[Note: This was published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on January 26, 2013]
When he was running for Congress, Representative Andy Barr supported a Constitutional Amendment limits the number of terms for Senators and Congressmen. He endorsed limiting members of both houses to a total of twelve years of service: two terms for Senators and six for Representatives. Proponents of term limits say that far too many politicians become entrenched in Washington and more concerned about re-election and post service opportunities than about their constituents. Supporters also say that the current system is effectively undemocratic and note that in 2012, despite the widespread hostility toward Congress, 97% of the incumbents that ran for re-election won.
Theres a great deal of truth to these concerns, but there are also problems with term limits. Political influence comes with seniority, and this power can benefit the politicians home state. Many small states exert outsized influence through a long serving elected official. Kentucky certainly benefits by having Mitch McConnell, the current minority leader, as our senior Senator.
This is not the only benefit of long service. With seniority comes knowledge, experience, and expertise. New congressmen lack knowledge not only of congressional procedures, but also the substance of government policy. Few are elected to Congress with expertise in the arcana of foreign policy or the defense budget, the details of agricultural subsidies or the complexity of Medicare. Because of this inexperience, new Congressmen must rely on the expertise of others. Their staff can help in matters of procedure, and there some policy experts on committee staff, but in many cases it is unelected government bureaucrats who provide advice. Specialists within the Department of Agriculture, for example, provide assistance on agricultural policy. In many other situations, however, its lobbyists who teach Representatives about the lobbyists industry and the laws that govern them.
Term limits will limit a politicians expertise, and they will be forced to rely on unelected experts for policy advice. This, I would argue, is precisely the opposite of what the supporters of term limits want, which is to shift political power from Washington back to the citizens.
Is there a way to get the benefits without the drawbacks? I think there is, and use history as a guide.
Under the Articles of Confederationwhich governed the nation after independence and before the Constitution was adopteddelegates to the Congress of the Confederation were limited to serve for three out of any six years. There was no limit on the total number of years a delegate could serve. This ensured that a delegate would spend half of his time in his home state, and wouldnt lose touch with the concerns of home, and wouldnt become beholden to the national government. This was also a proposed amendment in the First Congress, which was debated but rejected.
I think this is the kernel of a good idea. I think there should be no limit on the total terms a Senator or Congressman could serve, but there should be a limit on consecutive terms. My proposed amendment would say: While there is no limit on the total number of terms served, a member of the House of Representatives is limited to five consecutive terms, and a member of the Senate is limited to two consecutive terms.
This means that a Senator could serve for twelve years and a Representative for ten years, but could not then run for re-election. They could, if desired, run again after sitting out for a term.
This would break the incumbent lock on re-election, which would increase democracy, but wouldnt deny the people of a state the seniority or expertise of an elected official. Under this system, when a politicians consecutive terms were up, he or she might chose to run for another office. A congressman might run for a state legislative office, or a judicial post; a senator might return home and run for governor. This would keep qualified and experienced people in government. States would benefit from the national experience of returning politicians, and the national government would benefit by having politicians intimately familiar with state concerns.
This proposal, I believe, would achieve the goals sought by the supporters of term limits, but without the unintended consequences feared by opponents.