Are Term Limits A Solution?

In an American society increasingly polarized over politics, one uniting belief is that there is something very wrong with our government. While this is true, there is an unfortunate tendency — on both sides — to try to identify simple, easy to recite reforms to fix our woes.

On the left, for example, the cries are usually for “getting money out of politics,” with various organizations pushing to “repeal” the Citizens United ruling. On the right, it is common to see calls for a Federal balanced-budget amendment and term limits. While there’s certainly no harm in preventing the Federal government from running up deficits — though the issue is more complicated than many realize — the call for term limits is every bit as misguided as the left’s call for restricting campaign funds. It misidentifies the underlying issue, and would actually manage to make the Federal government even more immune from voter accountability.

One point in the favor of term limits is that they are popular. Polling in recent years indicates that term limits are supported by up to 75% of the country, which explains why they were included in the platforms of various presidential candidates including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Gary Johnson. The popularity can probably be chalked up both to its simplicity, and to the fact that few groups are hated quite as much as the US Congress has been in recent history.

There is certainly something said for “throwing the bums out,” but failing to address the more fundamental problems with the Federal government would likely find voters similarly dissatisfied in short order. This is the main fallacy of term limits: it presumes the problem is the people in government, and not the government itself.

After all, America was given a taste of what a “fresh” Congress would look like following the Tea Party wave of 2010. The 112th Congress had more new members than any class in over 60 years, with almost a full quarter of the body made up of freshmen. Six years later, Congress functions much as it did prior to the influx of new legislators — with even the trademark issue of runaway government spending fading into a political afterthought.

Why is this?

The simple truth is that most people overestimate the power of individual elected officials, and underestimate the influence of the professional political class.

I saw this first hand when the Tea Party wave landed me in the halls of Congress working for the House Financial Services Committee. From my position there, I was able to see the degree to which legislation was written — not by congressional members — but by committee staff, with many of these bills fed to individual members, usually with the aim of giving them something to brag about when they take their next trip back to their home district. Further, since most of a congressman’s schedule is spent on fundraising, leaving little time to read the finer details of multiple pieces of legislation on the various committees each is assigned, most members of Congress find themselves relying almost entirely on the judgment of their staff. I personally witnessed time and time again members of Congress voting on important pieces of legislation based entirely on whether their staffer had their thumb pointed up or down.

Considering how dependent many legislators are on their staff for guidance, experience in Washington becomes its own valuable commodity. The reason there is a notorious revolving door between Capitol Hill and K-Street isn’t some unholy alliance of corruption, but simply because there is real value in staffers having prolonged experience dealing with a particular legislative area, as well as having a large collection of personal contacts to help assist getting stuff done.

This is also why careful committee observers will pick up familiar faces in the top edge of CSPAN clips over the years. The institutional knowledge of committee staffers have made many of them permanent figures on their committee. This remains true on the Republican side, where term limits on committee leadership have been in place for years now, with top staffers maintaining influential positions no matter what member has the role of chairman — even in instances where a staffer held philosophical positions that stand in direct conflict with the new leading member.

Since term limits necessarily means less institutional knowledge within the elected body, this same class of professional staffer would only see their influence and power increase if member’s terms were capped.

So how do we make Congress more accountable? By attacking the real source of the problem — the government itself.

If the responsibilities of Congress were limited to their originally constitutionally defined roles, there would be less to do, far fewer laws to understand, and the value of institutional knowledge depleted. Better still, if the Federal government was done away with all together, there would be no broken Congress to fix at all!

As libertarians who seek freedom from the state, it is easy to demonize politicians and to transform human beings into living personifications of tyranny, which can sometimes blind us to the real issue of the government itself. I’m reminded of Ludwig von Mises, writing about the impracticality of socialism:

The impracticability of Socialism is the result of intellectual, not moral, incapacity. … Even angels, if they were endowed only with human reason, could not form a socialistic community.
Similarly, angels could not make a government as large and bloated as the current Federal government any less condemnable. As currently constructed, incentives and mechanisms in place will see government grow its size and power grow larger.

So if the goal is to make government less terrible, the goal shouldn’t be limiting congressional terms — but congressional power and jurisdiction — perhaps by state nullification, or ideally even secession. Such ideas may not yet be as popular as term limits, but they at least offer real solutions to America’s broken political system.

Originally published at Mises Wire.


  1. Term limits isn’t the answer to all of the problems in our federal government, but imposing them on congress will start the process of bringing power back to our state and local governments. It may be simple, but voters (75%) inherently understand the value. If they speak and speak loudly, congress will have no choice but to act.

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