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The Folly of Limiting Terms of the People’s Elected Representatives

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
March 23, 2020

With the first of April, April Fools’ Day, soon to be upon us, it seems appropriate to comment on a concept that has been often proposed as a “Democratic reform” but is actually anti-democratic at its core when applied to legislative bodies. That concept is known as “Term Limits.”

Given the power of the American President and the limited checks on the Executive Branch in the Constitution, as evidenced in the recent Impeachment debates, it seems appropriate to limit the number of terms of a chief executive such as the president as provided in the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In recent years, there has also been discussion of an amendment to the Constitution to limit the tenure of justices of the United States Supreme Court. In an opinion piece on CNN, scholars Kermit Roosevelt and Ruth-Ellen Vassilas, noted that, “These days, it’s the justices, and not the people or their elected representatives, who decide who gets health care and who can vote, whom we can marry and who’s allowed into the country, who’s won a presidential election and who can spend money on the next one.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, commented recently on the lifetime appointments of Supreme Court justices in an address at Pomona College in Claremont, California, according to Fox News. Holder stated, “I don’t think someone should have that much power in an unelected position for that long. … I think that three senatorial terms, 18 years would be enough for a justice.”

Similarly, Justice Neil Gorsuch, while on a recent book tour, noted that, “The framers of our Constitution did not want, ‘Nine old people in Washington sitting in robes telling everybody else how to live.’” Clearly, there are strong arguments for placing limits on the highest court in the land, whose decisions have such profound consequences for our democracy.

As part of his, “Revolution,” Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has proposed limiting the terms of Justices or rotating seats on the Supreme Court with other federal jurists.

However, limiting the number of terms that could be served by members of the third branch of the United States government—Congress—would impact democracy itself. When Republicans attained a majority in the House in the 1994 election, they proposed term limits for Congress as part of their, “Contract with America.” The proposal was prompted, no doubt, by the success of a freshman Republican that year who unseated House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA), a member who had served 30 years in Congress. When that freshman Republican, George Nethercutt, reached the proposed limit of service a few years later, he sought re-election noting that his experience would benefit his constituents. Other Republicans, concerned with losing their party’s majority, abandoned the term limits pledge as well.

A national advocacy group, U.S. Term Limits, in 1995, supported the actions of voters in 23 states who had attempted to limit the terms of their members of Congress in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. The courts decided 5 – 4 that citizens of states are not allowed to limit the terms of their members of Congress.

Advocates of Congressional term limits claim that limits would encourage politicians to be more willing to support positive, radical change, reduce the corrupting influence of money, curtail the influence of lobbyists and encourage higher levels of voter turnout, among other benefits.

However, experience with term limits at the state legislature level have proven just the opposite. Rather than increase competition for legislative seats and increase voter turnout, most challengers simply waited for the seat to open. In fact, voter turnout generally declined in the years since term limits were adopted.

Rather than reducing the influence of lobbyists, their clout was increased since it was the lobbyists who had the, “Institutional memory,” important to a productive chamber. The limits also tended to increase the ranks of lobbyists since experienced term-limited legislators were often retained by special interests who hoped to use the respect gained by these senior legislators to convince their former colleagues of the benefit of supporting the proposals advanced by the special interests. Money continues to be influential in state politics as the cost of technology and advertising has increased despite term limits.

Term limits, where they’ve been adopted, have also deprived the people of legislators with the knowledge from experience and the respect of colleagues. Voters are denied the opportunity to support a legislator they believe is doing a good job on their behalf. Some term-limited legislators are actually less responsive to the voters’ will when no longer faced with the next election. In reality, to surpass term limits that strengthen democracy rather than weaken it are the right to vote and the active use of that right to be informed, engaged citizens.

Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. A former college administrator and adjunct assistant professor of government at Bentley University and Bridgewater State University, Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member.

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