When voters are mobilized and holding politicians accountable at town halls and the ballot box, policymakers listen, and change occurs. The tea party successes in 2010, the current "Resist/Indivisible" movement, and even President Trump's election, exemplify this enormous power of the people.

When citizens are complacent, government is unresponsive and democracy suffers.

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Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University and is one of our regular community contributors.


Several studies have examined the effects of state legislative term limits, and the findings are not promising.