It’s a tale as old as time. A politician gets on stage, giving a speech about… how little they want to keep their job.
Disconcerting as that may sound, we don’t have to go too far to see that happen. Just take a look at Indiana Republican senators Todd Young and Mike Braun, two of the original sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 3, which calls for a constitutional amendment to limit officials to three terms in the House and two in the Senate.
“Placing term limits on the federal legislative branch will bring fresh perspectives to Congress and ensure that our nation’s leaders are in touch with the lives, needs and aspirations of the people they represent,” Young said in a U.S. Term Limits press release.
Let’s be real for a second: no.
In theory, they sound like a fantastic idea. Is your congressman too old, too boring, too into fighting for pesky liberal policies like “clean water” and “helping poor people”? Well, if you’re patient enough, you’re in luck! You don’t even have to register to vote, and they won’t even be an option on your ballot any longer.
Setting term limits certainly isn’t a new idea. Dating back to the Articles of Confederation where lawmakers were limited to the constraint that “no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years,” we’ve been struggling on the matter for centuries; it is worth noting that, due to widespread discontent, the Constitution scrapped that provision entirely.
Today, activists, candidates and elected officials across the country have been supporting the work of the cleverly named organization U.S. Term Limits, who fight for — you guessed it — shorter U.S. term limits. As of June, over 100 members of Congress have signed on to the organization’s pledge, including our aforementioned senators and two more Indiana representatives.
Supporters of term limits claim a myriad of benefits. They cite high incumbency rates, the lack of diversity among elected officials, and how old those politicians are. In a vacuum, all of those are true. Yes, last cycle, legislators in the House got reelected at a rate of 94.7%. Yes, more than 75% of lawmakers in Congress are white, of which the majority are cis, straight and male. Yes, 58.4 is the age of the average House member, 64.3 for the average Senator but unsurprisingly, term limits don’t remotely address the issues they claim to fix.
What proponents ignore about this supposedly “magic” solution is the blatant reality that term limits increase political polarization (as politicians focus more on party-line positions rather than finding consensus), made legislators spend “less time [with] their constituents”, and simply led to lawmakers running for another office, a sharp rejection to the argument that term limits stop the “career politician” from existing.
That all set aside what may be the most important effect: implementing term limits means seasoned legislators get kicked out, even if they are working for our interests. For many of the most sensitive issues, it’s not a stretch to want experienced officials.
When discussing gun control, I want a Lucy McBath in the office. When debating the most effective ways to help our veterans, a Dan Crenshaw might be necessary. You don’t have to agree with their politics — and often — it’s probably a good thing if you don’t. But the fact is that when we have people in office who know what they’re talking about, we can reach more equitable and actionable solutions. If we don’t, we end up with inexperienced officials who might be unqualified to deal with these issues.
The fact is that we do have term limits already, even if it’s a nuance that we don’t always seem to register. They’re called elections (heard of them?). It’s certainly true there are multiple obstacles, from voting reform to campaign finance, standing in the way of ensuring that our representatives are entirely dedicated to serving our interests, but our democracy is built on the voices of the people. They can’t listen if we never speak up.
Yashas Sardesai (he/him) is a freshman studying public policy analysis and finance.