Congressional Term Limits: Should Congress Have Term Limits

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According to John Braeman, Lord John Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Acton’s prophetic warning meant that achieving longevity in public office gives the incumbent job stability and power. Members of the United States Congress have this kind of job stability and power because they do not have limits on the number of terms they can serve. The twenty-second amendment of the United States Constitution limits the number of Presidential terms to preserve the idea of democracy and to prevent corruption and dictatorship. There is nothing in the Constitution that limits the number of terms for members of Congress. No limits on terms served means that incumbents obtain absolute power in the hold they have on their office. Congress should implement term limits because it would increase voter engagement, help decrease political corruption, and reduce the number of career politicians.

Introducing congressional term limits would have a positive impact on voter engagement. It may bring new ideas to the table and even encourage people to vote. According to a study done by Professor Shaun Bowler and Professor Todd Donovan, “…when voters are exposed to greater campaign activity, they appear more attentive to campaign news”. Term limits would create the opportunity for more candidate choices and would therefore generate an increase in campaign activity. According to Newt Gingrich “California passed term limits in 1990 for state legislators, and by the 1992 election had a 40 percent increase in candidates running for office”. With more candidates to choose from, voters have a better chance at electing someone whose political views are more in line with their own. Term limits would open the number of seats available for candidates who would have not otherwise run for office. Term limits generate competition and increased voter engagement by creating more open seat elections and more active campaigns.

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Enacting congressional term limits would help to decrease the amount of political corruption. An article from Congressional Digest suggests that “…term limits would ensure a continuous influx of fresh ideas, break legislative gridlock, and prevent the formation of power relationships between Members of Congress and interest groups”. A longer tenure makes it more likely that a legislator will succumb to receiving compensation or kickbacks and bribes from special interest groups and lobbyists. Professional politicians have learned, “through gerrymandering of House districts, patronage, a barrage of self-serving free and paid media, and fund-raising advantages, [they] are able to extend their hold on federal office”. Legislators create situations where they are reelected because they are helping influential groups by proposing laws that will benefit those groups. Applying term limits would prevent formation of power relationships between Congress members and interest groups. Term limits would restrict long-term tenure for legislators, thereby reducing opportunities for corruption.

Implementing term limits would help reduce the number of career politicians. As Mark Levin described in his book, The Liberty Amendments, the longer politicians are in office, the more distant they are from their constituents. The American government was meant to be a citizen legislature and not filled with professional politicians. Incumbents often “use their positions as lawmakers to promote federal spending and legal initiatives that benefit their personal longevity in office, making it increasingly difficult for successful electoral changes”. Career politicians are not interested in being a representative for their constituents because they are more concerned with how they can make themselves and their interest groups more money. Congressional Digest suggests that “Compared with their challengers, incumbents typically have more funds, media access, name recognition, and congressional clout, and advocates believe that limits are needed to offset these advantages”. Term limits would reduce the number of career politicians who do not have their constituents’ best interests at heart.

It has often been argued that term limits are unnecessary because voters have the power to replace incumbents during elections. One cannot deny that voting in elections is the best way for the American people to appoint the candidate of their choice. But historically, the incumbent is re-elected 90 percent of the time. This is because voters tend to elect an incumbent because of name recognition and party affiliation rather than a proven track record. Also, the playing field is simply not level between incumbents and challenging candidates because of the ability to raise money. According to research done by Kenneth Benoit and Michael Marsh, “The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that the candidate who spent the most money won in 93% of House of Representative races and 67% of Senate districts in the 2006 U.S. Congressional elections”. There is a strong association between campaign spending and political success. Gingrich wrote, “In 1992, according to the Heritage Foundation, House challengers raised only 28 cents to every dollar incumbents took in”. It is no surprise that the incumbent usually prevails. If a member of Congress is limited to one or two terms, the party itself and other major donors would not invest nearly as much in an incumbent, giving challengers a better chance of winning the race.

Congressional term limits would not only increase voter engagement, but it would decrease political corruption and reduce the number of career politicians. There is not a Constitutional amendment that requires term limits so there are very few legislators who would be willing to leave office voluntarily. Term limits would force elected officials who have served the maximum number of terms, to return to being private citizens. Being private citizens would force them to live under the laws that they help to create. Term limits would effectively return Congress to a citizen legislature and act as a check on the misuse of power by members of Congress. Congressional reform must be implemented in the form of term limits so that elected officials are held responsible for being answerable to their constituents.

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