Of all the dumb memes that populate social media, the term limits meme is among the more utterly, cynically stupid:
Term limits proposals are ever with us, of course; the Republicans won the House in 1994 with a promise they never intended to keep, and didn't.
The term-limits movement, which drew more support from conservatives than liberals, started its growth during an era when Democrats had a powerful hold on the congressional majorities — controlling the House from 1955 to 1995, while holding the Senate for all but six of those 40 years.
But when Republicans retook the congressional majority in the 1994 midterms, a new era of competition took hold. The Senate majority has flipped four times in the past 16 years, and the House majority has changed hands twice in the past decade.
That took much of the wind out of the sails for term limits.
“We have term limits now — they’re called elections,” McConnell said the day after the election. He said there would be no consideration of the proposal in the Senate.Mostly, term limits plans are designed by partisan groups or pols set on keeping their own options open as long as possible. They tend to mix and match US House and Senate service at around twelve years total.
This they do because that is, in fact, the more than the average service of all members of Congress since 1789.
Through the 19th century- indeed, until 1913- senators were chosen by state legislators, which tended to limit their service in light of all the others seeking to climb the greasy pole. House membership tenure tracked that of the senate closely:
The database consists of a total of 48,872 cases. The average service of Representatives was highest in the 102nd, 110th, and 111th Congresses, where Members had an average of 10.3 years of House service, or just over five terms. The highest average service of Senators occurred in the 111th Congress, where Senators had an average of 13.4 years of service, slightly more than two terms. For both the House and Senate, the Congress with the least average years of experience was the 1st, as all Senators and Representatives necessarily had zero years of experience upon arrival. In the last 50 years, the Congress with the lowest average years of service among Representatives and Senators was the 97th Congress (1981-1982), in which Representatives had an average of 7.4 years of service in the House (slightly more than 3.5 terms) and Senators had an average of 7.5 years of service in the Senate (1.25 terms).John Conyers, Jr. is the longest serving Representative, with 52 years of service at the beginning of the 115th Congress (2017-2019). As of the beginning of the 115th Congress, Representative Conyers also has the most cumulative congressional service. The longest serving Senator isPatrick Leahy, with 42 years of service in the Senate at the beginning of the 115th Congress.
As shown in Figure 1, during the 19th century, the average service of Representatives remained roughly constant, with only 12 Congresses having an average service greater than 3.0 years and just one Congress having an average service less than 1.5 years. Additionally, there appears to be little or no change over time; the average years of service was slightly higher for the first half of the century than during the second. During the 20th century, the average years of service for Representatives steadily increased, from an average of just over four years in the first two Congresses of the century to an average of approximately 10 years in the three most recent Congresses. The average years of service peaked at 10.3 years of service in the 102nd Congress (1991-1992), and was also 10.3 years of service in the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007-2008 and 2009-2010). At the start of the 115th Congress, the average years of service for Representatives was 9.4 years.
Here’s a link to the report from which this data comes. It was published by the Congressional Research Service on January 3, 2017.
Over the last ten years, the average time of service in Congress has dropped a year and a half. Of the 100 senators in the last Congress, only seven fell into the 30-40 year service period the meme says spawns corruption.
In contrast, in the new Congress, forty-six of the 100 senators were elected in or after 2010.
Here are historical comparisons:
The Congressional Research Service report concludes:
Two additional observations accompany the analysis presented here.
First, aggregate statistics on Member service tenures tend to disguise the variety of congressional service records found among individual Members. Some Members have very short tenures of service and choose not to seek re-election; other Members have long tenures which end after re-election defeat. At the aggregate level, average careers have become longer; in the case of any individual Representative or Senator, however, these aggregate statistics have little or no predictive ability.
Second, the institutional and policy contexts that have shaped Member decisions to seek or not seek re-election, and succeed or fail when seeking re-election, are not static factors. Just as the institutional contexts of elections and congressional operations have developed since the 19th century, they continue to change in the contemporary Congress. To the degree that patterns of congressional service in part reflect the incentives provided to Members by these institutional factors, it is likely that the patterns of Member service tenure will also continue to change.Similarly, the continued development of the institutional environment suggests that there is no way to predict how the patterns of service tenure will change; just as seemingly stable 19th century patterns rapidly changed toward the end of the century, so could the service tenure patterns we observe today.
I will add this: American have term limits. They can impose them at will in two ways.
The easier and more frequent, option, is actually voting.
The second is to elect state legislatures that are not intent on cementing themselves into power and then, given their power to redistrict congressional seats, doing the same in Congress.
North Carolina’s General Assembly is a case in point. After a billionaire bankrolled a successful takeover in 2010, the new majority redistricted themselves into a veto-proof supermajority in 2014.
At the end of 2016, there were 636,000 more Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, and the Democrats outpolled Republicans in legislative races. But the Republicans hold 74 of 120 House seats (76 members ran unopposed) and 35 of 50 Senate seats. They hold 10 of 13 congressional seats with half the votes of the public.
In the 2016 election, US House Republicans won 49.1% of all congressional votes cast. They won 241 seats- a majority of 23. 49.1% of the vote should have given them 213 seats.
Last summer in Conservative Review, Logan Albright made the case against term limits pretty plainly. With gerrymandering, pols pick their voters. With term limits, incumbency is maximized and the power of money- which flows to incumbents- is magnified:
[T]he fact is that incumbents win elections because people choose to vote for them, people want them to win. You can argue that those people are wrong, that they are uninformed, that they shouldn’t want what they want. To do so, however, is not an argument for term limits, but one against democracy. Politicians can’t really buy votes: they buy advertising. If advertising gets people to vote for them, that is a criticism of the voters, not the politicians.
The complaint really seems to be that voters don’t know what they are doing, but term limits do not address that problem as directly as say limits on who is allowed to vote. It just forces incumbents out after certain number of years. What’s the magic number of years an incumbent can serve? Any answer will necessarily be arbitrary. If a Member of Congress is likely to be less corrupt after two terms than three, then it follows they should be still less corrupt after only one term, but I have not heard anyone propose limiting terms to just one.
The biggest problem with term limits is that there is no guarantee that the person you kick out will be replaced with anyone better. All the term limits accomplish is removing the people’s first choice as an option when an incumbent would otherwise be elected. Why should we suppose that voters’ second choice will be an improvement? And if the second choice is likely to be better than the first, doesn’t it follow that the third choice will be better still? Following this logic, an argument could be made that the candidate with the least votes is likely to be the most qualified, which again comes down to a rejection of democracy.
President Trump says he wants congressional term limits. Without explaining why, he wants to limit House members to six years’ service, and senators to twelve. One winning election to both would be able to serve eighteen: twice the historical average and double what term limits enthusiasts say is intolerable now. And why twice to time for senators?
The fact is, term limits is just a con on voters. You win by calling for it, knowing that a constitutional amendment needs a ⅗ vote of both houses of Congress. Turkeys never call for an early Thanksgiving.
And when it doesn’t pass, pols can just keep beating up on Congress.
It’s a win-win- for them.
So let’s move on to a meme that makes sense.
Just the once?