Term limits are one of those ideas I used to hang my hopes on back before I began working in politics. It was alluring because it seemed like such a simple fix. Yes, it would be hard to get politicians to vote for restraints on their own power, but a good ground game could overcome that, and once we did our system would be fixed.

There are many people who still think like I used to, and it gives me no pleasure to dissuade them of this notion now. But, I don’t do anyone any favors by allowing them to throw their energy behind policies that would ultimately fail to achieve their end goals.

What are those end goals? Speaking for myself and most of the people I’ve met in the term limits camp, supporters of this idea believe that politicians would be less concerned with winning re-election under this structure. If they were less concerned about winning re-election, they would take bolder, riskier stances, and they wouldn’t need to worry about fundraising and therefore keeping special interests happy. Additionally, supporters of term limits also tend to believe they would prevent politicians from enriching themselves on the public dime or becoming career politicians. 

All of these are worthy targets to seek. But after spending nearly nine years working in politics, I no longer see term limits as the way to achieve them. In fact, I believe there is much evidence that indicates they could even make matters worse.

And you don’t have to take my word for it. Many states have already implemented term limits for several of their offices—providing a real-time example of the viability of the idea. In places like Ohio, we merely see representatives flip back and forth between different chambers and offices. And term limits certainly haven’t prevented corruption or the influence of special interests there. In fact, their former Speaker of the House is likely about to go to jail for a $60 million bribery scheme between him and two energy companies.

Louisiana is another example. As a former lobbyist, this state had the strictest registration and reporting standards I’ve ever seen. Yet it is often ranked the most politically corrupt state in the country. According to nola.com, “The state has had more politicians convicted in federal court than any other in the modern era, when counted as a share of total population.”

I could go on. But I’ve yet to see term limits make any meaningful difference in a state that has implemented them. If anything, they merely mean the few good politicians who somehow slip into office get pushed out while a steady rotation of the corrupt always fill the shoes of the outgoing members of their creed.

And that brings me to the major flaws I see with term limits. They not only fail to circumvent all of the aforementioned corruption, they often sacrifice the good leaders in their wake. Very few good people want to run for office anymore, me included. And that’s because the sacrifices are tremendous while the benefits are few and far between—at least for principled people. So when we do get a principled, educated leader in office we should hope to keep them there.

Back to the educated part. Our government has grown so vast and oversees so many subjects that no single person could ever hope to be educated on all of the issues they vote on alone. This is why there is a need for lobbyists in an educational component (I’ll touch on their other components in a minute), and it is why tenure matters for politicians. 

I’ve often lobbied for criminal justice reforms, school choice, occupational licensing reforms, and healthcare reforms as an expert on those issues. That’s a valuable service that I’ve provided lawmakers with. Through me, they are able to quickly gather relevant data, the input of stakeholders, the opinion of their community, and the impacts of public policies on certain industries, as well as the economic principles that guide my viewpoint. While I believe I have always been upfront and honest in these interactions, there are many lobbyists (specifically government actors like police and district attorneys) who are not. They frequently provide faulty information, and they have a far easier job convincing new, green representatives of what they say.

There’s nothing wrong with the act of lobbying, it’s an important component of our system, and all citizens ought to give it a try from time to time. The problem is with the money in lobbying and the naivete of young lawmakers, and term limits would do nothing to fix those things.

Furthermore, term limits would leave us with an ever-revolving set of lawmakers who would have to spend at least their first year simply learning the ropes. Procedures, rules, basic protocols, there’s a lot to know when it comes to the various committees and chambers. Remember that a Congressional term is only two years and a Senate term six. While the new politicians were getting used to the place, guess who would be running the ship? The lifelong bureaucrats (who already hold far too much power) on the hill. 

The last thing we need to do is empower the unelected and unaccountable administrative state. Term limits would do that by making these individuals the experts in the room instead of the lawmakers we select and send on our behalf.

Now, back to the money. 

Term limits would also fail to sever the monetary relationship between special interests and lawmakers. Lawmakers would still seek roles within these entities after they leave office (perhaps even more so given their shortened tenure), and they would still be desirable hires for their connections down the road.

So, in order to truly meet the end goals I discussed earlier, the only solution would be to do something about the money in politics instead of the people. And, given the US Supreme Court decisions behind Citizens United v FEC and Buckley v Valeo, the options are limited here.

“Citizens United lifted the limits on how much individuals can contribute to PACs, and allowed corporations, non-profit groups, and unions to give to PACs for the first time (also in unlimited amounts).” – RepresentUs

Essentially, both Buckley and Citizens United held that money was a form of expression and therefore could not be limited in political expenditures without violating the First Amendment rights of citizens. Citizens United took it a step further by designating corporations as people as well.

Buckley, however, did lay out a limited scope under which the government had enough of a prevailing interest in preventing corruption within our system to limit free expression. As it currently stands, that scope has really just been applied to quid-pro-quo-type exchanges.

I find this to be a very murky area of public policy for me. I am a free speech absolutist and uncomfortable with any policy that might limit free expression in any way. That being said, I am also uncomfortable with the fact that I, as an individual, can give a max of $2900 to my representative while they can obtain millions from corporations who don’t even live in my district. Am I truly being represented in this scenario? Does my voice actually carry weight? We all know the answer to that. And when the actual voters carry less weight in their districts than outside forces we are no longer a representative democracy.

Thus, I’ve floated the idea of limiting campaign donations to those who live within a district. Currently, I think the precedent set by Buckley would have to be expanded upon for such an idea to fly. There is an argument to be made that the government has a prevailing interest in preventing corruption in our elections and political system that surpasses the current scope of the law. I’m just not quite sure I’m comfortable making that argument yet. But I’ve not totally given up on the idea and I do believe I have at least identified the true root of the problem. I will continue to grapple with the free speech issues this particular idea presents. Let me know your thoughts.

In the meantime, there are immediate actions I am comfortable calling for. We should make it more difficult for politicians to profit off their offices. I see no reason why we could not require stricter disclosures of funds, block representatives from voting on bills where they or anyone in their family may benefit (and attach some actual penalties to that), impose limits on investments in companies they may vote on, or prohibit them from working as a lobbyist for a certain amount of time after they leave office. Serving in office is a privilege, and there is nothing wrong with us raising the barriers to entry and exit. 

Furthermore, political parties (which should be done away with altogether) should be banned from selling committee seats and other positions of power. Yes, you read that right. This is currently a practice. You didn’t think certain Congressmen just earned the sweet committee appointments did you? Democrats and Republicans do this by requiring their members to raise a certain amount for the party in order to “earn” various positions. Instead, committees should be based on relevant experience alone.

The other obvious (and best) way to limit the impact of special interests in our political system is to reduce the size of government. If the government didn’t have its dirty little hands all over so many industries, fewer would see the need to invest their resources playing the crony game our government created. But it would be childish to think there could simply be a ceasefire. As it currently stands, this is a vicious cycle that will not stop until the money train stops.

I am of course open to other suggestions to those I’ve laid out. But when it comes to term limits, I no longer see the point. Power creates problems, limiting the people who obtain it does not solve that fact, but limiting the power they can access does.

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Aaron Bonn
Aaron Bonn
1 month ago

Great essay, Hannah. I’ve also opposed term limits for pretty much my entire adult life. As I see it, all they do is reward short-term political thinking (which is the bulk of the “careerist” mindset) and penalize anyone with a long term vision that they wish to advocate. And, speaking as a resident of California, I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the decline of the California Republican Party as an effective opposition voice for the political minority and the slide of the state into monocultural one-party rule has happened during roughly the same time period that term limits in this state have been in effect.

That said, and since you indicated you were open to suggestions, I have one to make that goes in a different direction that yours have so far. As I see it, the urge to “limit the term” that damage can be done is not a bad one. The problem with term limits, in that regard, is that those who advocate it are not accurately assessing what the actual damage is. The damage is not the mere presence of the politician in his or her elected office. The damage is the laws that that legislator leaves behind after he or she is gone – laws that don’t go away when the politician does. So, with that in mind, my idea is to take that laudable urge to “limit the term” that damage can be done, and re-target it back to where it actually will do some good – that new target being the law itself.

In other words, what I am suggesting – and what I think should be what most term limits advocates really should want if they really do want to “limit the term” that damage can be done – is that we amend the Constitution to put an automatic ten-year expiration date on every law passed by Congress and signed into effect by the President, and require future Congresses to revisit, re-argue, re-justify, and ultmately, by majority vote, affirmatively renew every law on the books at least once every ten years in order for them to remain in effect into the future beyond their expiration dates.

The primary benefits to this arrangement, as I see it, would be twofold. First, the possibility of unnecessary or outdated laws being pruned from our books on a regular basis simply due to lack of attention really would be, in a very real way, “limiting the term” that damage can be done by them. Second, placing term limits on the law itself would effectively re-balance power in Congress between those with an expansionist agenda and those with a minimalist agenda. As it stands now, the expansionists don’t have to work too hard to keep the status quo intact, and can focus their energy on passing new laws, while the minimalists have to do double duty, fighting the ongoing expansion of government while also fighting for its reduction. My idea, I think, would change this equation by forcing the expansionists to spend as much time, energy, resources, and money simply maintaining the status quo as the minimalists have to spend fighting it.

Also, from a purely non-partisan good-government angle, I can’t see how anyone could argue that forcing our leaders to re-visit and re-assess our legal infrastructure on a regular basis can be an inherently bad thing.

So that’s my idea – don’t place the term limit on the politician, place it on the law instead.

That said, I am curious, Hannah: do you have any thoughts on this idea I have just proposed?

Daniel Turner
Daniel Turner
28 days ago

Great post! You summarize much of what I covered in my MA thesis that looks at the outcomes in the 15 states that have imposed term limits and predicts the results of congressional term limits based those outcomes.

Last edited 28 days ago by Daniel Turner
Rus
Rus
23 days ago

Great points Hannah!
Consequences are all that are needed.
If we enforced the laws on politicians, and removed immunity where it isn’t warranted (like Pfizer has right now)….70% of the Government would be removed and charged.